Category Archives: Industrialization and the Gilded Age


Episode 011 Scandal! In American History

subscribe-buttonWho doesn’t love a good scandal (so long as it doesn’t involve them)? This week at In The Past Lane we examine the important — and often positive — role scandals have played in American history. Here’s the lineup:
1) a short segment on the role of scandals in US history
2) an interview with historian Daniel Czitrom about his new book, New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Police Scandal That Launched the Progressive Era (Oxford U Press, 2016). We talk about the famous 1894 Lexow Commission investigation into allegations of widespread corruption involving the political machine Tammany Hall and the New York City Police Dept. Dan also draws important links to key issues confronting American society in 2016 – police violence and the origins of the so-called “blue wall of silence” and voting suppression efforts.
3) a look at the scandal in the meatpacking industry triggered by the publication in 1906 of Upton Sinclair’s famous novel, The Jungle.

Episode 011 notes and credits

Further reading about the history of Scandals in American History

Daniel Czitrom book cover copy: The Gilded Age Police Scandal That Launched the Progressive Era (Oxford U Press, 2016)

Andy Hughes, A History of Political Scandals: Sex, Sleaze and Spin (2014)

George C. Kohn, The New Encyclopedia of American Scandal (2001)

Laton McCartney, The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country (Random House, 2009)

Mitchell Zuckoff, Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend (Random House, 2006)

Andrew Burt, “The 1826 Kidnapping, Allegedly by a Cabal of Freemasons, That Changed American Politics Forever,” May 15, 2015

Music for This Episode:

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (courtesy,

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Lee Rosevere, “Going Home” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “On The Street” (Free Music Archive)

Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)

The Womb, “I Hope That It Hurts” (Free Music Archive)


N. Calyo's painting, "Ice Wagon," depicts an ice man in the 1840s.

America’s Last Ice Age (more recent than you think)

Headlines warning of an impending “ice famine” were common in the 19th and early 20th century during warm winters (NYT Feb 2, 1906)

ITPL - Check Out ITPL Podcast image (for blog)What on earth is an “ice famine”? Well, if you were alive in the nineteenth century and the U.S. was experiencing winter as mild as this one in 2012-2013, the newspapers would be full of stories about a potential “ice famine.” The problem was not a shortage of ice in January and February, but rather in the coming summer because Americans, especially city dwellers, had come to depend on massive winter harvests of natural ice from ponds, lakes, and rivers to cope with summer heat and preserve their food. The creation of this ice industry is one of the more fascinating stories of American entrepreneurship. It’s also a story of a remarkable transformation of the American diet.

In an age of ubiquitous air-conditioning and refrigeration, it’s hard to comprehend just how much 19th-century Americans depended on ice. By the 18th century, icehouses were standard features on most estates in Europe and even Colonial America, but for the common man and woman, especially in cities, ice in warm weather was as rare and expensive a commodity as caviar.

Frederic Tudor, the man known as the “Ice King” for his role in creating the American commercial ice industry.

That began to change in 1806, when an ambitious Massachusetts man named Frederick Tudor set out to single-handedly create the world’s commercial ice industry. After a trip to the tropics he became convinced that people in warm climates, whether Charleston, SC or the Caribbean, would pay good money for New England ice. And New England had a lot of ice. And it was free. The only costs – and the biggest challenges for this would-be business – was harvesting, transporting, and storing it.

Tudor was the charismatic son of a wealthy family. He was 23 years old and possessed an almost evangelical commitment to the enterprise. “People believe me not when I tell them I am going to carry ice to the West Indies,” he confided in his diary.

Actually, people greeted the idea not only with incredulity, but also laughter. As Tudor wrote, his plan “excited the derision of the whole town as a mad project.” Even his father called the scheme “wild and ruinous.”

But Tudor remained undaunted. He bought a ship, filled its hold with 130 tons of ice cut from a Massachusetts pond, set sail for the Caribbean island of Martinique.  The snickering now spread from his home town to Boston. The Boston Gazette reported with glee: “No joke. A vessel with a cargo of ice has cleared out from this port for Martinique. We hope this will not prove to be a slippery speculation.”

Tudor’s first foray into the ice industry brought mixed results.  The good news was that most of the ice survived the voyage. The bad news was that there were no ice houses in Martinique. So Tudor lost more than $4000 – a huge sum at the time.

