Robber Barons and the Gilded Age

These are two comments from a thread at JWS yesterday:

We are living right now in a time when the worst elements of human nature are prevalent in our society, our culture.

Romney places business freedom on par with civil liberty. We tried his plan — in the 1890′s — and it didn’t work.

A capitalist with a moral compass recognizes there’s a difference between businessmen and robber barons.

I majored in history in college, and there are a couple things that really annoy me.

The first is false nostalgia – the idea that things (and people) used to be better than they are today. Human nature hasn’t changed in thousands of years. Read the Bible or the ancient classics and you’ll read about people killing and screwing and stealing. The United States is not only the richest country on Earth, we’re the richest nation in human history.

If history is any guide our current economic situation is only temporary. We live longer and healthier lives than our ancestors. War between nations is at an all-time low. Technology is at an all-time high.

That doesn’t mean things are perfect. But they have never been perfect and probably never will be perfect – or at least not anytime soon. Would you rather be living in 1912? 1012? 12 B.C.?

The other thing is people who think they know history but don’t. It’s like when someone says “Hillary ran a bad campaign” or “Sarah Palin cost John McCain the election.” They are misstating what really happened.

You could fill a library with stuff that people think they know that is wrong. Take the late 19th Century for instance – the so-called “Gilded Age.” If your knowledge of history is limited to K-12 textbooks and a college survey course or two, you might have the impression that the post-Civil War era was a dark age in US history.

In reality that period was a time of tremendous economic growth, industrialization, urbanization and technological change. First steam and then electrical power transformed industry. The development of a cheap steel making process made possible railroads, steamships and skyscrapers. In a short period of time the United States was transformed from an agrarian society to the world’s leading industrial power.

In order to supply factories with coal and iron ore the mining industry grew, digging deeper and deeper into the ground. The petroleum industry was created. The Midwest began cash-crop farming to feed the hungry workers in the cities.

Remember all those westerns where the cowboys were driving herds of cattle to rowdy towns like Abilene and Dodge City? Those cattle were driven overland to meet the railhead, then they were shipped to meatpacking plants in the Midwest and then the processed meats were shipped farther east to the cities.

As for the so-called Robber Barons:

The businessmen of the Second Industrial Revolution created industrial towns and cities in the Northeast with new factories, and hired an ethnically diverse industrial working class, many of them new immigrants from Europe. The super-rich industrialists and financiers such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew W. Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Flagler, Henry H. Rogers, J. P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt of the Vanderbilt family, and the prominent Astor family would sometimes be labeled “robber barons” in reference to the perceived underhanded manner in which they attained their vast wealth.[13] Many of these captains of industry, in addition to building the still fledgeling American economy, participated in immense acts of philanthropy (referred to by Andrew Carnegie as the “Gospel of Wealth”) and used private money to endow thousands of colleges, hospitals, museums, academies, schools, opera houses, public libraries, symphony orchestras, and charities.[14] John D. Rockefeller, for example, donated over $500 million to various charities, slightly over half his entire net worth.

Many if not most of those men started off poor and built entirely new industries. While they were not paragons of virtue (who is?) the methods they used were generally legal and at the time were considered sound business practices.

But wait! There’s more:

Increased mechanization of industry is a major mark of the Gilded Age’s search for cheaper ways to create more product. Frederick Winslow Taylor observed that worker efficiency in steel could be improved through the use of machines to make fewer motions in less time. His redesign increased the speed of factory machines and the productivity of factories while undercutting the need for skilled labor. This mechanization made some factories an assemblage of unskilled laborers performing simple and repetitive tasks under the direction of skilled foremen and engineers. Machine shops grew rapidly, and they comprised highly skilled workers and engineers. Both the number of unskilled and skilled workers increased, as their wage rates grew.[5] Engineering colleges were established to feed the enormous demand for expertise. Railroads invented modern management, with clear chains of command, statistical reporting, and complex bureaucratic systems.[6] They systematized the roles of middle managers, and set up explicit career tracks. They hired young men at age 18–21 and promoted them internally until a man reached the status of locomotive engineer, conductor or station agent at age 40 or so. Career tracks were invented for skilled blue collar jobs and for white collar managers, starting in railroads and expanding into finance, manufacturing and trade. Together with rapid growth of small business, a new middle class was rapidly growing, especially in northern cities.


