History of New York State/Gilded Age New York State

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Introduction to the Gilded Age[edit]

"Petit Chateau" Vanderbilt Mansion at 660 Fifth Avenue. It was built in 1882 and served as an influential example for other Gilded Age mansions, while also demonstrating the visual outpouring of wealth.

In the United States the Gilded Age spanned from the 1870s until the dawn of the twentieth century. The term “Gilded Age” was coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, as a contemporaneous criticism of the hidden inequality of the age. It was a comment on the splendor and gold harnessed by financial moguls of the time carefully disguising the social problems plaguing the United States. Mark Twain came to epitomize the era when he declared that "the chief end of man was --to get rich. In what way? dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must.” This demonstrated the defining features of the era. Americans who became wealthy celebrated in ostentatious ways, never before seen, choosing to spend their leisure hours at the New York opera or theater. Increased industrialization especially in New York brought with it the development of new inventions and an indulgent commercial society.

A New York City Slum, circa 1890.

However in sharp contrast to the gold and glitter of the social elite, most Americans lived in the shadow of poverty. Foreign and domestic immigration into urban areas caused dissension among middle and working class citizens, culminating in violent strikes, riots and an increase in crime and poverty. The Gilded Age was an era of paradoxes,for while the rich wore diamonds, many wore rags.

Electricity in New York[edit]

Thomas Edison (1847-1931)

Rapid industrialization in the Gilded Age brought with it the opportunity for Americans to make their fortune. Some of the wealthiest men in history made their fortunes during the economic boom of the Gilded Age, including such notable figures as J.P. Morgan, William Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller. Financial moguls J.P. Morgan, and William Vanderbilt with their increased wealth, invested in new technologies and became financial backers for one of the most important developments of the Gilded Age, Thomas Edison's incandescent light bulb. Edison's creation of an incandescent light bulb in 1879, was revolutionary as it had a carbon filament that burned for forty hours. This development made the incandescent bulb more effective and efficient than earlier forms of lighting. Arc lighting, the precursor to the incandescent bulb, first used in the Paris Opera House in 1878 was unreliable and only advantageous in large indoor spaces and outdoors. The catalyst for the incandescent bulb was a desire for electrical generation for use in private homes and businesses. This desire found an audience in New York City, as wealthy businessmen participated in the ever increasing commercial industry, and electricity provided an opportunity for a new display of wealth and power.

In this quest Thomas Edison, dawned the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” played a vital role as he sought to create a practical energy system that would focus on distribution and sustained illumination. Edison first developed a working model of an energy distribution system at the Menlo Park laboratory, and in 1880 he moved his operation for practical use to Pearl Street, in New York City. A new investor owned company entitled the Edison Illuminating Company was created in order to produce a commercial and economic power distribution center and system. The Pearl Street Station in Lower Manhattan was the first commercial electric system. When the station was switched on for the very first time on September 4, 1882 it powered not only homes but businesses as well. The square mile south of Fulton Street, lit up by the Pearl Street Station, was home to the increasingly important financial district of New York City, and in a demonstration of wealth and prestige, first provided power to the investment banking firm Drexel, Morgan & Company, owned by financier J.P. Morgan. In addition, the Pearl Street Station provided power to manufacturing and banking houses in the area and such notable businesses as the New York Stock Exchange, the New York Times, and the New York Herald. The success of the Pearl Street system in Manhattan became the prototype for subsequent electrical distribution centers that would become prevalent throughout the United States in the twentieth century.

An artist's rendering of the Pearl Street Station (1882-1890)

The example of the Pearl Street electrical system dramatically altered the city of New York. Electricity soon overtook gas, almost entirely replacing the gas system in New York by 1892. Gas had lit the homes of New Yorkers beginning in 1825, but as electricity entered the city, city-employed lamplighters were no longer needed, and factory workers in industries such as oil lamp and candle manufacturing were displaced. This reaction caused many working class men to lose their jobs and search for security by forming new working class unions. However, electric light offered a cheaper and safer alternative to the system of gas lighting. Gas lighting created smoke that causes health problems as well as damaged walls, paintings, and other valuables, a tragedy for the wealthy that placed great pride in their accumulation of valuable possessions. The demonstration of the Pearl Street Station in New York, with its large complex city landmass and equally large population, proved to investors and the population of the United States that incandescent lighting was a dependable form of energy, which could be adapted to fit other cities. The success of the Pearl Street Station began the electrification process in the United States. Yet, the success of electricity in New York created larger distinctions between the wealthy and working classes. Initially, electricity was expensive and so was adopted into the homes of the wealthy as an ostentatious display of their status within society, while the working classes looked for new forms of job security in order that they too could take part in the sweeping new improvements of the late nineteenth century.