But the next year he was back at it, sending in 240 tons of ice to Havana, Cuba in 1807. He managed to break even on this venture, but he would have to find a way to earn a profit – and soon.

The next few years saw more voyages and some success. But then bad luck and a theft by a corrupt business partner plunged Tudor into poverty and two stints in debtor’s prison in 1812 and 1813.

As soon as Tudor was released, however, he was back at his ice venture. He convinced partners in southern US cities and the tropics to build icehouses. This ensured that his cargo would not melt upon arrival.  Tudor also experimented with different forms of insulation to reduce melting in icehouses and on board ships. He eventually discovered sawdust from saw mills. Sawdust was plentiful and practically free – and it was a terrific insulator for ice.

By the early 1820s, Tudor was enjoying modest success. But the market for ice remained small.

Ice cutting devices like this allowed for the harvesting of uniform blocks of ice. It was much easier than the earlier method of cutting blocks with saws.

Ice cutting devices like this allowed for the harvesting of uniform blocks of ice. It was much easier than the earlier method of cutting blocks with saws.

Then in 1825 he teamed up with Nathaniel Wyeth, one of his ice suppliers, who had invented dual blade ice cutter pulled by horses across ponds, lakes, and rivers. This device – a kind of mechanical reaper for the ice industry — cut a grid of uniform grooves in the ice. Then workers using iron bars pried loose identical blocks of ice. This method proved far more efficient than the traditional method of cutting irregular ice blocks with saws. And the harvested blocks could be stacked neatly for more efficient transportation and far less melting. Soon Tudor had tripled his production and profits rose accordingly.

In 1833 Tudor sent 180 tons of ice 16,000 miles from Boston to Calcutta, India. Very little ice melted en route and the ship’s arrival touched off a frenzy for ice. Soon a group of investors constructed an icehouse to receive future shipments of Tudor’s ice. In the coming years Tudor – now known as “The Ice King” – sold ice harvested in Massachusetts all over the world. By 1856 ships leaving Boston carried 150,000 tons of ice to US ports and 43 nations around the world.

Here’s an amazing statistic that you can use to win a bar bet:  What product (by weight) was the #2 US export in the 1850s? Cotton was #1 and ice was #2!

But no people in the world fell in love with ice more than Tudor’s fellow Americans.  The tonnage of ice sold by Tudor and a growing number of competitors soared in the 1840s and 1850s. The greatest demand came from American cities. English novelist and travel writer Fanny Trollope toured the US in the early 1830s and later wrote in her book, Domestic Manners of the Americas, “I do not imagine there is a home without the luxury of a piece of ice to cool the water and harden the butter.” Demand for ice grew so rapidly that by 1855 residents of New York City were consuming 285,000 tons annually.

Where did this ice come from? By the 1850s the ice industry in New England and New York employed thousands of men – many of them farm hands and

Ice harvesting in the mid-19th century required new technology and lots of horse-power and human labor.But no people in the world fell in love with ice more than Tudor’s fellow Americans.

lumberjacks looking for work in the winter months – to harvest vast quantities of ice from ponds, lakes, and rivers. Some ice was floated on barges to big icehouses in cities, but by the 1850s more and more ice was moved in railroad cars.

No body of water was off limits to the icemen, not even Henry David Thoreau’s famed Walden Pond. In 1846 Thoreau noted in his journal that a team of burly Irish immigrants had descended on the pond to harvest as much as 1000 tons of ice per day. Thoreau was irked by the noise, but he was also impressed by its implications: “The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta drink at my well.”

Frederick Tudor, “The Ice King,” died a very wealthy man in 1864. By this time it was clear that his efforts to make ice cheap and plentiful meant more than simply providing Americans with cool drinks in the summer. Ice had begun to change Americans’ basic diet. Whereas before 1830 much of the typical Americans’ diet consisted mainly of bread and dried or salted meat, after 1830 it included increasing amounts of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, and dairy products. This improvement in the variety and quality of food benefited public health and extended life expectancy. Ice also led to the popularity of products like ice cream. Once the rarest of treats, ice cream became so popular that in 1850 a leading women’s magazine declared it a basic necessity of life.

No body of water was off limits to the icemen, not even Henry David Thoreau’s famed Walden Pond. In 1846 Thoreau noted in his journal that a team of burly Irish immigrants had descended on the pond to harvest as much as 1000 tons of ice per day. Thoreau was irked by the noise, but he was also impressed by its implications: “The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta drink at my well.”

