Monday, June 1, 2009

The Gilded Age in America

Different sources give a different date for the beginning of the era that became known as the Gilded Age. Some date it to the end of the Civil War in 1865, others up to a decade later in 1875. Given the trauma of Reconstruction, I would place it later rather than earlier, as the country was learning how to live together again, dealing with the new and strife-ridden equality of the former slaves, and the destruction of what had been a way of life, particularly in the South. Giving the country a decade to put the death of so many and so much behind them seems reasonable, no?

Though there is an argument to be made, also, for placing the beginning of this era at 1870, when the transcontinental railroard was completed, an achievement that changed the way the country could be traveled and ushered in the high-point of the industrial age in our country. It afforded goods as well as travel and changed lifestyles around the entire nation as people could more readily obtain goods, as well as news.

The end of the era is generally considered to be the turn of the century.

And in those thirty years the entire country changed. The lightbulb, the telephone and the Kodak camera were invented. Ellis Island opened, Standard Oil began operations, and Boss Tweed reigned in Manhattan.

The Gilded Age in New York City was a panorama. Desperate poverty lived cheek by jowl with ostentatious and previously unimagined wealth. What had been a small enclave of urban development in Manhattan boomed, and expanded, until the farms and rural enclaves on Manhattan Island disappeared to make way for hotels, department stores, Central Park and such areas as Madison Avenue, Little Italy and Harlem.

Women were at the forefront in the era. Having watched their beloved male relatives - brothers, husbands, sons, fathers - die in the war, having kept the home fires burning, they were ready to embrace the future and all it held for them. Suffragette movements, off-spring of the abolitionist movements began to grow. Other socially conscious movements that embraced the welfare of children - from the poor to the oppressed and the abused in the workplace - women took to the streets and the press and became a force to be reckoned with.

Meanwhile wealth also brought notoriety. Evelyn Nesbit, a nineteenth century Helen of Troy, was the lynch-pin in the murder of architect Stanford White. Mother Jones became a national figure in the labor movement. One of the most famous women of the era was only a figment of one man's imagination - Charles Gibson, artist, and his delectable creation, The Gibson Girl, with her pinched waist and luxurious bosom, and winsome femininity, became the epitome of American womanhood. Edith Wharton resided in Manhattan, and Annie Oakley visited - with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Factory workers toiled, and women died in childbirth. Immigrants swarmed into the country and the City was bursting at the seams with people of all races,
religions and walks of life.

From suffragettes and social workers to social climbers and socialites. From muckrakers to millionaires, the Gilded Age was a tumultuous time of upheaval and change, violence and genius.

What better backdrop for an historical romance novel? As men and women witnessed their country's re-birth as the nation poised on the brink of a new centruy. Where good and bad were neighbors and rich and poor rubbed elbows.

Rife with conflict, and drama, the age is a bounty for a writer seeking to both explore as well as entertain. Having known my great, great aunt Maude, and my great aunts Gertrude, Stella, Ruth and Mildred - all of whom lived through the time, and could tell many tales - ladies who lived in a classic Victorian house and whose photographs show smiling young women with hourglass figures. Like the British counterpart, the Victorian era, the Gilded Age saw the US on the cusp of the future.

I can't resist the Gilded Age How exciting to create my own charismatic characters within this framework!

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