The industrialization of the United States led to new art and literature and new ideas about government’s role in society. Social Darwinists believed society developed through “survival of the fittest.” Other Americans thought steps needed to be taken to help the less fortunate.

Gilded Age Ideas

What was the main idea of Social Darwinism, and how did it compare with the idea of individualism?

In 1873 Mark Twain and Charles Warner wrote a novel entitled The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Historians later adopted the term and applied it to the era in American history that began about 1870 and ended around 1900. The era was in many ways a time of marvels. Amazing new inventions led to rapid industrial growth. Cities grew in size and people thronged the crowded streets. Wealthy entrepreneurs built spectacular mansions. Skyscrapers reached to the sky, and electric lights banished the darkness.

By calling this era the Gilded Age, Twain and Warner were sounding an alarm. Something is gilded if it is covered with gold on the outside but made of cheaper material inside. A gilded age might appear to sparkle, but critics pointed to corruption, poverty, crime, and great disparities in wealth between the rich and the poor.

Whether the era was golden or merely gilded, it was certainly a time of great cultural activity. Industrialism and urbanization altered the way Americans looked at themselves and their society, and these changes gave rise to new values, new art, and new entertainment.

The Idea of Individualism

One of the strongest beliefs of the era—and one that remains strong today—was the idea of individualism. Many Americans firmly believed that no matter how humble their origins, Americans could rise in society and go as far as their talents and commitment would take them. No one expressed the idea of individualism better than Horatio Alger, who wrote more than 100 “rags-to-riches” novels. In his books, a poor person goes to the big city and, through a combination of hard work and luck, becomes successful. Even though such dramatic jumps upward in social standing were not commonplace, Alger’s popular books convinced many young people that no matter how many obstacles they faced, success was possible.

Social Darwinism

Another powerful idea of the era was Social Darwinism. This philosophy, loosely derived from Charles Darwin’s theories, strongly reinforced the idea of individualism.

Herbert Spencer British philosopher Herbert Spencer applied Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection to human society. In his 1859 book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Darwin argued that plant and animal life had evolved over millions of years by a process he called natural selection. In this process, those species that cannot adapt to the environment in which they live gradually die out, while those that do adapt, thrive, and live on.

Spencer used this theory to argue that human society also evolved through competition and natural selection. He said that society became better because only the fittest people survived. Spencer and others, such as American scholar William Graham Sumner, became known as Social Darwinists and their ideas as Social Darwinism. “Survival of the fittest” became the catchphrase of their philosophy. Some industrial leaders used Social Darwinism to justify their support of laissez-faire capitalism. This economic doctrine opposed any government programs that interfered with business.

Darwinism and the Church Many devout Christians found Darwin’s conclusions offensive. They rejected the theory of evolution because they believed it contradicted the Bible’s account of creation. Some clergy, however, concluded that evolution might have been God’s way of creating the world. One of the most famous ministers of the era, Henry Ward Beecher, called himself a “Christian evolutionist.”

Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth Andrew Carnegie advocated a gentler version of Social Darwinism that he called the Gospel of Wealth. This philosophy held that wealthy Americans should engage in philanthropy, using their fortunes to create the conditions that would help people help themselves. Building schools and hospitals, for example, was better than giving handouts to the poor. Carnegie funded the creation of public libraries in cities across the nation because libraries provided the information people needed to get ahead in life.

"In bestowing charity, the main consideration should be to help those who will help themselves; to provide part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so; to give those who desire to rise the aids by which they may rise; to assist, but rarely or never to do all. Neither the individual nor the race is improved by almsgiving. Those worthy of assistance, except in rare cases, seldom require assistance. The really valuable men of the race never do, except in cases of accident or sudden change. . . . He is the only true reformer who is as careful and as anxious not to aid the unworthy as he is to aid the worthy, and, perhaps, even more so, for in almsgiving more injury is probably done by rewarding vice than by relieving virtue. . . ."

—Andrew Carnegie, from The Gospel of Wealth and Other Timely Essays, 1886

Carnegie’s ideas were widely embraced by the nation’s wealthy. The late 1800s was a time when many people made a great deal of money. But it was also an era of philanthropy when the wealthy gave away a great deal of money to improve American society and build up American culture. John D. Rockefeller founded the University of Chicago, and many universities, including Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Johns Hopkins were named for the wealthy businessmen who helped found them. All across the nation, museums of art, symphonies, and operas were funded by wealthy patrons.

The Rebirth of Reform


What methods and philosophies were developed for helping the urban poor?

The tremendous changes that industrialism and urbanization brought triggered a debate over how best to address society’s problems. Some Americans embraced the ideas of individualism and Social Darwinism. Others disagreed, arguing that society’s problems could be fixed only if Americans and their government began to take a more active role in regulating the economy and helping those in need.

Challenging Social Darwinism

In 1880 journalist Henry George published Progress and Poverty, a discussion of the American economy that quickly became a national best seller. George observed, “The present century has been marked by a prodigious increase in wealth-producing power.” This should, he asserted, have made poverty “a thing of the past.” Instead, he claimed, the “gulf between the employed and the employer is growing wider; social contrasts are becoming sharper.” In other words, laissez-faire economics was making society worse—not better.

