Not Worth a Cent: The Coming of The Gilded Age

The idea behind the cartoon is, as I mention below, the fact that big business was “in bed” with government. In this cartoon, big business is represented by “the robber barons”, the name given to the tycoons of the railroad companies (and the businesses that made them possible, such as the steel business), depicted as over-bloated money bags, looking over the tiny mice of the senate. The robber barons figure heavily in Twain and Warner’s book The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873).

Photo Credit: The Bosses of the Senate cartoon, Joseph Ferdinand Keppler. First published in Puck, 23 January 1889, lithograph, colored: P. S. Burton/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100 1923)


“‘I wasn’t worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two millions of dollars.’” (Twain and Warner, Location 2837)


It seems that various historical eras in American history are making a comeback, at least in film and TV. A few years ago there was the Roaring Twenties with the revitalization of a new film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. And only this week, there was a story about the creator of Downton Abbey heading for one of America’s most vibrant periods in history with a mini-series The Gilded Age.

A BBCAmerica article calls this series “the next best thing” to Downton Abbey but in reality, the Gilded Age was quite different from the era and locale covered by Downton Abbey. There is some dispute about what constitutes the time frame of the Gilded Age. Most historians and scholars agree that it began in the 1870’s but some consider the mid-1890’s the end of the era while others push the end all the way to 1900. For my purposes, because the new century brought about the Progressive Era which served as a sort of backlash to some of the excesses and social and political issues brought about in the Gilded Age, I prefer to consider the stopping point as more the mid-1890’s. The Gilded Age was also much more of an American phenomena than it was a British one, where Downton Abbey takes place.

The reason why many agree the era began in the mid-1870’s is because it was the publication of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today in 1873 that coined the term that has stuck to this era. With both Twain and Warner’s fictional witty style, the title was not meant to create a label for an era but was meant to be tongue-in-cheek and wildly accurate. As Ben Tarnoff, in his book The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature points out, the title “ [suggests] a thin layer of prosperity [that disguises] a deeper decay” (pg. 228). With sharp eyes and sardonic humor, Twain (who idea it was to write the book and took on Warner as a co-author) watched what was going on around him and used it as fodder for his fiction. The result is “a novel about contemporary America [that draws] a bleakly funny portrait of the country as a gambler’s paradise populated by knaves and fools and sycophants” (Tarnoff, pg. 228).

And what was going on in America was pretty dismal even if, in the context of the time, understandable. When Twain and Warner published their book in 1873, American had just gone through a rather heavy recession that ended in the Panic of 1873, considered the first worldwide financial panic. Subsequently, Americans were determined to bounce back financially and politically with full force to show the strength of the United States against other global giants. But since finance and politics are, let’s face it, inherently dirty, many used dirty methods to do it. Indeed, “[n]early every day the papers carried reports of wide-spread corruption, from the endless scandals of Ulysses S. Grant’s sleazy administration in Washington to the thuggery of Boss Tweed’s Tammany machine in New York” (Tarnoff, pg. 288). Money and commercial interests ruled. And then, just as now, big business was in bed with government, as “[p]oliticians bought elections, stole taxpayer dollars, and cut backroom deals with plutocrats” (Tarnoff, pg. 228). In an effort to encourage the kind of maturity and development that could rival European markets, American became, as the saying goes, too big for its britches.

This painting represents the kind of gaudy glitter and extravagance that was common with the very rich during the Gilded Age, especially when they entertained with large dinner parties and balls.

Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Hofball in Wien. Aquarell, Wilhelm Gause, 1900, Historisches Museum de Stadt Wien: Andrew0921/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old)

The Gilded Age is also notorious for having established the kind of gaudy, show-offish wealth that the highly privileged displayed then in America. These shady dealing made millionaires out of many people and sometimes the most unlikely ones (a notorious example is Simon Rosedale in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth – a rather unpolished, seedy character whose rags-to-riches wealth made him an unavoidable parasite in the New York social circle in which the protagonist Lily Bart moves). In addition, “[t]he Panic of 1873 had produced a long depression, sharpening the class antagonisms of the Gilded Age” (Tarnoff, pg. 245). Subsequently, the very rich became very extravagant, sometimes ridiculously so, displaying their wealth and privilege even in the face of growing poverty and working class resentments that would explode into the unions and reforms of The Progressive Era.

Twain and Warner take some of these Gilded Age stereotypes and create colorful characters of them. The most colorful of them all is Colonel Sellers. Drawn from real life, a relative of Twain’s mother, Sellers is “a frontier hustler forever on the verge of getting rich” (Tarnoff, pg. 233). But a more insightful character in the book is Phillip Sterling, an upper-class young man who has stepped out in the world to make his fortune. Inherently honest, Sterling comes up against the graft and corruption of the railroads and, later, politics. He observes:

“[H]e was born into a time when all young mean of his age caught the fever of speculation and expected to get on in the world by the omission of some of the regular processes which have been appointed from the old.” (Twain and Dudley Warren, location 5476-5480)

In other words, Sterling is the 19th century answer to the Entitlement Generation.

Needless to say, Sterling’s prosperity is slow in coming. And yet, keeping in tune with the optimism of the age, he is anything but discouraged because, in this era of growth, he recognizes that anything is possible:

“He might [be] a ‘railroad man,’ or a politician, or a land speculator, or one of those mysterious people who travel free on all railroads and steamboats, and are continually crossing and recrossing the Atlantic, driven day and night about nobody knows what, and make a great deal of money by so doing.” (Twain and Dudley Warren, location 5480-5484)

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today did not do well. An important critic of the day, author William Dean Howells, left off reviewing it but “[p]rivately… called the novel ‘dyspeptic,’ blaming it for failing to digest ‘the crude material with which it is fed’” (Tarnoff, pg. 233). It’s interesting to note Howells’ criticism refers more to the style and scope of the work (at over six hundred pages, the narrative does tend to ramble and go off on tangents) rather than the intent (a satire of the age) of the book. Yet, it is a seminal work even if not a particular successful one or favored one among the Twain canon (personally, I liked the book much more than Twain’s more famous works). As Tarnoff points out, “[The book] gave a name to the postwar era whose financial fragility had just been exposed …” (pg. 228). For us, in the modern age, it gives a starting point from which we can examine the financial, social, and political history of the United States and perhaps see the roots of it in our own era.

Works Cited

Tarnoff, Ben. The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature. The Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014. Kindle digital file.

Twain, Mark and Warner, Charles Dudley. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Project Gutenberg, 2006 (original publication date: 1873). Kindle digital file.

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