During the 1870s and 1880s, the U.S. economy rose at the fastest rate in its history, with real wages, wealth, GDP, and capital formation all increasing rapidly.[10] For example, between 1865 and 1898, the output of wheat increased by 256%, corn by 222%, coal by 800% and miles of railway track by 567%.[11] Thick national networks for transportation and communication were created. The corporation became the dominant form of business organization, and a managerial revolution transformed business operations. By the beginning of the 20th century, per capita income and industrial production in the United States led the world, with per capita incomes double that of Germany or France, and 50% higher than Britain.

Was everything about the Gilded Age good? Certainly not. But industrialization, capitalism and the so-called Robber Barons didn’t invent poverty either.

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49 Responses to Robber Barons and the Gilded Age

  1. yttik says:

    I don’t get it, in times of hardship like the Great Depression, we hate the robber barons and we blame the wealthy for all our problems. But why are we having hard times? Because the robber barons aren’t producing.

    • myiq2xu says:

      The myth is that the robber barons “stole” their wealth from the workers. But the workers were better off because of the robber barons.

      • elliesmom says:

        I grew up in a small 4 bedroom house, kitchen, dining room, living room, 4 bedrooms and 1 bath. No air conditioning, one TV, no phone lines down the street until I was 8. Two parents, one grandmother, and five kids. Two biological, and three adopted or fostered. We were not poor. My dad was a butcher, and we farmed 5 acres which we mostly ate ourselves, but my dad was good “at the barter”. By today’s standards our living conditions were deplorable, but we were just fine. And so were all of the other families living just like us. “Better off” is so relative.When we look at where people are economically, it’s important to look at where they started.

        • myiq2xu says:

          How many people in the world today live in one-room huts or shacks with no electricity or running water? I’m talking whole families.

  2. I like that you keep hammering away at this. Some people have such limited box-oriented thinking. They just toss info into pre-labeled boxes without thinking about it. It gets tiresome, especially when they constantly claim to be such critical thinkers.

    OT: I just went off on Zal at JWS’s place, and called him a nasty-ass misogy-fag. Hope I don’t get banned for it. If I do, it was worth it.

  3. Rangoon78 says:

    The Gilded age saw the brutal put-down of worker’s attempts to organize and address the ills (starvation wages, death and dismemberment) of the workplace. This was, as you say, considered good business practice at the time.

    From: Economy in The Gilded Age:

    Laissez faire ideals enabled industrialists and entrepreneurs to operate with public support and without government interference. In addition, the philosophy was translated by the courts into a set of practical rules that enabled businesses to operate with even greater autonomy. For example, during the last decades of the nineteenth century, the court strengthened rules increasing the sanctity of the contract. State laws that attempted to regulate the workplace, such as restrictions on work hours and safety requirements, were repeatedly struck down by state courts with the argument that they violated the rights of employers and employees to enter into contracts freely. Courts also increasingly applied the”fellow servant” rule, which relieved employers of responsibility for workplace injury if a contributing cause was the negligence of another employee. And the courts weakened unions by insisting that employers had a right to replace striking workers while at the same time denying that strikers had a right to organize boycotts.

    One could argue that life was made more brutal by the “gains” of the guilded age. I fear that this protracted economic slump is being used by the modern day robber barons to accelerate threturn to this laissez faire era.