The Working Class And Unions In New York[edit]

By the time of the Gilded Age, New York had more or less completed its transformation from an agricultural society to a flourishing industrial economy. Rapid industrialization in this era had wide and far-reaching effects as it completely altered the lives of the working class. The Gilded Age saw some attempts at collective action through unions. Unions were aiming at getting better wages and working conditions for members of the working class. These failed in general, and as a result the ‘Gilded Age’ was anything but that for those part of the working class.

EW Bliss Co munitions factory DUMBO Brooklyn New York 1884

For the most part, the quality of life the working class had during this era was quite poor. Industrialization came about quickly, and it took a long time for legislation to be passed that even attempted to solve some of its problems. The creation and development of machinery led to a high demand for unskilled labour, making workers expendable. This drastically reduced bargaining power with employers, resulting in the workers having little control over their wages and working conditions. Exasperating the situation was the introduction of new immigrants into the economy, as immigrants from Ellis Island flooded the job market. These newly arrived immigrants joined the ranks of the working class, creating an even larger pool of labourers.

Despite the awful conditions, attempts to radically change the system were ultimately unsuccessful. Reforms generally resulted in modest or no gains, and although social revolution was discussed at times, it never came to fruition. There was, however, a brief period of optimism for labour unions from 1885-1888. This was known as ‘The Great Upheaval’, a resurgence in unionism across the United States, and it was present in New York as well. However, this movement was more about ideals, and as a result it accomplished very little social change. Improving the lives of the working class met with many obstacles. The government and upper classes were generally quite hostile to any kind of unionism among the workers. Strikes and political movements were ineffective during the Gilded Age, chiefly because of brutal methods used by employers and, occasionally, the government, which crushed labour movements in their infancy.

Eventually minimal reform bills were passed, as members of the Senate and Assembly became more interested in the votes of the working class. Legislation that established factory inspectors, limited the maximum workday to 12 hours, and banned child labour under the age of 13 were passed in 1886. Additionally, in 1887 a Board of Arbitration for New York was instituted in order to settle disagreements between employers and their employees. While it should be noted that most of these laws did little at first to change the reality of the working classes, they were an important first step in combating the rapid effects of industrialization and increased immigration.

Immigration and Ellis Island[edit]

Located in Upper New York Bay near the southern tip of Manhattan, Ellis Island, during the Gilded Age welcomed the arrival of millions of immigrants. The island began at 3.3 acres, but by 1890 through the use of landfills it was increased to its current size of 27.5 acres. The increase in size was due to the flood immigrants arriving in the United States.

Ellis Island Video

The Immigration Act of 1891 allowed the government to take control of regulating immigration movement into the United states. Ellis Island was not the first immigration station in the United States, however it was the first federal immigration station. Ellis Island station opened on the first of January in 1892, and it cost the government about $75,000 to construct. It has been estimated that twelve million people made their way through the immigration processing at Ellis Island by the time it closed.

Around the 1900's the majority of the immigrants who moved to the United States were of Irish, Russian Jewish or Italian descent. Prior to 1880, there were only approximately 12,000 individuals of Italian descent in the United States, however it is estimated that after the majority of immigration took place at Ellis Island this number increased to almost 350,000. The number of Russian Jewish immigrants in this same time period grew at an even larger rate; beginning with 14,000 and increasing to a little over 480,000 individuals.

The main purpose of Ellis Island was to welcome and process new immigrants and the main immigration building was opened in December of 1900 for this explicit purpose. Yet, before the construction of this building was complete, a building known as "Castle Garden" was used to process immigrants and approximately eight million people were welcomed into the United States at this location.

Immigration Process[edit]

Immigrant Children at Ellis Island

The most likely way for an individual to arrive onto Ellis Island for immigration processing was on a steamboat. The most common steamboat companies at the time were: White Star, Red Star, Cunard and Hamburg-America. If an immigrant was a passenger in first or second class they were given special privileges. These passengers were not required to undergo the inspection that took place on Ellis Island. Instead they were allowed a cursory inspection aboard the steamboat. The steamboat would then dock at a pier near Ellis Island were the first and second class passengers were allowed to directly enter the United States. The only way these first and second class citizens were required to go through the immigration process on the island was if they had legal problems or if they were sick. The third class and steerage passengers were transported to Ellis Island by ferry in order to begin the immigration processing. For the majority of passengers who were being processed on the island it took approximately three to five hours in order to be allowed as residence in the United States. However there was a small percent that were required to stay much longer and this is how the island earned its name "Island of Tears".