The availability of cheap and plentiful ice meant more than cool drinks in the summer; it changed Americans’ basic diet. Butchers, fishmongers and dairymen began to use ice to preserve their stocks, leading to significant improvement in food quality and public health. Ice also greatly increased the diversity of culinary offerings available to Americans as importers found ways to preserve previously exotic delights like freshwater fish. Ice cream, once the rarest of treats, became so popular that in 1850 a leading women’s magazine declared it a basic necessity. Ice likewise made possible cold beer and other alcoholic drinks. Temperance advocates, however, countered with “Moderation Fountains” during heat waves that provided free ice water as an alternative to the offerings of a city’s countless saloons.

Ice also delivered an impressive array of medical benefits. Doctors at hospitals soon discovered that ice could save lives and began prescribing it as a means of lowering the body temperature of fever victims, especially the young. During the summer, city hospitals issued free ice tickets to the poor, and crowds often grew so anxious outside free ice depots during heat waves that free-for-alls known as ice riots erupted. According to an account in The New York Times of one incident in July 1906, “a woman pulled a man’s mustache and another woman hit a man with a dishpan,” and within minutes, “the ice was scattered on the sidewalk and hundreds were engaged in a rough-and-tumble fight.”

N. Calyo’s painting, “Ice Wagon,” depicts an ice man in the 1840s.

By the 1880’s, about 1,500 ice wagons plied the streets of New York City every day. The burly, typically Italian iceman, a huge block of ice slung over his back and gripped with a pair of tongs, became as familiar a fixture on the urban landscape as the Irish beat cop.

During a typical week in the 1880’s, an iceman might deliver as much as 80 tons of ice, much of it carted up multiple flights of narrow and rickety stairs. The iceman’s daily interactions with housewives gave rise to countless bawdy jokes, an occurrence immortalized in Eugene O’Neill’s drama “The Iceman Cometh,” set in 1912.

While urban Americans clearly loved their ice—Manhattan and Brooklyn consumed 1.3 million tons in 1879 (more than a quarter of the national market)—they often loathed the companies that provided it, and in the 1880’s and 1890’s, a rising chorus of critics charged firms with price gouging and monopolistic practices. Ice companies tried to blamed summer price increases on mild winters that produced insufficient stocks–the aforementioned “ice famines.”

That claim didn’t work in 1896 when in New York City the city’s ice firms were absorbed into a massive national ice trust called the Consolidated Ice Company. Prices jumped 33 percent that spring, and more than doubled by midsummer. Hardest hit were the poor, who could afford to buy their ice, like their winter coal, only in small quantities.

Anger against ice companies persisted after 1901. Here an ice baron sits in an ice house wearing a hat labeled “Ice Trust” and writing, “Owing to the mild winter, we regret to say that ice next summer will be dearer than ever.”

Popular outrage reached new heights four years later in 1901 when investigative journalists revealed that Mayor Robert Van Wyck and other city officials had conspired to create a virtual monopoly for Consolidated. As the price of ice doubled, new revelations showed that the mayor and his brother had been given $1.7 million in Consolidated stock. The investigations produced no convictions, but the mayor, hounded by catcalls of “Ice! Ice! Ice!” whenever he appeared in public, was soundly defeated by a reform ticket in the election of 1901.

America’s ice age, however, was brought to a close not by reformers but by inventors who developed refrigeration and ice-making machinery. As early as the 1870s large brewers had begun to rely on mechanical refrigeration. Soon the meatpacking industry joined them. By 1900 refrigeration machinery was widely available. So, too, was ice making machinery. The final step came with the introduction of electric home refrigerators. By 1950 the iceman had been become as much a relic of a long-ago age as the blacksmith and the lamplighter.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter    @InThePastLane

Sources and Further Reading:

Oscar Edward Anderson, Jr. Refrigeration in America: A History of a New Technology and Its Impact (Princeton University Press, 1953).

Mariana Gosnell, Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance (Knopf, 2005)

Jonathan Rees, The Cold Chain: A History of Ice and Refrigeration in America and the World, forthcoming, John Hopkins University Press.

Carl Seaburg and Stanley Paterson, The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle (Massachusetts Historical Society and Mystic Seaport, 2003).