    • Rangoon78 says:

      More conspiracy theorism from this left wing nut:
      Et tu, Bernake?
      The Federal Reserve’s two percent inflation target constitutes a backdoor way of forcing society to live with a “new normal” of permanent wage stagnation and unemployment far in excess of full employment. In effect, by adopting this target, the Fed has surreptitiously abandoned its legislated mandate to also pursue “maximum employment”.

    • myiq2xu says:

      It took a while for the law and other institutions to catch up to the changes that took place. Life was already brutal. But the employees knew there jobs were dangerous. They accepted the risk because that was “the way it is.” If they didn’t, there were other people willing to take their jobs.

      The old law said that employers were only liable if they were negligent. Employers were not required to provide safety guards on machines or safety gear for employees. The theory was that primary responsibility for job safety was on the employee. That was how it had always been. The robber barons didn’t make it that way.

      Once upon a time that theory made sense. Until the industrial age people used hand tools and workshops tended to be small. Then came big factories with hot steam, electricity, gears, belts and fast moving machine parts that people had little or no control over. It’s a lot harder to seriously injure yourself with a knife or other hand tool than it is with machines. With machines, one moment of carelessness by you or a co-worker can result in immediate death or serious injury.

      Child labor was considered normal back then. Whole families worked together in factories, just as they had forked together in the fields. Dumping sewage and industrial waste in the ground or into nearby rivers was also standard.

      The idea that modern day robber barons want to return to this laissez faire era is as ludicrous as suggesting they want to repeal the 13th Amendment and bring back slavery. People would never allow it to happen.

  4. elliesmom says:

    I have two favorite “not too far from home” vacation spots. One is Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor in ME. The beautiful park is largely a gift from the Rockefellers. As Elliesdad and I bicycle over the carriage trails they built, Martha Stewart, a modern “robber baron”, might be on the other side of the island entertaining her multi-millionaire friends, while other people are paying $20 a night to pitch tent. A vacation spot for the masses, courtesy of the gilded age.

    Another favorite spot is Newport, RI. That can be a day trip for us. It’s fun to walk along the ocean trail that’s between the shore and modern day mansions belonging to families as infamous as the Von Bulows. But no matter how rich and famous the owners of the adjacent properties are, peons like me can still enjoy the walk. It’s public forever. Further down are the “summer cottages” of people like the Vanderbuilts, opulent mansions every one of them. While given the status of the family that I was born into, my life in one of these magnificent mansions would likely have been as a scullery maid, today I can enjoy tea in the garden or attend the Newport Jazz Festival on the lawns. And I can do that because these homes were left in a charitable trust.

    I don’t wax nostalgic for earlier times. I fully understand where I would have stood in social status a hundred years age. But the “robber barons” left me and others like me an opportunity to take advantage of their wealth and for that I thank them.

    • Amen! Nana came over from Scotland and immediately went to work in the mills in and around Lawrence MA. Dangerous, hot, hard, sweaty work. But work it was and she was grateful to have it. Had the owners of the mills not made it a practice to hire immigrant girls who knows where we would be? Great grandfather had virtually no choice but to allow all his children to work as they arrived. How else to survive and bring the rest over? So even though mill work could be and often was a death sentence- the pittance was received with thanksgiving.
      Agree on the parks and so forth left by the industrial giants too- I see “Carnegie” all over the country on libraries.

  5. gxm17 says:

    “The first is false nostalgia – the idea that things (and people) used to be better than they are today. Human nature hasn’t changed in thousands of years.”

    While it’s true that human nature hasn’t really changed, it’s also true that in my lifetime I’ve seen a shift in values. When I was younger, greed and gluttony were not viewed as virtues. During Reagan’s presidency, I watched our cultural values shift. Now folks will proudly announce that they’re “all about the Benjamins” or how much gas their SUV consumes. Have people always been greedy and gluttonous: Yes. Have these things always been considered something to crow about: IMO, no.

