Even though the United States had boomed in size in the decades since its founding, daily life for most Americans remained largely unchanged by 1860. Homes had no electricity or running water. People cooked with fire, read by candlelight, and rode in carriages or on horses. (Those traveling long distances would be lucky to board one of the brand-new railroads that had begun to crisscross the nation.) Slavery, though hotly contested, was still legal, and women’s legal identities were subsumed by their husband’s upon marriage under the system of coverture. Hardly anyone went to college, and most people lived out their relatively short lives within a few miles of where they were born.
By the time those born around the time of the Civil War—like social reformer Jane Addams, three-time presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan and their peers—came of age, nearly every aspect of their world had changed. Between the 1870s and the dawn of the 20th century, Americans witnessed revolutions in daily life, from what they wore to how they traveled to where they resided to how they spent their leisure time. As the so-called Gilded Age took shape, transformations in technology, culture and politics ushered in modern America, for better and for worse. Mark Twain, who coined the moniker “The Gilded Age” in his 1873 novel of the same name, used it to describe the era’s patina of splendor—gilded, after all, is not gold—and the shaky foundations undergirding industrialists’ vast accumulation of wealth.
“The Gilded Age,” a new HBO series created, written and produced by Julian Fellowes of “Downton Abbey” fame, dramatizes these tectonic changes from the perspectives of two fictional, dueling families: the van Rhijns and the Russells. Premiering January 24, the show highlights the tension between New York City’s old and new monied elite. “The important word is gilded,” Fellowes tells Entertainment Weekly. “... [T]hat tells us it was all about the surface. It was all about the look of things, making the right appearance, creating the right image.”
Christine Baranksi stars as Agnes van Rhijn, a wealthy widow who vies for control against new money arriviste Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon). Like other Manhattanites clinging to the past, Agnes values upholding the strong reputation burnished by her family duing the colonial era and being a good steward of her inherited wealth (even if not much of it is left). The upstart Russells, on the other hand, strong-armed their way into millions by ruthlessly taking advantage of competitors and the era’s lax regulations. When the show begins in 1882, the Russells, using the fortune made by family patriarch and railroad tycoon George (Morgan Spector), have just built a sprawling Fifth Avenue mansion. “Big enough to be splendid but not oppressively so,” in the words of the home’s architect, Stanford White, it stands directly across the street from the van Rhijns’ home. Everything about the Russells offends Agnes, leading her and her circle to conspire against their new neighbors.
Bertha intends to buy her way into the upper echelons of New York society, which was notoriously closed to newcomers. As old money tastemaker Ward McAllister (played in the show by Nathan Lane) famously observed in 1892, New York’s high society included only 400 rightful members—and those fortunate few intended to keep it that way.
Eager to join their ranks, Bertha and George spend ostentatiously, with little care for their neighbors’ traditions or tastes. The spending itself is the point. In 1899, sociologist Thorstein Veblen published The Theory of the Leisure Class, which popularized the phrase “conspicuous consumption” to describe the expenditures of people whose purchases fulfilled no material need but rather showcased wealth. In the premiere episode, the Russells host an open house with a lavish buffet, complete with lobsters, roast pig, towers of fruit and mouth-watering baked goods. The extravagant soiree is on par with feasts that took place regularly in actual Gilded Age New York.
Throughout the 1880s, for example, wealthy lawyer and freethought orator Robert G. Ingersoll, nicknamed the “Great Agnostic,” hosted fabulous Sunday “at homes” in a series of increasingly magnificent Fifth Avenue mansions. One house boasted a piano on all three floors, while another featured a rooftop theater with seating for 200. Each week, guests devoured feasts set on enormous banquet tables, danced until dawn, and listened to concerts performed by visiting European musicians. The grandest of all Gilded Age Fifth Avenue mansions was one constructed by steel titan Andrew Carnegie at the corner with 91st Street. Carnegie selected a spot north of most other residences so he would have ample room for a garden and a lawn. The three-and-a-half story building (now home to the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum) boasted 64 rooms, an elevator and central heating.