Job Prospects[edit]

Ellis Island's main attraction was the job prospects it offered to the public. One individual who took advantage of this prospect was Harvey Snider, who worked as a United States Immigrant Inspector. Snider was one of many Americans who went to Ellis Island looking for work. He rose up in the ranks to eventually become chief inspector of the Night Division. His job entailed doing a large amount of paperwork, maintaining files on immigrants and passenger manifests of newly arriving immigrants. Even though his job was very time consuming, he still took it upon himself to help out the newly arriving masses by doing small things, such as carrying their luggage.

Policing and Crime in New York[edit]

The paradoxes of the Gilded Age had created tensions among different classes and races of people, resulting in an increase of crime. The period between 1866-1900 saw the growth and development in both policing and crime. The policing model of New York had been developed throughout the Gilded Age and proven successful by the 1900s. The crime ridden slum, known as Five Points garnered the attention of police, as crime became prevalent in this area at an unprecedented level. Early forms of organized crime were developed and refined in this period, culminating in the 1920s proliferation of gangs and gangsters.

1871 Hardy Map of New York City Police Departments showing wards and police precincts

Policing in America with respect to patrols and the prevention and detection of crime originated in the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century iterations of the policing model took its form from London adaptations of policing. After much debate and in response to high crime rates in New York, the city settled and developed a policing model in 1845 resembling London's Met which had been created in 1829. In 1870 when the control of New York City's police shifted from state to city control, the New York City Municipal Police became the New York Metropolitan Police. The New York City police model included both a day and night shift. As well as consisting of large patrolling units, usually made up of about 800 men, who could arrest without a warrant. This model proved effective and many other large American cities developed a model similar to that of New York's. It is interesting to note that in the present day, London has looked to remodel it's police force based on the New York Police Department.

As the years moved forward, many Americans became skeptical of police forces, arguing they would be detrimental to the ideals of freedom and democracy. Mass migration to New York City made it the epicenter of crime and poverty. In the 1830s, an economic depression had swept through most of America, and this decade was marked in the city of New York with mass riots, fire and an increase in disorder and crime. Citizens began to feel that it would be necessary to have better law enforcement, as they hadn't felt safe in the 1830's, when policing was largely ineffective. For them to feel safe and secure the foundation of a police force was required. Once established, this system was effective for a short time. Eventually, the New York Police lost its effectiveness in controlling an outbreak of crime due to the massive amount of immigration from the 1850s and onward. From 1860-1870 there were over 32,000 arrests made in New York for petty larceny and 40,000 arrests on charges of assault and battery.

View of fight between two gangs, the "Dead Rabbits" and the "Bowery Boys" in the Sixth Ward, New York City.


Many immigrants flooded towards the area in New York called Five Points. This slum exemplified the division between the poor and the rich. Originally, Irish immigrants formed gangs and held power over the streets, and competed with Jewish and Italian immigrants who formed their own strong gangs. The most important gangs in New York were the Dead Rabbits, the Bowery Boys, the Wyhos, Five Pointers, Eastman gang, Day Break Boys and the Forty Thieves. These gangs plagued the streets of New York, and for many reasons caused the formation of the police department. Criminals often found greater protection in this area because police would not intervene there, either because of corruption with the department or lack of police power to stop these gangs.

Map of Five Points, circa 1911.

The main gangs that surfaced in the mid to late nineteenth century were the Five Points gang and their rivals the Eastman gang. The leader of the Five Points gang was an Italian immigrant named Paolo Antonio Vaccarelli, or Paul Kelly. The Five Points gang was one of the most influential street gang on modern organized crime. Many members of the gang become mob bosses and prominent members of organized crime like Al Capone, John Torrio and Charles "Lucky" Luciano. The rivalry between the Eastman gang continued and proved to be a bloody and violent one. Citizens were so enraged by the warfare that took place on the streets that many upper class men attempted to start vigilante groups in response. The police eventually stepped in and threatened to stop giving the gangs political protection. It all culminated in a boxing match between Paul Kelly and Monk Eastman leader of the Eastman gang to see who would gain the territory. The match lasted two hours and ended in a draw. In 1904, Eastman was arrested in a failed robbery attempt, knocked out by a police officer and was sentenced to ten years in prison. His successor died in 1908, and that marked the decline of the Eastman gang. Eastman came out of prison and entered military service and for his patriotism, he was rewarded. Eventually during the prohibition in 1920, he was shot and killed. Paul Kelly survived several hit attempts against his life by his lieutenants and died of unnatural causes in 1936.