Most economists now argue that George’s analysis was flawed. Industrialism did make some Americans very wealthy, but it also improved the standard of living for most others as well. At the time, however, Americans in the midst of poverty did not see improvement. George’s ideas spurred reformers to challenge Social Darwinism.

Lester Frank Ward In 1883 Lester Frank Ward published Dynamic Sociology, in which he argued that humans were different from animals because they had the ability to make plans to produce the future outcomes they desired. Ward’s ideas came to be known as Reform Darwinism. People, he insisted, had succeeded in the world because of their ability to cooperate. Government, he argued, could regulate the economy, cure poverty, and promote education more efficiently than competition in the marketplace could.

Looking Backward Writer Edward Bellamy promoted another alternative to Social Darwinism and laissez-faire economics. In 1888 he published Looking Backward, a novel about a man who falls asleep in 1887 and awakens in the year 2000 to find that the nation has become a perfect society with no crime, poverty, or politics. In this fictional society, the government owns all industry and shares the wealth equally with all Americans. Bellamy’s ideas were essentially a form of socialism.

Naturalism in Literature Criticism of industrial society also appeared in literature in a new style of writing known as naturalism. Naturalists challenged the idea of Social Darwinism by suggesting that some people failed in life simply because they were caught up in circumstances they could not control.

Among the most prominent naturalist writers were Stephen Crane, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser. Stephen Crane’s novel Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893) told the story of a girl’s descent into prostitution and death. Jack London’s tales of the Alaskan wilderness demonstrated the power of nature over civilization. Theodore Dreiser’s novels, such as Sister Carrie (1900), painted a world where people sinned without punishment and where the pursuit of wealth and power often destroyed their character.

Naturalist literature drew people's attention to the issues and problems facing American society as a result of rapid industrialization and urbanization, and issues such as poverty, violence, safety, disease, and isolation. The literature had a positive impact in that it encouraged readers to look at social problems. It encouraged some people to become reformers, and to try to help the less fortunate. But the literature also had a negative impact. By downplaying heroism and the ability of people to make a difference in their life, it discouraged people from taking action, and encouraged envy and resentment toward people of different social classes.

Naturalism also implicitly asked readers to consider whether individualism and laissez-faire was leading to the best possible society. So it was not surprising that readers of naturalist literature might conclude that the way to make things better was by government intervention. Whether that was a positive or negative impact of the literature depended on whether a person thought an increased government role in society and the economy was a good idea.

Helping the Urban Poor

The plight of the urban poor prompted some reformers to find new ways to help. The Social Gospel movement worked to better conditions in cities according to the biblical ideals of charity and justice. Washington Gladden, a minister, was an early advocate who popularized the movement in writings such as Applied Christianity (1887). Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minister from New York, became the leading voice in the Social Gospel movement. The Church, he argued, must “demand protection for the moral safety of the people.” The Social Gospel movement inspired many churches to build gyms, provide social programs and child care, and help the poor.

The Salvation Army and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) also combined faith and an interest in reform. The Salvation Army offered practical aid and religious counseling to the urban poor. The YMCA tried to help industrial workers and the urban poor by organizing Bible studies, citizenship training, and group activities. The YMCA also provided low-cost boarding houses for young men. The head of the Chicago YMCA, Dwight L. Moody, was a gifted preacher whose revival meetings drew thousands of people. Moody rejected both the Social Gospel movement and Social Darwinism. He believed the way to help the poor was not by providing them with services but by redeeming their souls and reforming their character.

The settlement house movement began as an offshoot of the Social Gospel movement. In the late 1800s, idealistic reformers—including many college-educated women—established settlement houses in poor, often heavily immigrant neighborhoods. The reformers lived in these settlement houses, which were community centers offering everything from medical care and English classes to kindergartens and recreational programs. Jane Addams opened Hull House in Chicago in 1889. Jewish reformer Lillian Wald founded the Henry Street Settlement in New York City. Both women were a powerful force in social work and the settlement house movement.

Public Education

As the United States became increasingly industrialized and urbanized, it needed more trained and educated workers. The number of public schools increased dramatically after the Civil War. The number of children attending school rose from 7,562,000 in 1870 to 15,503,000 in 1900. Public schools were often crucial to the success of immigrant children. At school they were taught English and learned about American history and culture, a process known as Americanization.

Schools also tried to instill discipline. Grammar schools divided students into grades and drilled them in punctuality, neatness, and efficiency—necessary habits for the workplace. Vocational education in high schools taught skills required in specific trades. However, children in cities had greater access to education than those in rural areas. Many African Americans also faced education inequalities. Some started their own schools, following the example of Booker T. Washington, who founded the Tuskegee Institute in 1881.

A Changing Culture


Why do you think artists and writers started portraying America more realistically?

The late 1800s was a period of great cultural change for writers and artists. It was also a time when many urban Americans took advantage of new forms of entertainment.