Though “The Gilded Age” is largely fictional, its characters’ experiences aptly reflect the reality of late 19th-century urban living. And no place better underscores Gilded Age wealth and inequality than New York City. In the 1880s and 1890s, city leaders extended rail lines and neighborhoods; improved infrastructure; installed underground electric and telegraph lines; built new parks; and erected the historic monuments that have since come to symbolize the city, including the Statue of Liberty, Grant’s Tomb and the Washington Square Arch (designed by architect White, who builds the Russells’ mansion in the show). But city planners’ aspirations often contrasted with the abject poverty that characterized life for the majority of New Yorkers. The construction of Central Park, for instance, involved displacing 1,600 lower-class residents and an entire African American community known as Seneca Village.
Debates about the ethics of wealth, poverty and labor animated public discourse. In 1886, economist Henry George ran for mayor of New York on the United Labor Party ticket and garnered unprecedented support for a third-party reformer. George’s popularity stemmed from his best-selling 1879 book Progress and Poverty, in which he lambasted economic inequality and corporate wealth. As an antidote, he proposed a land value tax on all private property, the vast majority of which was held by corporations and the uber-rich, so that corporate profits would be reinvested in the public good. He polled second in the 1886 mayoral race, ahead of Republican candidate Theodore Roosevelt. The theme of wealth inequality resonates especially today, when the top 1 percent of Americans hold more wealth than the entire middle class combined. According to Erica Armstrong Dunbar, the show’s historical consultant and co-executive producer, “there is a palpable connection between this show and 2022 and thinking about how wealth is achieved, how it is safeguarded, how it is inequitable, and ... who gets to live lives that are charmed, at least financially.”
Fans of “Downton Abbey” and its post-Edwardian England setting may expect “The Gilded Age” to provide a nuanced look at the upstairs-downstairs dynamics of wealthy households. But domestic service differed sharply in the U.S., in large part because of the intergenerational effects of slavery. Most domestic servants in the northeast were Irish immigrants or people who had formerly been enslaved and their descendants. Domestic service remained the most common, if least desirable, job for women of color until the mid-20th century. By 1900, one million women worked as domestic servants. Male and female servants alike absorbed the era’s myths about shoeshine boys who became millionaires—an archetype popularized in Horatio Alger’s best-selling Ragged Dick novels. In the 1880s and 1890s, says Dunbar, these servants experienced a transition in how they viewed their work. Being “in service” was no longer considered “a lifelong career”; instead, the historian notes, servants began to look around and wonder “why can’t I have a piece of this pie?”
As economic lines blurred, racial lines hardened. The Gilded Age witnessed the collapse of Reconstruction, the hardening of legal segregation and the rapid growth of the Ku Klux Klan. But as Dunbar points out, the post-Civil War era also gave rise to the Black elite and middle class—people “who really are ... absent from film and television” depictions of the period. “The Gilded Age” provides a vibrant portrait of an array of Black citizens’ experiences in New York. While most of the show’s characters are fictional, the series does feature a few actual historical figures, including journalist T. Thomas Fortune.
Fortune (played by Sullivan Jones) was born enslaved in Florida in 1856. He briefly enrolled at Howard University before moving in 1879 to New York City, where he became the most influential Black newspaperman of the era. As the editor of the New York Age, Fortune wielded his platform to fight racism, segregation and lynching. In 1887, he organized the National Afro-American League, a precursor to the NAACP, to defend Black communities against white mob violence. “By looking in particular at the Black elite of this time period,” Dunbar explains, the show “gives us an entry way into people who were one, maybe two generations removed from slavery ... and who [would soon confront] the very real issues of the color line.”