Gavin Weightman, The Frozen-Water Trade: A True Story (Hyperion, 2003)





Lady Liberty Had Something Else in Mind – The Statue of Liberty Originally Had NOTHING to Do with Immigration                                                                 by Edward T. O’Donnell

ITPL - Check Out ITPL Podcast image (for blog)The story of the Statue of Liberty provides an excellent opportunity to examine how the icons and traditions a society holds dear often originated with very different purposes and meanings. Put another way, it allows us to ponder yet another example of one of my rules of history—namely, that nothing “has always been.” It was not until decades after 1776 that Americans began to consider the Declaration of Independence a sacred document. Thanksgiving only became a major national holiday after the Civil War. Freedom of speech, despite its enshrinement in the Bill of Rights, only acquired its broad definition in the early 20th century. And the Statue of Liberty, long a symbol of America’s revered tradition of welcoming the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” originally had nothing to do with immigration. That association developed in the mid-20th century, some fifty years after its grand coming out party in 1886.

To raise funds for the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty would stand, the arm and torch were sent to America in 1876 for display at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.

So what did the Statue of Liberty stand for in 1886?  The answer is found in its origins as a gift of the French people to celebrate republican government as established in the American and French Revolutions. The brief version of the story is as follows. A French legal scholar, political leader, reformer, and abolitionist Edouard Rene de Laboulaye proposed in 1865 (some accounts say 1870) the idea of the French people funding the creation of a monument to American independence to mark the centennial of the American Revolution in 1876. Laboulaye hoped the monument would strengthen ties between France and the U.S. and inspire his fellow French reformers to restore republican liberties being suppressed under the rule of Napoleon III. Laboulaye eventually secured the services of sculptor Frederic Bartholdi who, after years of delays, eventually commenced work on the Statue in 1875.  The Statue’s arm and torch arrived one year later to be displayed at the Philadelphia world’s fair. As the rest of the Statue arrived in crates by 1883, Americans raised the money for the pedestal on Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor. By the fall of 1886, as the Statue neared completion, officials planned a massive celebration to accompany the unveiling.

Lady Liberty holds a tablet with the inscription, July 4, 1776, to commemorate the birth of the American republic.

That the Statue had everything to do with celebrating republican ideals and nothing to do with immigration is further demonstrated by the full name assigned it—“Liberty Enlightening the World”—and its symbolism. Lady Liberty carries in her right hand the torch of liberty and in her left a tablet inscribed with July 4, 1776. Moreover, she faces the Atlantic Ocean and Europe. Her message is clear: Hey, Europe and the rest of the world—you want some of this American peace, prosperity, and progress? Well, then rid yourself of monarchs, aristocracies, established churches, and fixed classes and embrace republican government.

A million people turned out to see “Liberty Enlightening the World” unveiled.

That was the central message at the gigantic civic celebration that attended the Statue’s unveiling on October 28, 1886. More than a million people gathered in New York City for the festivities (which, incidentally, included the first ticker-tape parade), including President Grover Cleveland, members of Congress, representatives of the French government, and other foreign dignitaries.  The theme of this grand civic celebration and the many speeches and editorials that marked it was a celebration of the American republic and the belief that it stood as an inspiring example to the rest of the world.  “We will not forget that Liberty has here made her home,” declared President Cleveland in his speech. Its radiant light, symbolized in the Statue’s torch, would radiate outward to penetrate the “darkness of ignorance and man’s oppression until Liberty enlightens the world!” The only reference to immigrants was a negative one from railroad magnate Chauncey Depew, who declared republican self-government and not “Anarchists and bombs” as the best remedy for the social unrest then rocking the nation (1886 was the year of a record number of strikes and the Haymarket bombing), unrest many associated with radical immigrants spreading dangerous ideologies like socialism and anarchism.

If the Statue of Liberty originated without any consideration of immigration, then what about the poem, “The New Colossus” that is so closely associated with it?

With silent lips. “Give me your
tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses
yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your
teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless,
tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the
golden door!”

Emma Lazarus, a Jewish-American poet, wrote “The New Colossus” in 1883. But it would be 50 years before it garnered attention for its message connecting the Statue of Liberty to the theme of welcoming immigrants.