Since its formation the Police department in New York deterred crime more successfully than it had previously had done. However, it could not stop the massive crime wave that erupted in New York due to the Five Points area. Eventually corruption made it ineffective, and not until the prohibition era did it become effective in deterring crime. The crime element flourished in the period 1866-1900. All of the Five Point gangs, like the neighborhoods were eventually paved over and replaced.

The Role of Horses in Cities[edit]

The nineteenth-century city sparked the climax of human use of horse power. Throughout the nineteenth century horses aided humans in establishing large urban centers. Horses too benefited from their new found utilization. Although the tasks horses performed were demanding at times, they were rewarded by being well stabled, well fed, and protected from cruelty. The horse population boomed (increasing by 51% from 1850-605), and evidence suggests that horses living in these urban centers tended to be larger and lived longer than other livestock. Together, horses and humans created a partnership which allowed both parties to evolve into what they are today.

Public Transportation[edit]

Nineteenth century horse-drawn omnibus on 5th Avenue

Horse-drawn omnibus and horse railways are widely credited for dramatically changing American cities and allowing for rapid geographic expansion. Although these modes of transportation were excellent for transporting the masses from one urban city to the other, they were not ideal for inner city travel. Due to the size of the transport (12 to 14 passengers), horses could only manage five to eight miles per hour and could only cover short distances. Cleanliness was also an issue; in New York City roughly 175,000 horses operated daily, and each produced close to 24 pounds of manure and quarts of urine every day. Evidence also suggests that horses used for these large modes of transport were overworked, and often did not live past two and a half years of work, creating an estimated 15,000 horse carcasses in the city of New York City every year. In order to solve these mass-transport issues, New York City introduced elevated railroads and cable cars, and began using smaller forms of horse drawn-transit such as the hackney, buggy, two-wheeled carriage, and heavy carriage.

Hackney carriages were an important element of public transportation. These were hired carriages which ranged in various sizes. The term “hackney” used to be attributed to the typical riding or carriage horse, however the term was later skewed to mean a carriage for hire. Hackneys, also often called “hacks” came in two main forms of carriages: the broughams (designed for large transport) and the cabriolets (small, two wheeled carriages). The smaller, sleeker cabriolet became the more popular of these two carriages throughout large urban cities. The cost to hire a hack was quite high- in New York City the fare was $1 (the cost of other modes of public transportation ranged from $0.03-$0.10), and this fare increased based on the number of passengers and the distance traveled. Due to the high fare, hacks became a popular mode of luxury transportation that only the wealthy could afford.

Buggies were often popular modes of transportation amongst ladies, the elderly, and physicians. Buggies were light, mid sized coaches with four wheels and a top. They seated one or two people, and were drawn by one or two horses. Both imported and domestic buggies were available.

C. T. Conover and S. L. Crawford in horse and carriage on 5th Avenue between Cherry and Columbia Streets, ca. 1889

Light bodied two-wheeled carriages were also available. They came in a variety of names and styles. One popular style known as a calash (also known as a cart) which featured a removable folding hood and ran effectively on low wheels. These carriages often ranged from $39.50-$45. Sulkies,road carts designed for speed, were another popular model. These were much more affordable, typically ranging in price from $9-$29.

Heavy carriages were available in various styles which include, but was not limited to, the open buggy or wagon, the barouche, and the brougham (the large transport version of a hackney). An open buggy or wagon closely resembled buggies without tops, costing $22-$50. The barouche was a large four wheeled carriage which featured a folding cover which only extended over the two rear seats. It was not equipped with a side covering, so although the folding cover may protect occupants from light wind or rain, the it would not have been equipped for severe weather. The barouche was often out of the price range for most Americans, selling for $1550 or more in New York City markets. The brougham was another elite style of carriage, and much like the barouche it was out of the price range of most Americans. It was designed to have a closed boxy frame, and came in one and two seat models which could carry two and four passengers. The driver was seated on the outside of the carriage.

Horses as an Economic Expansion[edit]

Humans developed a reliance upon horses for transportation of people and goods. As a result horse breeding became an important part of industrial production. Breeders began producing horses with specific characteristics and temperaments which met the requirements for specific markets. Horses not only functioned as a commodity to breeders, but also as consumers. Horses developed a market for hay and oats, and manufactured goods such as harnesses, blankets, and shoes. This created jobs and income for farmers, veterinarians, blacksmiths, stable hands, and more. Finally, the dependence on horses for transportation also created a demand for properly constructed streets provided by the government of urban centers.