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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Topic: MemoryTopic: ProgressTopic: PeopleTopic: PowerTopic: Empire
Topic: Progress: The Meaning of the Machine
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: Progress
Text 1. Memory and Machines
Text 2. Brooklyn Bridge
Text 3. Human Machines
Text 4. Christine Frederick
Text 5. Thomas Eakins
Text 6. Thomas Edison
Text 7. Wealth and Weightlessness
Text 8. Southern Statis
Text 9. The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago

Timeline: 1865-1913


Resource Menu

Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did Americans of this period define progress?
  •  What did progress mean to them?
Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Bridge, 1898

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1.  Memory and Machines
- Walt Whitman, "Song of the Exposition," poem, 1881
- Machinery Hall, The Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, 1876 (online exhibition)

The first section of this toolbox explored two images that dominated American culture during this period, the Civil War and nature. To those images we now add a third, the machine, material progress embodied in steel. Machines, the skills and values necessary to make and use them, and the changes they wrought were means by which Americans could put the War behind them and find unity once again. Whitman's "Song of the Exposition" is one of the most vigorous expressions of this idea. Whitman recited the poem at the opening of an industrial fair in New York City in 1871 and published it that same year under the title "After All Not to Create Only." Five years later he applied it to the Philadelphia Centennial and re-titled it. He made final revisions in 1881, and that is the version provided here. The poem would be a rich text for a seminar, for it addresses many of the major themes of this period: Civil War memory, the presence of immigrants in the nation, the status of workingmen, the balance between the man-made and the natural in the definition of America, and the United States as an emerging world power.

The Free Library of Philadelphia's web version of the Centennial Exhibition provides superb photographs and explanations of the buildings and exhibits visitors saw at the nation's 100th birthday party. Especially impressive is the magnificent photo of the Corliss engine, the fifty-six ton behemoth in Machinery Hall that dominated the event. 10 pages total.

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2.  Brooklyn Bridge
- "The Celebration To-morrow," The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 23 May 1883
- Charles G. D. Roberts, "Brooklyn Bridge," poem, The Atlantic Monthly, June 1899

The nation's exuberant pride in engineering achievements is perhaps best illustrated in the response to the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. It was a national symbol not only of progress but also of healing, for as critic Robert Hughes has pointed out, the bridge was "a powerful metaphor for unity and linkage, suggesting the binding-together of America after the terrible divisions of the 1860s." The article from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, published the day before the bridge opened, captures this pride, this sense of coming together, and the sheer delight Americans took in such monuments to progress. Like "Song of the Exposition," the article places this American triumph in the grand flow of history but also notes its distinctively American character as the product of "a free people." The article effuses over the bridge as an example of the technological sublime, but in a nation that even in the late nineteenth century still defined itself through its natural inheritance, it was appropriate to identify the bridge with a sublimity of a more Bierstadtian sort. That is what Charles G. D. Roberts does in his poem. Fifteen years after its opening the bridge had not lost its power to awe. Highly accessible, both texts could profitably be used with students. 4 pages.

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3.  Human Machines
- Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management, 1910, Ch. 2, excerpts
- Thomas Anshutz, The Ironworkers' Noontime, oil on canvas, 1880
- American Mutoscope & Biograph Co., Steam hammer, Westinghouse Works, East Pittsburgh, film, 1904

During this period Americans were so enamored of the machine that they sought to bring mechanical efficiency to the work of the human body itself. Consulting engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor (1865-1915) led that effort. Taylor's ideas helped to transform the United States from a country of small workshops plying local trades to a country of huge factories supporting national industries. He promoted the development of large, efficient manufacturing organizations by structuring work according strict rules of reason, determined through the systematic study of interactions among job requirements, tools, methods, and human skill. His most important client was Bethlehem Iron Company, later Bethlehem Steel. In the excerpt presented here, his goal is to bring a pig iron handler to his highest efficiency, which means increasing the amount of iron he hauls from 12 1/2 tons per day to 47 per day.