Written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus, it clearly celebrated the Statue as a beacon of hope to immigrants seeking freedom. But the historical record shows that this idea began and ended with Lazarus. No one paid any attention to the poem. Three years later, no one mentioned it at the unveiling ceremony. None of Lazarus’ obituaries or eulogies mentioned in when she died in 1887.  Even when a wealthy New Yorker in 1903 paid for a bronze tablet bearing the poem to be attached to the base of the Statue (more as a tribute to Lazarus than a celebration of immigration), it drew almost no attention. As late as the 1930s the information provided by the National Park Service (which managed the Statue) told visitors to the Statue that it was a symbol of Franco-American unity and republican liberty.

Of course, that was the official interpretation.  The millions of immigrants who entered New York harbor after the Statue of Liberty was unveiled in 1886 interpreted it as a beacon of hope and symbol of freedom from Old World oppression. Native-born Americans in this period harbored no such warm and fuzzy feelings. The period 1870-1920 witnessed a surge in anti-immigrant sentiment that eventually resulted in immigration restriction in 1924.

“Dumping European Garbage” (Judge magazine, 1890) was typical of the nativist cartoons ca. 1880-1920 that used the image of Lady Liberty to condemn immigration.

Most Americans in this period looked upon the “huddled masses” as a threat to American society, not the building blocks of a vibrant and prosperous multi-ethnic democracy. Indeed, the most common use of the Statue of Liberty image was to condemn immigration.

So, when did the more familiar interpretation of the Statue take hold?  Tellingly, it wasn’t until after Congress sharply restricted immigration in 1924 that Americans began to assign a new meaning to the Statue—that of a goddess of liberty welcoming the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (yes, it’s in the 1930s when Lazarus’ poem becomes popular). While this might seem strange, history tells us that it’s actually quite common. Societies often begin honoring something only after it’s gone. Americans despised Native Americans until they were defeated and confined to reservations in the 1880s. Then Americans embraced a romanticized image of Native Americans that remains powerful to this very day.

These days, this image dominates the official US government website providing information to new immigrants about citizenship.

In the case of the Statue of Liberty, writes historian John Higham, “So long as millions of immigrants entered ‘the golden door,’ the Statue of Liberty was unresponsive to them; it served other purposes. After the immigrant ships no longer passed under the New Colossus in significant numbers, it enshrined the immigrant experience as a transcendental national memory. Because few Americans were now immigrants, all could think of them as having been immigrants.” By the 1950s a Museum of Immigration opened at the Statue and record-breaking crowds arrived to tour it.  And so it was that the Statue of Liberty, notes Higham, “gradually joined the covered wagon as a symbol of the migrations that had made America.”

Like I always say: nothing “has always been.”


Follow me on Twitter    @InThePastLane

Sources and Further Reading:

James B. Bell and Richard I. Abrams, In Search of Liberty: The Story of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island (Doubleday, 1984).

Edward Berenson, The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story (Yale, 2012).

John Higham, “The Transformation of the Statue of Liberty,” in John Higham, Send These to Me: Immigrants in Urban America (Johns Hopkins, 1984).

Yasmin Sabina Khan, Enlightening the World: The Creation of the Statue of Liberty (Cornell, 2010).

The New York Times, October 28, 1886.


OP-ED Laboring Against Inequality

[Note: this op-ed was originally published in Newsweek, Sept 5, 2015]

This Labor Day weekend finds the United States confronted by many troubling and contentious questions related to workers and the economy. These questions range from the minimum wage to paid family leave, from collective bargaining rights for public sector workers to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

The first Labor Day parade was held in New York City on September 5, 1882.

The first Labor Day parade was held in New York City on September 5, 1882.

Linking these seemingly disparate questions is their connection to the broader question of rising wealth inequality in American society. So acute has this problem grown in recent years that many social commentators have taken to referring to our era as a Second Gilded Age. This phrase represents more than a clever rhetorical flourish, for the original Gilded Age (1870-1900) was rocked by many of the same questions that challenge the U.S. today, especially the problem of increasing wealth inequality. In fact, it was in the midst of this turmoil that American workers established Labor Day.

The first Labor Day occurred in New York City on September 5, 1882. The original parade drew about 5,000 workers and the idea rapidly caught on across the country, eventually leading to its establishment as a national holiday.

Workers carried signs in the first Labor Day parade that highlighted their concerns in the Gilded Age.

Workers carried signs in the first Labor Day parade that highlighted their concerns in the Gilded Age.

