A View from Glen Hill: The Gilded Age — A time that was less than golden

The ever-popular American history series presented jointly by Wilton Library and the Wilton Historical Society is about to begin its eighth year. The focus this year is on the Gilded Age spanning the last quarter of the 19th into the early 20th Century.

When the age began, our nation had just come through the first “modern war” in which the weapons used and the scale of forces assembled meant thousands of casualties in every major engagement. Two years ago, this series had a special focus on Connecticut in the Civil War and on the impact of the staggering loss of life that overwhelmed essentially every city and town here and across the whole country.

However, even as that war was ending, our nation’s transcontinental linkage by rail was moving to completion. That enormous accomplishment in 1869 against staggering obstacles was sensed by many to be a harbinger of our nation’s limitless future — at least in the victorious states and among our country’s white population.  Yet fundamental issues flowing from that horrific time remained unresolved, with treatment of African-Americans as full citizens at the top of the list.

The post-war era brought the rise of tycoons who, depending upon your perspective, drove progress in extraordinary ways or exploited our nation’s working people and its resources (and most likely, in reality, both). Yet even in the face of their excesses, there also rose a sense that our nation could stand no more negativity after such a devastating war and needed to move forward even if that meant looking the other way at such things as political corruption and shady business practices.

Then, just as leadership of the trusts was organizing to do a takeover of the economy and the political process, along came Teddy Roosevelt and his indomitable spirit and determination to see those trusts busted. At the same time, the labor movement was gradually growing in power through struggles that would not see their culmination until well after the arguable endpoint of the age with the onset of the First World War.

So this “Gilded Age,” that in modern terms sometimes seems rather quaint when we only casually glance back at it, was in reality a remarkable period in which so much hung in the balance. During it came those developments that frame modern personal, political and economic life, from antitrust legislation and the Federal Reserve System to the women’s suffrage movement. Meanwhile, Jim Crow laws and Ku Klux Klan lynchings in the South and de facto as well as de jure segregation in the North came to frame daily life for African-Americans.

This age was also the fulcrum for America’s arrival on the world scene as a true international power and a force to be reckoned with economically, militarily and intellectually. And that arrival happened even though heretofore our nation had been viewed as a backwater likely to slip into dismemberment in a war from which, even with dissolution of the union ultimately avoided, the process of recovery appeared dauntingly long and uncertain as the age began. In fact, the age is likely poorly served by its “Gilded” appellation. Perhaps it better deserves the name “The Age of Abrupt Transformation,” for that it surely was for society, industry, and government, as well as for our projection of power abroad and our race relations at home.

This series is well-designed by Louise Herot and her planning committee to give us both a broad overview and glimpses into fascinating details. The first session is this Sunday at 4 p.m. at the library and features a very popular speaker from last year’s series, University of Pennsylvania Prof. Ann Greene who specializes in Gilded-Age environmental, technological and political history and will be addressing in overview this period of enormously rapid change. The series will end on March 22 with the return of equally engaging past presenter Prof. Matthew Warshauer speaking on “the rapid industrialization of America during this period and the challenges we still face.”

The three sessions in between will cover everything from race relations and politics to Mark Twain (one of whose novels gave the age its name, with a meaning of “flashy and superficial” — certainly not “golden”) and will include a session on the seminal 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, in which social reformer Jacob Riis exposed horrible conditions in New York City slums using photography to drive home his message, as art historian Bonnie Yochelson will describe.

Quite an age and quite a series!