There was a time in U.S. history when the business magnates and titans of industry boasted more wealth than even today’s top technology innovators and visionaries.
During America’s Gilded Age — which spanned most of the latter half of the 19th century, from around 1870 to 1900 — the inflation-adjusted wealth and impact of America’s most towering figures far overshadowed what we see today.
The wealth of people like John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Henry Ford, and Andrew Carnegie would by today’s standards be measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars — far more than tech giants like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and even Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest individual in the world as of 2019.
Wealth so vast can often highlight the financial inequality of an era. It’s this idea of grandeur in the face of unresolved social concerns that led Mark Twain to coin the phrase “Gilded Age” in his 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. The title suggested that the thin veneer of wealth for the elite masked broader issues for many in the lower and middle classes.
But the progress made in the United States during the Gilded Age can’t be denied. As part of the Second Industrial Revolution, the country underwent an impressive economic expansion — led by the day’s larger-than-life figures of wealth and power. Much of this growth was courtesy of railroads — which now spanned from coast to coast — as well as factories, steel, and the coal mining industry.
Big business boomed, with technology such as typewriters, cash registers, and adding machines helping to transform how people worked. And the economic explosion included not only industrial growth, but also a growth in agricultural technology such as mechanical reapers.
In a time of such great expansion and fewer regulations surrounding wealth and business practices, circumstances were perfect for the rise of a class of extremely wealthy individuals who made up a very small percentage of society. They had the power and means to create opportunities and jobs for the many, though with less social prioritization on workers’ rights, issues like discrimination, exploitation, and low wages marked the era.
Still, it’s impossible to overstate the impact these individuals had on America’s development. With technology booming and immigrants flocking to the United States seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families, they left their mark on the United States — and on history.
Captains of Industry and Robber Barons
The wealthy elite of the late 19th century consisted of industrialists who amassed their fortunes as so-called robber barons and captains of industry. Both can be defined as business tycoons, but there was a significant difference in the way they made their fortunes.
The term “robber baron” dates back to the Middle Ages and carries a negative connotation. Robber barons typically employed ethically questionable methods to eliminate their competition and develop a monopoly in their industry. Often, they had little empathy for workers.
Captains of industry, however, were often philanthropists. They made their wealth — and used it — in a way that would benefit society, such as providing more jobs or increasing productivity.
John D. Rockefeller
Born in 1837, John D. Rockefeller became one of the richest men in the world as the founder of the Standard Oil Company. In 2018 dollars, Rockefeller’s net worth is said to eclipse $400 billion — nearly three times the 2018 estimated net worth of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com and the wealthiest individual in the world.
Standard Oil dominated the oil industry, controlling roughly 90% of the refineries and pipelines in the United States by the early part of the 1880s.
While he has faced some criticism historically for how he accumulated his wealth, Rockefeller’s charitable efforts paint him as a philanthropic captain of industry. Over the course of his life, his donations to charitable causes exceeded $500 million (unadjusted for inflation).
Andrew Carnegie served as a great example of an American rags-to-riches story. Born to a poor Scottish family, he and his parents immigrated to the U.S. when he was 13. He built his fortune by investing in the steel industry and became the owner of Carnegie Steel Company, which by 1889 was the largest steel company in the world.
Despite some criticism of how some workers at Carnegie Steel were treated, Carnegie himself was extremely active in terms of philanthropy. In his efforts to contribute to society, he established the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the New York Public Library, and a college that would become part of Carnegie Mellon University.
He also wrote “The Gospel of Wealth,” an article that argued that the wealthy have a responsibility to contribute to the greater good of society.
John Pierpont Morgan was a financier from a wealthy family and is considered by many to have been among the robber barons during America’s Gilded Age.
At face value, Morgan contributed greatly to American industry. He invested in Thomas Edison and the Edison Electricity Company; helped to create General Electric and International Harvester; formed J.P. Morgan & Company; and gained control of half of the country’s railroad mileage. He also created the first billion-dollar company, U.S. Steel. At one point in his life, he was a board member of as many as 48 corporations.
However, Morgan engaged in some unethical and anticompetitive practices to ward off competition. For example, he was believed to head a money trust that controlled the banking industry and was commonly considered a figurehead of Wall Street. He also created a monopoly by slashing the workforce and their pay to maximize profits while eliminating the competition. Workers’ wages were often as low as a dollar a day or less, and conditions for employees were poor, with increased fatalities even as wages grew.
When confronted with the possibility of regulations that could threaten his bottom line, he and other robber barons of the time contributed money to ensure that a business-friendly presidential candidate, William McKinley, was elected in 1896.
Despite the numerous negatives associated with how Morgan built his wealth, some of his actions did benefit the United States and society. For example, his wealth was so vast that he was able to help bail out the federal government twice during an economic crisis, first in 1895 and again in 1907.
Automaker Henry Ford was a captain of industry who is considered to have treated his workers well. He believed that well-paid workers would be happier and more efficient. For that reason, he instituted a $5-a-day pay rate, which was twice as much as other auto manufacturers paid.
In addition, during a time when workers were required to work 10 hours a day, six days a week, Ford scheduled his workers for eight-hour days, five days a week.
Ford was known to be generous with his wealth in terms of charitable contributions. He donated personal funds to organizations that he created, such as the Henry Ford Hospital for the working poor who could afford to pay only some of the cost of their medical care. Over the course of his life, he donated approximately $14 million to this institution.
Other organizations created by Ford included the 80-acre Valley Farm for orphaned boys; a school for African American children in Georgia; and a Detroit trade school. He also paid for work camps for boys during the Great Depression.
In addition to his charitable efforts, Ford was a known pacifist. He was part of a peace ship to Europe that hoped to put an end to World War I.
- The Gilded Age
- Meaning and History of the Term “Robber Baron”
- Gilded Age, 1878-89
- Politics in the Gilded Age (PDF)
- The Gilded Age, 1870-1900: The Second Industrial Revolution
- Andrew Carnegie: Man of Steel (video)
- Biography: J.P. Morgan
- Robber Barons or Captains of Industry?
- John D. Rockefeller
- Robber Barons
- J.P. Morgan
- The Philanthropy Hall of Fame: Henry Ford
- 19 Robber Barons Who Built and Ruled America
- Gilded Age 1870-1900 (PDF)
- Sherman Anti-Trust Act (1890)