Thomas Anshutz's The Ironworkers' Noontime reminds us that the body is a good deal more than a machine. Anshutz was born in Kentucky in 1851 and spent much of his childhood in the iron town of Wheeling, West Virginia. He studied art in New York and at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he worked under the great American realist painter Thomas Eakins. When, in 1886, Eakins resigned his position at the Academy, Anshutz was named as his successor. The Ironworkers' Noontime is his most well-known painting, although it was a rarity in its day. Even though America was rapidly industrializing during this period, painters generally did not paint industrial scenes, nor did middle-class Americans want them hanging on their walls. Iron mills were not picturesque, and ironworkers were usually the shunned, either African Americans or immigrants, like Frederick Taylor's "high-priced" Mr. Schmidt. Noontime portrays puddlers stretching, eating, and relaxing in the yard of a mill while among them young boys, presumably apprentices, tussle with each other. Puddlers assembled the ingredients of iron in cauldrons and oversaw the critical steps of melting and molding. The success of the entire iron-making process depended on their work. The most important and most skilled workers in an iron mill, they were also the most highly paid. 8 pages total.

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4.  Christine Frederick, The New Housekeeping, 1913, excerpts

At this time many people worried about the future of the home. Since it was no longer a center of production—goods were now made in factories—it made sense to recast the home as a center of consumption. In typical Progressive Era fashion, experts soon emerged to teach women how to fulfill their new role as consumers. Christine Frederick (1883-1970) turned out to be one of the most energetic and successful. She graduated from Northwestern University in 1906 and became a teacher, an acceptable occupation for a woman because it addressed the welfare of children and thus fell into what the age considered the domestic sphere. After a year in the classroom, she married J. George Frederick and began life as a homemaker in New York. In time she became bored with housework and sought another outlet for her energy. From her husband's associates she learned of scientific management and in 1912 began to explain it to middle-class housewives through the pages of the Ladies' Home Journal in a series called "New Housekeeping," which was later published as a book.

Scientific management meant efficiency, and efficiency meant the introduction of newly affordable household appliances into the home. Frederick embraced advertising as a way to inform women of the benefits of the new age, and soon became a recognized expert in that field as well as in the field of market research. In The New Housekeeping, Frederick does a great deal more than simply offer women new ways to clean and cook. By extending the principles of scientific management into the home, Frederick's work brought the domestic sphere into the industrial system that was reshaping business and politics during this time. The greatest change she promotes is not more efficient ways of doing housework but a change of perception and mindset that would integrate the lives of middle-class housewives into the new order. 9 pages.

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5.  Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic, oil on canvas, 1875

In the selection from Taylor's Scientific Management excerpted above we get a sense of the period's growing infatuation with the professional, the possessor of specialized knowledge who can organize and conduct activities to their utmost effectiveness. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Americans began to professionalize many fields of endeavor. Between 1870 and 1890, accountants, architects, businessmen, dentists, economists, historians, lawyers, librarians, pharmacists, political scientists, schoolteachers, and veterinarians, among others, defined themselves as professional by organizing associations, establishing specialized schools, or implementing certifying exams. Even leisure pursuits were raised to a professional level: the first professional baseball club, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, was organized in 1869.

Perhaps the most powerful artistic expression of the professional—in this case, the scientist-as-hero—is Thomas Eakins's The Gross Clinic. Eakins was born in Philadelphia in 1844. Between 1866 and 1870 he studied art in Europe. In 1876 he joined the faculty of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a position he lost in 1886 when, trying to make an anatomical point, he yanked the loincloth off an otherwise nude male model before a mixed class of art students. Even so, anatomy was not his real subject. American life was, and to it he brought a realistic, empirical yet passionate vision. The Gross Clinic shows Dr. Samuel Gross, the most renowned surgeon at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, removing dead bone from the thigh of a young man, while assistants lean into their work, students take notes, and a horror-stricken woman turns away. Even though this is serious surgery, everyone involved is wearing street clothes. It would be awhile yet before antiseptic practice brought surgical scrubs to the operating theatre. Eakins had hoped to show the painting in the art section of the 1876 Exposition, but the selection committee rejected it. It ended up as a medical painting in the U.S. Army Post Hospital Building, illustrating the treatment of Civil War injuries. In 1875 the painting was both hailed as a masterpiece and denounced as morbid exhibitionism. 1 page.