    • DandyTiger says:

      I think the cultural extremes we have seen, like the “me decade” or the “me too decade” or whatever, and more recent seeming excesses are more about the media and lately social media than about real trends. I’m not sure I believe the idea that people are more greedy. Just don’t see it on the ground in “real life”.

      Though I can brag about my big honking tall SUV/Truck thingy with the best of them. But you suburban and city slicker types have to understand, some of us live in rural America where we don’t have rapid services to help with weather and disasters. If I can’t drive through 3 feet of unplowed snow, I’m dead.

      • elliesmom says:

        I think we’ve just created so much more stuff to show off that it looks like we’re more greedy. I remember when a family in my neighborhood was the first to get a color TV. They weren’t shy about showing it off. lol

      • gxm17 says:

        I’m not talking about basic human nature. Homo sapiens is what it is. I’m talking about cultural values. IMO, we’ve become a very shallow culture all around. And, yes, it may very well be that we’re simply a very shallow creature.

        Whether it’s the obots preaching their pro-Obamacare “Fuck people without health insurance who need healthcare mantra” or that jerk who harassed the CFA clerk, videotaped it, and proudly posted it, I look around and just see rude, selfish people. And I’m getting really cranky about it. I realize that in eras past, we hid all our ugly under a veneer of good manners and self-control, but there has to be a happy middle. Yes?

        FTR, there are plenty of people in suburbia, and the city too, who drive gas-guzzling vehicles for no practical reason. (My suburban neighborhood is filled with them.)

        • elliesmom says:

          The birth of the SUV as the “suburban family car of choice” is one of those unintended consequenc-y things. It used to be that the car of choice for familes with kids and a dog was a station wagon. Then the government got into the business of setting fuel economy standards for cars. But they weren’t based on the gas mileage of a single car model. Car companies had to meet an average fuel economy over their entire fleet of models. Station wagons had the worst gas mileage of all the cars on the market so many car companies met those initial standards by not producing any wagons. What’s a family with three kids and a dog supposed to buy? The “little cars” of the 70’s couldn’t hold a small family, a pet, and groceries. You certainly couldn’t take a vacation in one. But an SUV isn’t a “car”. It’s a truck. And compared to most trucks, they get pretty good gas mileage. So the more SUVs you sell, the better your company’s truck gas mileage looks. Eventually, car companies figured out to make mini-vans that met the mileage requirements, and more recently have re-introduced the station wagon, but in the interim people discovered how much better SUVs are in bad weather, that they hold a lot people and/or stuff, and they comfortably go where cars can’t or shouldn’t go. When my dad needed to be taken for cancer treatments no matter what the weather was, and I needed to cart around tanks of oxygen for him, I don’t know what I would have done w/o my Exploder. Now I drive a little VW with great gas mileage, but I have to have my Christmas tree delivered by the UPS guy.

    • Well, I hate to say it, but a large part of what kept public acclamations about greed in check was religious piety. And we know exactly who’s to blame for the reduction in that.

      That said, I’d rather have all this greed and the rights I have today as a woman than all the piety in the world and the limited options women have had since the dawn of time, which only changed for the majority in the 20th century. Had I been born in 1912 I’d have had zero professional opportunity unless I was born to a higher class, would have already experienced multiple rapes starting in childhood, borne more children than is healthy for anybody, sacrificed a significant chunk of my vitality and longevity to those little brats, and would have no say at all in the development of our government. And if we go back in time, those circumstances grow increasingly worse. Thank goodness that’s all been addressed. It’s not perfect, but for women, for gays/lesbians, for POC these times are the best humanity has ever seen.

