H-SHGAPE Question of the Week: Still the "Gilded Age" and the "Progressive Era"?

Jeremy Young's picture

Welcome to H-SHGAPE's Question of the Week! Each Wednesday, the list editors will ask a question about the Gilded Age and Progressive Era that we hope will provoke lively discussion. We encourage you to share your thoughts by typing in the "Post a Reply" box below the original post, or, if you're getting this by email, by clicking on the "Read More or Reply" link. If you'd like to submit a question to be asked in a future week, please contact the H-SHGAPE Editor-In-Chief, Jeremy C. Young, at jeremy.young@dixie.edu. This week's question:


Are the terms "Gilded Age" and "Progressive Era" still useful to describe the period from Reconstruction to World War I, or are they outdated? If the latter, what terms should we use instead? Why don't more emerging scholars of this period identify with these terms?

I use Rebecca Edwards' book in my 300-level course, at least partly because I like her description of the era as the Long Progressive Era.

Dave Hochfelder
University at Albany, SUNY

I would not go so far as to say that the terms "Gilded Age" and "Progressive Era" are outdated, but I think that it is more appropriate to characterize the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as The Long Progressive Era. As brilliantly demonstrated by Rebecca Edwards in her monograph New Spirits, the decades that are typically associated with the Gilded Age featured several progressive developments. For example, the Knights of Labor emerged as a formidable force during the 1870s and early 1880s. Despite its rapid decline, the Knights of Labor nevertheless laid the foundation for future labor activism. Similarly, the 1880s witnessed the rise of farmers alliances as well as the populist movement, both of which were precursors to the Progressive politics of the turn of the twentieth century. While it is true that most progressive legislation (and all of the Progressive constitutional amendments) passed during the traditional Progressive Era years (1890s - 1910s), grassroots progressivism began in earnest during the Gilded Age, which is why I prefer to refer to the GAPE as The Long Progressive Era.

The period 1877-1920 could be called The Age of Reform as Richard Hofstadter's calls it.Start with Munn v. Illinois and the Railroad Strike of 1877, Continue with Haymarket, the Knights of Labor, the Mugwumps,and the Farmers' Alliances. OntoPopulism,
the Homestead and Pullman Strikes, and the Election of 1896. Enter the 20th century with TR's Ascendancy , the Muckrakers, Debs and Socialism , the IWW and the Bread and Roses Strike, the New Nationalism , The Election of 1912( The Progressive Harvest),The 16th and 17th Amendments, the Child Labor and Women Suffrage movements, La Follette and the questioning of World War 1, and ending with the Chcago Race Riot , the Red Scare, Prohibition,Versailes, and the"Return to Normalcy' election of 1920 .Another defining moment for the decline of the Age of Reform might be the end of immigration through the use of quotas.
Bruce Cohen
Worcester State University

Dear All, 

This is an interesting question, although I think it can be turned on its head, and in two different ways. First, perhaps the terms being outdated is precisely their appeal. The fact that people at the time identified the age as gilded and then themselves as progressive is important. Second, the same question could be asked about Reconstruction and the First World War. If we find the terms "Gilded Age" and "Progressive Era" dated, why don't we find the other two to be likewise? "Reconstruction" and "World War One" are both periods indexed to violent conflict and war, whereas "Gilded Age" and "Progressive Era" are both about social and economic change (I know this isn't the most nuanced summary, but I hope you see my point). Are we saying that one approach to periodization is intrinsically more enduring than the other? 

Kind Regards, 

David Prior
Assistant Professor of History
University of New Mexico1

Good points David. I concur. The terms hold up well as both descriptive and prescriptive. Had time and historiography uncovered some significant interpretive flaw that would be one thing, but as you note the terms remain authentic to their period and do not exclude additional descriptors. So by golly, lets keep 'em.
Roger Davis
University of Nebraska at Kearney

I have to disagree that the last generation of scholarship has not uncovered "some significant interpretive flaw" in the the concept of the Gilded Age. Despite Twain's book title, the use of "Gilded Age" as a blanket label for the late nineteenth century, it did not really take off until much later as the broad-brush term to describe the period. In the popular imagination the "Gilded Age" is the first part of a moralistic story; Gilded Age bad, Progressive Era good, and this is a construct created in the early twentieth century by observers who were telling a story about themselves. Progressives looked back on the late nineteenth century and dismissed it as stagnant and hollow, and described how they conquered the intertwined evils of political parties and big business. But this story, as Rebecca Edwards has argued and Richard John's recent review of Richard White's Oxford Series volume suggests, papers over interesting complexities about the country in an era of transition. Another example is the issue of political corruption, which the Gilded Age gets saddled with. Mark Summers has shown that the 1850s faced equal amounts and types of self-dealing and conflicts of interests as came after the Civil War, yet the Gilded Age is considered a special period for corruption. Charles Calhoun's work on the the Republican Party and its political economic policies is a useful corrective to a treatment that sees nothing but greedy party hacks.

It is actually really interesting to note the extent to which our narratives of the Gilded Age have been crafted by the same folks who perpetuated the anti-Republican narrative of Reconstruction. Take a look at Josephson's Politicos and note how much of his criticisms of the Republican Party of the late nineteenth century is merely an extension of Dunning School critiques of the party. Reconstruction has been re-written dramatically in the past half century, yet our dominant story of the Gilded Age seems impenetrable to revisionist scholarship. Rather than trying to change the connotation of the labels, it might be best to start by ditching the labels and letting a new generation of scholarship point us towards a label and narrative that is not bogged down by the categories set during the early twentieth century.

Daniel Holt
Assistant Historian
Senate Historical Office