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6.  Thomas Edison
- Theodore Dreiser, "A Photographic Talk with Edison," Success, February 1898, excerpts
- Thomas Edison, Observation, 13 Feb. 1921, with photograph of Edison and Charles Steinmetz, n.d.

If Dr. Gross was the hero in the operating theatre, Thomas Alva Edison was the hero in the lab. The public image he cultivated, largely through articles in popular magazines, attributed his inventions less to formal education—he had only three months of schooling—than to native curiosity, ingenuity, and hard work. He was Ragged Dick with a genius for tinkering. Behind the image, however, was a cool, rational scientific entrepreneur. He established the first modern research laboratory, the prototype for full-scale industrial research and development operations. He hired university-trained scientists and set them to work on inventions that possessed commercial potential. From his lab emerged the first successful electric light bulb. To make sure his bulbs got used, he created the first electrical power distribution company. He attributed his invention of the phonograph and his refinement of the telephone to his deafness. He also improved the telegraph and motion picture technology. A fierce competitor, he even created companies to manufacture and market his inventions.

The photograph offered here shows Edison and General Electric's resident genius Charles P. Steinmetz, the Prussian immigrant who invented a way to distribute alternating current, probing machine parts strewn across a table. Comparing it with The Gross Clinic might generate some useful class discussion. The interview from Success magazine illustrates the public image-making machinery at work. Theodore Dreiser—who in novels like Sister Carrie, The Titan, and The Genius explored the nature of success, creativity, and wealth—was an apt choice as an interviewer. Finally, Edison's brief observation from 1921 offers insight into his ideas about progress, history, and truth. 12 pages.

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7.  Wealth and Weightlessness
- Andrew Carnegie, The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie, 1920, excerpts
- Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age, novel, 1873, Ch. 7-8

Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermlin, Scotland, in 1835. His family emigrated to the United States in 1848, when steam-powered looms displaced his father, a master handloom weaver, from his job. The family settled in Alleghany, Pennsylvania, which later became part of Pittsburgh. A succession of jobs eventually landed Carnegie in the employ of the Pennsylvania Railroad as a telegraph operator, a position that made him privy to the professional dealings of the Pittsburgh business community and showed him the value of new technologies. The excerpt offered here picks up his life at that point. It suggests the vitality and opportunity that characterized American life as the nation industrialized. It also identifies a danger that typically accompanies times of heady and rapid change, the danger of losing touch with reality. For Carnegie that danger is embodied in the stock speculator, "the man whose mind is disturbed by the mercurial changes of the Stock Exchange. . . . What is not, he sees, and what he sees, is not."

Such a man is Colonel Beriah Sellers, the fast-talking huckster of The Gilded Age, the novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner that gave this period its name. The excerpted chapters comically dramatize what has been called the "weightlessness" of this period, the sense that America's newly dynamic capitalism was dissolving all that was solid, severing traditional ties, and blurring reality into unreality. We get a hint of this in the giddy astonishment that Carnegie and his friends feel when they discover that the making of money can be separated from the sweat of one's brow and, of course, in Carnegie's denunciation of Wall Streeters who make money on airy speculations rather than on solid manufactures. The chapters from The Gilded Age give new meaning to Whitman's assertion in "Song of the Exposition" that "Materials here under your eye shall change their shape as if by magic." Indeed, in the world of Colonel Sellers reality is quite slippery: fire gives no heat; furniture disappears overnight, and hogs and corn become "oceans of cash." A few hours with Colonel Sellers leaves Washington Hawkins, the novel's protagonist, feeling as if he were weightless with his world spinning "round and round" and all the objects in it merely "a dancing chaos." 15 pages total.

