In America’s Gilded Age, a handful of business leaders and industrialists amassed more wealth than even today’s biggest tech billionaires. These titans of industry wielded immense power and influence, far surpassing anything we see today. During this period of great economic growth and prosperity, many everyday Americans aspired to emulate the lavish lifestyles of the rich and famous. Despite the increased inequality between the haves and have-nots, the Gilded Age was a time of progress and innovation.
The Robber Barons
John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Henry Ford, and Andrew Carnegie were some of America’s most wealthy and successful individuals. Their combined wealth would be in the hundreds of billions by today’s standards — far more than any modern tech giant could hope to accumulate. Even Jeff Bezos, currently considered to be the world’s wealthiest individual, falls short in comparison. These men changed America through their businesses and innovations, and their legacies continue to inspire entrepreneurs today.
The Gilded Age was a time of great prosperity for the upper class, while the lower and middle classes struggled to make ends meet. This disparity led Mark Twain to coin the phrase “Gilded Age” in his 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. The title suggested that the wealthy elite were living in a world of their own, disconnected from the reality of life for most Americans.
As the United States progressed into the Gilded Age, there was no denying the impressive economic expansion that took place. This was largely due to the country’s involvement in the Second Industrial Revolution, which saw vast railway networks being built as well as an increase in factories, steel production, and coal mining. Some of the most notable figures of this time period were those who held great wealth and power. Even though progress was made during this era, it came at a cost for many Americans.
The Industrial Revolution
The technological advances of the late 19th century led to a boom in industry and agriculture. Typewriters, cash registers, and adding machines transformed the way people worked, while new agricultural technologies such as mechanical reapers increased production. This economic expansion improved the standard of living for many Americans and laid the groundwork for further industrialization in the coming century.
During a time of expansive growth and fewer regulations surrounding wealth and business practices, the perfect conditions arose for a class of exceedingly wealthy individuals to emerge. Comprising only a small percentage of society, this group had the power and means to create opportunities and jobs for the masses. However, with less social prioritization of workers’ rights, discrimination, exploitation, and low wages were rampant during this era.
The United States would not be the same without the contributions of immigrants. They have helped to shape and develop the country in countless ways, from technology to culture. America is a land of opportunity because of them, and their impact on history is immeasurable. Thank you, immigrants, for everything.
Who Were These Captains of Industry?
In the late 19th century, there were two groups of people who were considered as wealthy elite: industrialists and so-called robber barons. Both of them were able to amass a great fortune, but they did it in different ways.
Robber barons got their name from Middle Ages when there were nobles who used questionable methods to get rid of competition and establish a monopoly in their field. They didn’t care about workers and often took advantage of them. On the contrary, industrialists gained their wealth by developing new technologies and businesses. They improved working conditions for laborers and contributed to economic growth
Industrialists often used their wealth for philanthropic purposes that would improve society, such as creating more jobs or increasing productivity. This helped to make them well-respected members of their community.
John D. Rockefeller
John D. Rockefeller was one of the wealthiest men in the world, with a net worth estimated to be around $400 billion in 2018 dollars. He made his fortune as the founder of the Standard Oil Company and was known for his business acumen and philanthropy. In today’s dollars, Rockefeller would be worth even more than three times the estimated net worth of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com and the wealthiest individual in the world.
Standard Oil, a highly profitable trust that controlled the US oil industry through a series of secret agreements and vertical mergers, was broken into several companies in 1911 by the Supreme Court: Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (later known as Exxon).
While Rockefeller has faced criticisms, he is also one of the most endearingly philanthropic leaders in American history. One of his most notable charitable efforts concerning education — the tech-savvy mogul set up several workers’ colleges, making it easier for laborers to improve their employment prospects and financial circumstances.
Rags to riches stories are always inspiring, none more so than that of American businessman and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. Born into a poor family of Scottish immigrants in 1835, Carnegie started out working as a bobbin boy in a cotton factory. By the time he was 13, his family had moved to America for a better life. Determination and hard work led Carnegie to become one of the wealthiest men in the world, through his investments in the steel industry.
Carnegie Steel was one of the most successful steel companies in the early 20th century. However, it has been criticized for how some workers were treated. Carnegie was very active in philanthropy and established various organizations to contribute to society, such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the New York Public Library, and a college that would eventually become part of Carnegie Mellon University.
He also wrote “The Gospel of Wealth,” also known as the Inequality Doctrine, an article discussing the responsibility of the wealthy to contribute to the greater good of society.
Although he came from a wealthy family, financier Robber Baron J.P. Morgan is considered by many to have played a significant role in shaping American industry during its Gilded Age.
Morgan’s contributions to American business were numerous. He invested in Thomas Edison and the Edison Electricity Company; helped create General Electric and International Harvester, formed J.P. Morgan & Company; and gained control of half of the country’s railroad mileage. In addition, he created the first billion-dollar company, U.S. Steel. At one point in his life, Morgan served on the board of directors for as many as 48 corporations.
Morgan was a controversial figure in his time, known for both his business acumen and his allegedly unethical practices. He was believed to head a money trust that controlled the banking industry, and he was often considered a figurehead of Wall Street. In addition, he is said to have created a monopoly by slashing the workforce and their pay, in order to eliminate competition and maximize profits. Workers’ wages were often as low as a dollar a day or less, and conditions for employees were poor, with increased fatalities even as wages grew.
Morgan was a ruthless businessman who stopped at nothing to eliminate competition and increase profits. He was believed to head a money trust that controlled the banking industry, and he frequently used underhanded tactics to keep his employees in line. Workers’ wages were often as low as a dollar a day or less, and conditions for employees were poor, with increased fatalities even as wages grew. Morgan didn’t care about anyone except himself and his bottom line.
Henry Ford was one of the most influential businessmen of his time. He changed the way that cars were manufactured and helped to make them affordable for everyone. He believed that workers should be paid a fair wage so that they could live happy and productive lives.
Ford was a very generous man, not just with his wealth, but with his time as well. During a time when workers were required to work 10 hours a day, six days a week, Ford scheduled his workers for eight-hour days, five days a week. This allowed them to have more time for themselves and their families. He also donated personal funds to organizations that he created, such as the Henry Ford Hospital for the working poor who could afford to pay only some of the cost of their medical care. Over the course of his life, he donated approximately $14 million to this institution. Ford’s generosity helped make the lives of many people better and will be remembered long after he is gone.
Ford was a known pacifist and devoted much of his time and resources to charitable efforts. He established work camps for boys during the Great Depression, an 80-acre farm for orphaned boys, and a school for African American children in Georgia. He also paid for a peace ship to Europe that hoped to put an end to World War I.. Ford’s commitment to helping others earned him much respect over the years.