“The Gilded Age. . .was one of the most dynamic, contentious, and volatile periods in American history.”
The “Gilded Age” (roughly the last three decades of the 1800s) was a time of rapid economic growth and industrialization. Overall national wealth increased more than fivefold.
An expanding railroad network brought the nation together and created a national market. The first skyscrapers were built. John D. Rockefeller, Andrew W. Mellon, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and other “robber barons” amassed great wealth.
There was a dark side, however, with rampant political corruption and many people living in extreme poverty in tenements teeming with crime and filth. The Progressive Era of social activism and political reform arose to combat the ills of the Gilded Age.
“[I]n order to effectually mend the consumer’s good fame [an expenditure] must be an expenditure of superfluities. In order to be reputable it must be wasteful.”
– Thorstein Veblen
Thorstein Veblen published an economic treatise called Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899. This critique of conspicuous consumption discusses the wasteful use of resources typical of the wealthiest members of a society.
He also points out that where wealthy people derive self-esteem and status from parading their wealth, the middle and working classes get caught up in the competition for prestige.
The leisure class stands at the head of the social structure in point of reputability; and its manner of life and its standards of worth therefore afford the norm of reputability for the community. The observance of these standards, in some degree of approximation, becomes incumbent upon all classes lower in the scale. . . .
The result is that the members of each stratum accept as their ideal of decency the scheme of life in vogue in the next higher stratum, and bend their energies to live up to that ideal. . . .
The basis on which good repute in any highly organized industrial community ultimately rests is pecuniary strength; and the means of showing pecuniary strength, and so of gaining or retaining a good name, are leisure and a conspicuous consumption of goods. Accordingly, both of these methods are in vogue as far down the scale as it remains possible.
“We can never make life simple, but we can make it simpler than we do.”
– Edward Bok
Many progressives believed that this cycle of pecuniary emulation and conspicuous consumption needed to be broken and the focus placed on simpler living.
Some, such as Ray Stannard Baker and Bolton Hall, focused on life in the country and small towns. Others, such as Edward Bok, editor of Ladies’ Home Journal, believed simple living was possible in cities as well – though he did think suburban living was preferable to life in the city.
Progressives often encouraged people, wherever they lived, to spend time in nature, resulting in Ernest Thompson Seton’s Woodcraft Indians, Daniel Beard’s Sons of Daniel Boone and the Camp Fire Girls.
Naturalists John Muir and John Burroughs also encouraged contact with nature, promoting the wilderness conservation movement as well as outdoor recreation for city dwellers.
Progressives and the Arts and Crafts Movement
You’ve probably seen the famous quote, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” This was said by William Morris, an English artist, writer, designer and socialist.
Many Americans were avid supporters of Morris. Bok wrote in the Ladies’ Home Journal that a “William Morris craze has been developing, and it is a fad that we cannot push with too much vigor.” Of course, Bok failed to mention Morris’s socialist ideas and critiques of the factory system.
Rather, the Arts and Crafts movement in the US tended to focus more on aesthetics. In fact, the president of the Boston Arts and Crafts Society said it was “not only futile but wrong to attempt to carry on a crusade against” the factory system that had “made the best that there is in the modern world.”
Veblen criticized the movement, noting that the consumer taste for hand-made objects was becoming just another form of conspicuous consumption. Certainly, only those with a certain income could afford to buy Gustav Stickley’s furniture or a Frank Lloyd Wright home.
But many of the working class weren’t interested in simple living anyway. American labor leaders didn’t believe the working classes should limit themselves to plain living – they were seeking prosperity.