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8.  Southern Stasis
- Edward King, The Great South, 1875, excerpts
- Henry W. Grady, "The New South," address, 1886/1889, excerpts
- Booker T. Washington, The Atlanta Exposition Address, 1895, excerpts

If there was one place in the United States that did not fully embrace the American enthusiasm for the machine and material progress it was the South, chiefly because at this time it possessed very few machines and had experienced very little progress. It had not fully recovered from the physical devastation of the Civil War. It had to accommodate a large population of formerly enslaved African Americans, and it was still embittered over the loss of the War and the Northern occupation that followed it. In 1873 and '74 Edward King, a writer for Scribner's Monthly, traveled throughout the South to assess its economic prospects. He found a region of considerable diversity—from Mississippi, where the aristocracy refused to abandon the traditional ways of the cotton plantation; to Alabama, where rich resources promised a bustling manufacturing future; to Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia where cotton and iron mills were already spreading the bounty of progress; and to North Carolina, where discouragement, decay, and indolence reigned. "There is much that is discouraging in the present condition of the South," he concluded, but nothing that strong infusions of Northern capital could not solve. Before that capital could flow southward, however, the region, according to King, would have to inculcate "that intense desire for immediate material development that distinguishes the North."

A little more than a decade after King wrote, Atlanta Constitution editor Henry W. Grady came north to announce that the South had found that desire. Addressing the New England Society of New York, he declared that the South had "fallen in love with work." Nine years later, in Atlanta, Booker T. Washington faced the same challenge Grady had faced in New York: to insure a steady flow of capital, he had to convince a white audience that Southerners were industrious. Washington's audience was, of course, Southern itself, and he was arguing on behalf of African Americans, but his message was the same: we are ready to "buy . . . your land, make blossom . . . your fields, and run your factories." We, too, have fallen in love with work. 19 pages total.

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9.  The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago
- Henry Adams, "Chicago," Ch. 22 in The Education of Henry Adams, 1907
- The Dream City: A Portfolio of Photographic Views of the World's Columbian Exposition, 1894

The great-grandson of John Adams and the grandson of John Quincy Adams, Henry Adams (1838-1918) considered himself a man born a century too late. His autobiography, published privately in 1907, documents a series of personal events that constitute his "education." Unlike an autobiography, The Education uses the third-person point-of-view, and this unique authorial choice endows Adams's unfolding life with poignancy and irony as he is poised on the brink of the modern age. In this chapter, "Chicago," Adams visits the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 to commemorate Columbus's landing in America. For Adams, however, it is simply too much. He is overawed by the machinery on display and laments the holistic monuments of ages past. His appreciation or apprehension of the White City is, of course, cast differently than that of the average American given his background and experience, and he understands that the pre-packaged and paraded knowledge of the World's Fair represents an uneasy relationship between science and history. His flurry of questions indicates that he didn't condescendingly eschew the intellectual fare but thought deeply about its significance for both his own "education" and the country's future. Upon leaving the Fair, he returns to Washington, where Congress has just repealed the Silver Act, thus setting the nation again on a single gold standard. This was a victory for the banks and capitalists, and Adams, fresh from seeing the triumph of capitalism in Chicago, interprets it in historic terms: "For a hundred years, between 1793 and 1893, the American people had hesitated, vacillated, swayed forward and back, between two forces, one simply industrial, the other capitalistic, centralizing, and mechanical. In 1893, the issue came on the single gold standard and the majority at last declared itself, once for all, in favor of the capitalistic system with all its necessary machinery." The country, in his view, had embraced a system that not only "ruthlessly stamped out the life of the class into which he was born," but also placed the running of the country beyond common people, beyond "Southern and Western farmers [and] city day-laborers." The Dream City will give you a sense of what Adams saw. 6 pages plus any photographs you may choose to print.

Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Tower, 1898. Photographic print by George P. Hall. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division: LOT 11937 [item] [P&P] / LC-USZ62-79046.

Toolbox: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Memory | Progress | People | Power | Empire

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