The promises and tensions of emerging modern life can be seen most vividly through the eyes of two invented characters: Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), Agnes’ poor niece who has come to stay with the van Rhijns, and Peggy (Denée Benton), a young Black writer who befriends Marian when the two women unexpectedly travel together from Pennsylvania to New York. (Fortune crosses paths with the van Rhijns when Peggy, who is hired as Agnes’ secretary, aspires to write for his newspaper.) The historical record contains few examples of true interracial friendships during the Gilded Age; it’s revelatory to see the young women’s relationship unfold as they join forces to pursue their dreams in the big city.
After the Civil War, colleges and universities faced with a greatly diminished number of tuition-paying young men began opening their doors to women, who also found jobs as teachers, secretaries and nurses. Because it was illegal for married women to formally work outside the home (such laws were only reversed in the mid-20th century), spinsterhood became an increasingly acceptable and appealing option. Many of the nation’s leading women, including suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony and Frances Willard, president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, remained single in order to devote themselves to their work. Out of necessity, most married Black women continued to work outside the home. The era’s most prominent Black women—such as Mary Church Terrell, founding president of the National Association of Colored Women, and Ida B. Wells, the journalist and anti-lynching activist—raised families of their own while maintaining successful careers and public lives.
In the show, Marian’s aunts (Ada, played by Cynthia Nixon, is a spinster who lives with Agnes) disapprove of her desire to work outside the home but are open to her volunteering for charity—as long as she stays within the social confines of Old New York. According to Dunbar, Gilded Age mothers and grandmothers grew up in a completely different time and “could not connect to ... the future” as it was unfolding for their daughters, granddaughters and nieces. Women of Marian and Peggy’s generation had a handful of role models; substantially more options than their mothers; and the historic opportunity to, in Dunbar’s words, “ask what is it that is actually going to take to make me happy.” As Peggy exuberantly proclaims to Marian, “For a New Yorker, anything is possible.”
Constants for women across both generations were the sexual double standard and the inequalities inherent in marriage. Young men were encouraged, then as now, to “sow their wild oats,” as George Russell hopes his son, Larry (Harry Richardson), will do on a weekend escapade in Newport, Rhode Island. Young women, in contrast, were expected to remain chaste until marriage or face dire, lifelong consequences. With limited access to divorce and few long-term career options, a woman’s most impactful decision remained whom to marry. As women’s rights leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued, traditional marriage was akin to “legalized prostitution.” So long as women could not be economically self-sufficient or attain divorce, according to Stanton, the difference between wives and prostitutes was one of degree, not kind.
Though “The Gilded Age” is a work of fiction, the creative team went to great lengths to ensure that the world created is true to the historical era. “The clothing that our actors are wearing, the carriages that they’re stepping into, the teacups that they are using, all of this is accurate,” says Dunbar.
The show’s interior scenes may appear dim to modern eyes. But before homes had electricity, interior scenes were dim. “We want viewers to feel as though they are in the 1880s,” Dunbar adds. In the nine-episode first season—filmed mostly in Troy, New York—viewers hear sheep bleat in Central Park, watch workers sweep away ceaselessly accumulating street dust and listen to the crackling of interior fires. Bertha Russell itches to get out of her corset, a mainstay of women’s fashion despite health and feminist objections, and viewers can almost feel the lushness of her many silk gowns. The next generation will soon refuse to wear corsets all together.
On the surface, the characters appear to be fighting over party invitations and fashion. In truth, however, they are struggling to determine who will shape modern America. The Gilded Age witnessed record inequality and modernization, but it was also a time when Americans began to join together to fight for reforms that would temper the power of corporations and shore up democracy, including limits on hourly labor, votes for women and civil rights for Black Americans. While “The Gilded Age” is meant to entertain, the show’s main themes resonate with today’s most pressing concerns. In addition to a great story, as Dunbar notes, the show provides viewers with the opportunity to think about and “wrestle with very real issues around distribution of wealth, around race and gender inequality.”