What was the motivation behind the establishment of Labor Day? One detail from the original commemoration in 1882 provides a hint: a sign carried in the parade proclaiming a simple yet profound message: All Men Are Born Equal. What was happening in American society in 1882 – over a century after Thomas Jefferson made a similar bold claim in the Declaration of Independence – that would compel a worker to make such a sign?

The answer is rapid and intensive industrialization. This process transformed the United States into the world’s leading economic power by 1900. But it also brought with it widespread poverty. Evidence of this troubling duality could be found everywhere, but especially in New York City where mansions of big business tycoons like Vanderbilt, Morgan, and Carnegie arose along Fifth Avenue, while in the rest of the city two-thirds of the population lived in cramped and squalid tenements. In short, the establishment of Labor Day signaled that Gilded Age America faced a crisis over growing inequality.

Americans in the first Gilded Age responded to this crisis of inequality by forming unions and staging strikes – an astonishing 37,000 strikes between 1880 and 1900. But they also developed and popularized a key insight regarding republican citizenship: that political equality (one vote) was no longer adequate to maintain a healthy republican society. Modern industrial life, with huge corporations, global markets, and increasing numbers of people working for wages, made it clear that republican citizenship included an economic dimension. As the reformer and labor activist Henry George wrote in 1879, “In our time…creep on the insidious forces that, producing inequality, destroy Liberty.” If one was overworked and yet unable to earn a living wage, argued George and other reformers, his right to vote was meaningless. He had sunken into “industrial slavery.” Extreme inequality, in other words, would destroy American democracy.

Roosevelt included "Freedom from Want" as one of the Four Freedoms he proclaimed in 1941

Roosevelt included “Freedom from Want” as one of the Four Freedoms he proclaimed in 1941

Motivated by this insight, the labor movement and social reformers in the 20th century pushed for policies aimed at limiting the power of big corporations and the wealthy while protecting and enhancing the opportunity for the average citizen to live a decent life. These policies included the eight-hour day, increased workplace safety, collective bargaining rights, income taxes, unemployment insurance, and Social Security. Their success reflected a growing acceptance of the idea that for republican citizenship to be real, it had to include a baseline of material well-being. By the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enshrined “Freedom from Want” as one of the nation’s four essential freedoms. “True individual freedom,” he said, “cannot exist without economic security and independence.”

Political leaders like Roosevelt, along with a strong labor movement, combined to boost the well-being of the average American. The result? Extreme wealth inequality decreased steadily. Whereas in 1890 the top 1 percent of Americans owned 51 percent of all wealth, by 1979 the 1 percent owned 20.5% of all wealth.

Economic inequality has become a significant political concern in recent years, a period some call the Second Gilded Age.

Economic inequality has become a significant political concern in recent years, a period some call the Second Gilded Age.

But since 1980, a weakened labor movement and changes to the tax code (among other things) have resulted in a dramatic shift back toward increased wealth and income inequality. By 2010 the top 1 percent’s share of all wealth stood at 35.4 percent – and rising.

So this weekend, as millions celebrate Labor Day by refraining from labor, Americans would do well to reflect on the core claims of the early labor movement: that the nation’s democratic values and republican institutions are threatened by economic policies that leave a small number extremely wealthy and powerful and the majority struggling to attain or hold onto a piece of the American Dream.

Labor Day reminds us that while we all are created equal, we also grow up to live in a society shaped by policies and laws that determine whether opportunities for success are focused on the great majority of citizens or merely on the 1 percent.

Edward T. O’Donnell is an associate professor of history at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA and the author of Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age (Columbia University Press).

SeondGildedAge 1

Are We Living in A Second Gilded Age? Part 1

“Are We Living in A Second Gilded Age?” is an ongoing examination of the parallels between the first Gilded Age (1870-1900) and what many contend is a Second Gilded Age (1980-present). A key source of these musings is my forthcoming book, Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the First Gilded Age (Columbia University Press, June 2015).

Americans have long loved to celebrate centennials and sesquicentennials of major events in national history such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the start of the Civil War, and the March on Washington in 1963. Of course, no such commemoration occurred in 1970 to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the Gilded Age (1870-1900). But it’s useful to imagine for a moment what such an event might have looked like. Given the context of 1970, it’s not hard to imagine the primary theme that would have dominated speeches, museum exhibitions, and documentary films: The Gilded Age was a period of extraordinary growth and innovation, but also dangerous levels of poverty and inequality that threatened the integrity of America’s cherished republican values; this threat was eventually checked by the efforts of social reformers who empowered the state to place limits on corporate power and adopt policies aimed at promoting the common good over raw individualism. Americans in 1970 were riding the greatest period of economic growth and prosperity in the nation’s history (from 1946 to 1973 the U.S. economy grew by an average rate of 3.8%). And they were living at a time of the greatest level of economic equality in the nation’s history. It seems likely that the average American in 1970 would have viewed the Gilded Age as a dark and ugly chapter in American history that few would want to repeat.