Realism in Art and Literature

A new movement in art and literature called realism began in the 1800s. Just as Darwin tried to explain the natural world scientifically, artists and writers tried to portray the world realistically. Realist artists did not generally choose heroic or historical topics. Nor did they try to idealize people as romantic artists had done. Instead they painted ordinary people doing ordinary things. Among the best known of the realist painters are John Singer Sargent and Thomas Eakins. Much of the work they did was portraiture—formal paintings in realistic detail of people posing for the artist. Eakins, however, was also known for paintings that depicted people in action. He painted men rowing, athletes playing baseball, a family out for a carriage ride, doctors performing surgery and scientists in action in their laboratories. The realist style captured many of the characteristics of the era such as clothing styles, social relationships, the differences between the social classes, and the way people looked doing ordinary things in life.

Writers also attempted to capture the world as they saw it. In several novels, William Dean Howells presented realistic descriptions of American life. For example, his novel The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) described the attempts of a self-made man to enter Boston society. Also an influential literary critic, Howells was the first to declare Mark Twain an incomparable American genius. Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, published his masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in 1884. In this novel, the title character and his friend Jim, who has escaped from slavery, float down the Mississippi River on a raft. Twain wrote in local dialect with a lively sense of humor. Through the innocent eyes of his characters who question right and wrong in American society as they encounter it, Twain gave readers a humorous yet critical account of racism, violence, and poverty in the nation.

Popular Culture

Popular culture changed considerably in the late 1800s. Industrialization improved the standard of living for many people, enabling them to spend money on entertainment and recreation. Increasingly, urban Americans divided their lives into separate units—that of work and that of home. People began “going out” to public entertainment.

In cities, saloons often outnumbered groceries. As a place for social gathering, saloons played a major role in the lives of male workers. Saloons offered drinks, free toilets, water for horses, and free newspapers for customers. They even offered the first “free lunch”: salty food that made patrons thirsty and eager to drink more. Saloons also served as political centers, and saloonkeepers were often key figures in political machines.

Working-class families and single adults could find entertainment at new amusement parks such as New York City’s Coney Island. Amusements such as water slides and railroad rides cost only a nickel or dime. People also began watching professional sports. Formed in 1869, the first professional baseball team was the Cincinnati Red Stockings. In 1903 the first official World Series was played between the Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Football gained in popularity and by the late 1800s had spread to public colleges.

As work became less strenuous, many people looked for activities involving physical exercise. Tennis, golf, and croquet became popular. In 1891 James Naismith, athletic director for a college in Massachusetts, invented a new indoor game called basketball.

Tin Pan Alley

People also enjoyed comic theater and music. Adapted from French theater, vaudeville took on an American flavor in the early 1880s with its hodgepodge of animal acts, singers, comedians, acrobats, and dancers. Like vaudeville, ragtime music echoed the hectic pace of city life. Its syncopated rhythms grew out of the music of riverside honky-tonks, saloon pianists, and banjo players, using the patterns of African American music. Scott Joplin, one of the most important African American ragtime composers, became known as the King of Ragtime. He wrote his most famous piece, “The Maple Leaf Rag,” in 1899.

From the early 1880s to the late 1930s, the music industry in America was centered in New York City. The part of the city where many music publishers and songwriters were located became known as Tin Pan Alley. The name is thought to have come from a sarcastic description of the sound of many pianos playing different ragtime songs all at once--that it sounded like tin pans banging together. Tin Pan Alley musicians and publishers made most of their money by selling sheet music. Very few people owned phonographs in the 1880s and 1890s, but many homes had pianos, banjos and other instruments, and people would play popular songs for themselves and their families. Musicians, known as pluggers, put on performances to advertise songs and get people to buy the sheet music.

The negative impact of Tin Pan Alley, especially in its early years, was that it also continued to promote racial stereotypes. Much of Tin Pan Alley's style and sound derived from African American songs and music but with themes and content that appealed to white Americans. A portion of the music published, especially in the 1880s and 1890s, included racial jokes and ideas that probably played a role in sustaining the racism of the era and the social separation of whites and African Americans.

Despite this, Tin Pan Alley's positive impact on America was much greater than its negative impact. It was largely responsible for the birth of the modern music industry and made possible the careers of such famous songwriters as Irving Berlin, George Cohan, Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Scott Joplin and many others. Some of the most popular songs of the era are still known today, including "Hello! Ma Baby (Hello Ma Ragtime Gal)," "Give My Regards to Broadway," and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Tin Pan Alley also played an important role in World War I, deliberately publishing music to help the morale of soldiers and people at home. Perhaps one of the best known songs from World War I is "Over There."

There are many words that may be new to you in this lesson such as evolution, individualism, philanthropy, and Americanization. When you see a new word, think about it. Do you already know something about it? Use what you know to help you understand the new word.

Reviewing Vocabulary

TEKS: 3C, 24B

Using Your Notes


Answering the Guiding Questions


TEKS: 24B, 26A, 26B, 26D


Writing Activity