Dirty Secrets about the 1890s Gilded Age
Here is a famous photograph taken by photographer Jacob Riis in New York City in 1890 of three boys asleep on dirty stairs in a tenement after working all day.
I’m researching a book about the 1890s, delving into hidden American history and looking at lots of old photographs. It was a momentous era, the end of the Gilded Age and the beginning of a modern 20th-century world. From our current vantage, we focus on the gilded part of the 1890s, the rich high society people who then, like now, viewed themselves as an American aristocracy because of their wealth.
The truth, however, was that the Gay Nineties weren’t exactly gay for most folks. The country was in the midst of a long depression with high unemployment. The average annual income was less than $400, about $10,000 in today’s economy, a bare minimum wage of $4.20 for a 40-hour week—which no one worked.
The working conditions for people were equally deplorable with no safety regulations and no worker rights. Children as young as ten worked in factories, mills, farms, and mines for 50 to 80 cents for a 12-hour workday.
I was looking at the 1890s census records from Oldham in Lancashire, England, where my mother’s family, immigrants from St. Patrick-on-the-Rock in southern Ireland, lived. The entire family worked in the textile mills. The young children are listed on the records as “Scholars” until they were 10 or 11 years old. At that time they went to work in the mills, mostly as “Runners,” grueling horrendous child labor.
All that gilded wealth was built on the backs of the poor. There were, however, voices of reason at that time that viewed the social inequities and worked toward real change. During the 1890s, that change slowly began with unionization of workers and worker’s rights and fair pay for work and safety regulations and the outlawing of child labor.
Is it any different now with the corporate oligarchy tossing bread crumbs to the American masses while dismantling unions, which created the middle class, plunging more people into poverty, disassembling the social safety net, and creating a false narrative that they're doing these things in the name of freedom?