  6. angienc says:

    Great post, myiq. I like it when you get all scholarly. 🙂

  7. HELENK says:

    when I was carrying my first baby, a woman stopped me on the street and told me it was not a good time to have a baby. This was 1959. I asked her when was a good time to have a child.

    the 1860s civil war the the migration west
    the 1900s large immigration from different countries
    1914 WW1
    1920s bootlegging and crime
    1930s depression
    1940s WW2 and housing shortage
    1950s Korean war

    My husband said when I told him about it. ” I’ll bet she will never do that again”

    every time in history has some kind of problem, but also some kind or success

  8. DeniseVB says:

    Speaking of robber barons (snort), Ann Romney’s horse competed today: (Spoiler!) <—- like NBC will air her horse's performance, but it should become equal time to MO jumping in front of the camera last weekend.

  9. tamerlane says:

    This is an interesting, very important, and timely debate. It deserves a thorough investigation and discussion.

    Sadly, IQ has once again leaned solely on a Wiki article to support his argument. A real examination of the subject would present & compare diverse scholarly arguments. Addressing the Progressive Movement & its impetus would also seem obligatory.

    A quick Amazon query for “Gilded Age” yielded this list of books:

    * Beatty, Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900

    * Beebe, The Big Spenders: The Epic Story of the Rich Rich, the Grandees of America and the Magnificoes, and How They Spent Their Fortunes

    * Brands, The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s

    * Calhoun (Ed.),The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America

    * Cashman, America in the Gilded Age

    * Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905

    * Greenwood, The Gilded Age: A History in Documents

    * Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age

    A more detailed search might reveal a broader range of views. Can IQ offer us a reading list?

    • myiq2xu says:

      First of all I don’t get paid to blog. I use Wiki because it’s quick and easy to cut & paste but I don’t rely on its veracity unless it’s a topic I am familiar with – like this one. I don’t have a large private library of history texts. I’m not going to head down to the college library to look up scholarly dissertations I can quote from, laboriously copying the text from print. I damn sure ain’t gonna buy a bunch of books from Amazon to write a single post.

      If you want to refute what I said by doing several weeks worth of research, go for it. Don’t forget to include footnotes and a bibliography. You can use any standard citation format you prefer – I’m not picky.

      I look forward to reading your rebuttal. How long do you estimate before you will have a final draft?

      In the meantime, have you read each of those books you listed? Do you know whether they agree or disagree with my post?

      • tamerlane says:

        I’m not the one who raised this subject by writing at least two posts on it. When I do write, I research.

        From your response, it’s safe to assume you haven’t read any of those books found on Amazon. Yet you say you “are familiar with” this topic. From where did you gain your familiarity, on what did you base your opinion — a book? A college lecture?

        Tell me what you’ve read, and I’ll read it, too. Then we can have a substantive discussion.

        • elliesmom says:

          I would love to see a rebuttal with footnotes and everything at your blog. I think it would be better, though, from a pure research perspective, if you choose your own sources. I don’t think this blog entry was intended to be a book review. YMMV, as always.

        • myiq2xu says:

          From where did you gain your familiarity, on what did you base your opinion — a book? A college lecture?

          It was an article in Playboy. Or maybe it was Reader’s Digest. Possibly an Archie comic.

        • DandyTiger says:

          IOW, don’t post something I don’t like unless you do it by my rules, read approved books and attend approved lectures. Whatever you do, don’t think for yourself. Leave thinking to accredited faculty only. Jeez people, are those rules so hard.

    • votermom says:

      Jayzuz, this is why regular people hate progressives. Do we have to have the sneering?

    • Karma says:

      So am I getting this right?

      You get on Myiq for citing a Wiki link. Which we’re all aware of it’s benefits and limitations. And then make your case with a quick Amazon query!?


  10. yttik says:

    “We are living right now in a time when the worst elements of human nature are prevalent in our society, our culture.”

    The worst elements of human nature have always been prevalent in our society, culture. At the start of the 19th century, 3/4 of the world population was made up of slaves. We had conscription, indentured servitude, penal labor, and human trafficking. If you were lucky you got to die before you were 50 from the leading cause of death, diarrhea.

  11. HELENK says:


    court upholds use of domestic drone use in the arrest of an American citizen without a warrant

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