And yet, since 1970, a rising chorus of scholars, activists, and social critics has emerged to warn Americans about rising corporate power, wealth inequality, and poverty and the threats they posed to the nation’s republican values. By the 1990s some began to invoke the phrase, “Second Gilded Age,” to describe this era in an attempt to conger up images of an age of unrestrained robber baron industrialists and financiers, roiling social conflict, and a widening chasm between rich and poor.

NewGildedAgeBookThis pessimistic view of the direction in which the United States was heading really took off in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008 that triggered massive job losses and home foreclosures and a bitter debate over how the federal government should respond. Since that moment, references to the Gilded Age and invocations of a “Second Gilded Age” have become increasingly popular in public discourse. A quick search of the Lexis-Nexis database for the term Gilded Age shows 11 articles employing it in the 1970s, 76 in the 1980s, 184 in the 1990s, and 541 in the 2000s. And the trend shows no sign of abating as the period 2010-2012 already has generated 450 articles. Many books since 2008 now bear the phrase Gilded Age in their titles, such as Larry M. Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton, 2010), David Grusky and Tamar Kricheli-Katz, eds., The New Gilded Age: The Critical Inequality Debates of Our Time (Stanford, 2012); Katherine S. Newman and Elisabeth S. Jacobs, Who Cares?: Public Ambivalence and Government Activism from the New Deal to the Second Gilded Age (Princeton, 2010), Susan P. Crawford, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age (Yale, 2013); and Wendy Martin and Cecelia Tichi, eds., Best of Times, Worst of Times: Contemporary American Short Stories from the New Gilded Age (NYU Press, 2011).

one percentThis sudden return of Gilded Age to common American parlance reflects a keen awareness of the eerie similarities between the United States of today and that of the last third of the nineteenth century. The nation then and now was consumed with intense debates over wealth inequality, labor unions, immigration, terrorism, women’s rights, family values, money in politics, voter eligibility, Wall Street recklessness, political polarization and paralysis, religion vs. secularism, individualism vs. the common good, free market capitalism vs. regulation, wars of choice vs. diplomacy. If we take a closer look at just one of these issues, we learn that in 1890 the top 1% of Americans owned 51% of all wealth, while the lower 44% owned just 1.2%. Income taxes, inheritance taxes, and other measures adopted since the early 20th century reduced wealth disparity significantly by 1979 to 20.5%. But since 1980 the trend has shifted dramatically back toward increased wealth and income inequality. By 2010 the top 1% owned 35.4% of all wealth, leading to the sudden popularization of the pejorative phrase “the 1%” among progressive protesters like the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Twain history rhymes copyThose who claim that the United States has entered a Second Gilded Age are not invoking the tired and thoroughly misleading notion that “history repeats itself.” Instead, they are guided (knowingly or unknowingly) by a maxim offered by Mark Twain, the man who coined the phrase, Gilded Age back in 1873: “The past does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” It is the ways in which our times rhyme with the late nineteenth century that many Americans who possess a sense of history find so disturbing.

In this series of articles I will explore this rhyming between the First Gilded Age and the Second Gilded Age. History does not offer a specific map, formula, or blue print for dealing effectively with contemporary social, economic, and political challenges. Yet we study history in part because we believe it allows us to understand where we as a society have come from and why things—institutions, ideas, practices, customs, and power arrangements—are as they are. We believe these insights have the capacity to guide individuals and societies as they make the choices that will shape the future. “Trying to plan for the future without knowing the past,” Daniel Boorstin once quipped, “is like trying to plant cut flowers.” In the late nineteenth century the United States faced a host of vexing challenges regarding policies related to economic opportunity, democracy, citizenship, freedom, and human rights. Likewise, the United States in the early 21st century also faces a great many problems that remind us of that past Gilded Age. What choices the American people and their political leaders make in the coming years will, as they did in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, have a profound impact on the future vitality of their nation and its cherished values.