The period following the Civil War through the turn of the century is arguably the most dynamic 35-year stretch in American history. During this time span, the United States experienced a massive transition on several fronts. Commercial magnates steamrolled America from a rural, agricultural country into an urban, industrial colossus. Manifest destiners swept westward, completing an ocean-to-ocean majesty while virtually erasing America's continental frontier in the process. A government once determined to isolate itself from the rest of the world now reached abroad to become an international colonial power. Through it all, the United States fought no major war; no President of greatness emerged to provide extraordinary leadership; no single event stands alone as particularly representative of the era. Mark Twain called it the Gilded Age. On the surface, it glittered; beneath all the luster, however, problems were festering.
The changes impacted Americans everywhere. In the commercial Northeast, big business boomed. America's abundant natural resources, numerous technological advances, and generous pool of immigrant labor allowed industry to flourish. In fact, industry grew so out of hand that government regulation became necessary. Big business moguls like Andrew Carnegie, John Davison Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt accumulated tremendous fortunes in various industries such as steel, petroleum, and railroads. Extreme wealth allowed the industrial aristocracy to exert increasing influence in politics and society. Many businessmen became substantial patrons to colleges, libraries, and museums, but ironically, much of the wealth being passed out in the name of philanthropy was acquired through unethical and ruthless means!
Laborers responded to the growing power of business by joining together in unions to fight for better pay, fewer hours, and safer working conditions. In Baltimore in 1877, in Chicago in 1886 and 1894, and in Pittsburgh in 1892, beleaguered employees staged huge strikes to force management's hand. But even then, the workers had a difficult time effecting any changes on their behalf because the ever-increasing flow of immigrants provided companies with an ample supply of ready labor for factories and mills. In addition, the Supreme Court, working overtime to interpret many complicated cases regarding disagreements between business and labor, tended to rule in management's favor.
The cities immediately transformed the everyday lives of many Americans. Newcomers especially, but dwellers too, were awed by the office skyscrapers, electric streetcars, suspension bridges, department stores, and beautiful parks. New forms of recreation such as vaudeville, amusement parks, bicycle riding, boxing, and baseball attracted considerable attention. In time, the facilities and services provided by many municipalities simply could not keep up with the rapid population growth. Crime and filth abounded, the latter propagating outbreaks of serious epidemic illnesses. Some large cities, New York and San Francisco among them, suffered yet another problemnotoriously corrupt political bosses.
Changes during the late 1800s were not confined to the commercial Northeast. The wild and woolly West, as well, was kicking up its heels. More and more Indian land was being overtaken by homesteads, gold strikes, railroads, and cattle drives. Disputes over land led to bloody conflicts between Indians of the Great Plains and white settlers and soldiers. Sadly, the unchecked white encroachment eventually compromised much of the traditional culture of the Indians. Thanks to characters like Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, and Wyatt Earp (and the film industry decades later), places such as Dodge City, Kansas, and Deadwood, South Dakota, and Tombstone, Arizona, are legendary today. In the meantime, several pieces of America's continental puzzle between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean were officially defined and given names, bringing the number of Uncle Sam's states to 45 by the turn of the century.
The most painstaking change occurred in the South. The former Confederate states wallowed in the throes of Reconstruction after losing their beloved institution of slavery via the Civil War. While some southerners begrudgingly tried to adjust, others attempted every scheme imaginable to maintain black subservience. By 1877, political Reconstruction had been accomplished, but the northern-dominated Congress discovered that legislating the social aspects of Reconstruction was merely an exercise in futility. So while a pre-war working relationship among all states was resumed, Dixie maintained a unique character, often functioning as an entity if not separate from the North, then certainly joined only by contract. Many blacks left the South, either for the northern cities where more job opportunities existed or for the western expanse and its hope of increased racial equality. Those blacks who remained in the South had a new neighbor to deal with. His name was Jim Crow.