The period between the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century in America is referred to as the Gilded Age. The Gilded Age was a period of unprecedented changes in the general political, economic, and social culture in the United States. The Gilded Age also saw the rapid industrialization, mechanization, and urbanization of America due to massive advancements in technological inventions and innovations. During this period America received millions of immigrants from other European nations who came to America to not only exploit the numerous economic opportunities but also to exploit the individual freedoms and liberties guaranteed by the American political system. Economic and social changes during the Gilded Age led to the emergence of a consumer culture that revolutionized the concept of popular mass entertainment in America.
The Gilded Age in America was the result of a protracted and costly change process in the American political and economic systems. The American Revolution that secured American independence from the British in July 1776 also set into motion changes in the American politico-economic system (Shrock, 2004). As a colony of Britain, the politico-economic system that was prevalent in America was the feudalism system. The feudalism system entailed that all land was owned by the Crown in England who rented it out to the nobility who in turn rented them out to the American peasants in exchange for homage, labor, and a share of their produce (Diggins, 1999). The Founding Fathers of America George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin resolved to instigate changes aimed at changing the American politico-economic system from feudalism to capitalism (Diggins, 1999). Capitalism is a politico-economic system where there is the private possession of property and factors of production. By the early 1870s, capitalism had completely been incorporated into the American political, economic, and social system and with that, the Gilded Age was born.
The period 1870 to 1920 was a time of unprecedented change in every niche of the American society. Capitalism revolutionized the American economic system as it changed the nation’s overreliance on agricultural production to industrialization as industries popped up in numerous parts of the country. Workers who found themselves free from any attachment to their feudal lords after the scraping of feudalism transferred their labor to the industries and factories that dotted America. As most industries and factories were located in urban areas most workers migrated from rural areas to urban areas leading to an unprecedented population shift in America (Shrock, 2004). During the Gilded Age, the population of American urban centers ballooned from a total of less than ten million to more than fifty million people. The rapid innovation and invention spurred by capitalism led to the development of better and more refined machines and technological advancements that increased productivity. The mechanization of agriculture during this period resulted in an unprecedented increase in agricultural production. Moreover, advancements in production methods such as the introduction of the assembly line method of production ensured that goods could be produced cheaply en masse thus lowering their market prices.
Technological advancements, mechanization, and industrialization during the Gilded Age spurred consumerism in America. Through technological advancements, both agricultural and industrial goods could be produced in quantities large enough to supply every part of America (Diggins 1999). The introduction of the assembly line method of production by Henry Ford during the Gilded Age revolutionized American consumerism as industrial goods could be produced en masse leading to lower market costs and high consumption. The assembly line method of production reduced costs of production therefor making the industries rake in huge profits and sales revenue. An increase in profits and revenue for companies resulted in an increase in the wages given to workers. Mechanization of the industries further reduced working hours in the companies meaning most workers benefited from an increase in leisure time. With an increase in both personal income and leisure time for workers, the American middle class was born. The American middle class had free money to spend and with the proliferation of the American market with cheap industrial goods, American households increased their rate of consumption. With the increase in leisure time among American middle-class tourism developed as an American pastime with most Americans investing heavily in their annual vacations (Diggins 1999). Most Americans more so those workers living in urban centers with a lot of leisure time in their hands began taking popular entertainment seriously.
Popular entertainment blossomed during the Gilded Age as the American middle class with its high consumer culture expanded. Before the early 1870s, popular entertainment forms such as theatre and minstrel shows were a preserve of the nobility and the rich. The production and performance of popular entertainment were costly and was therefore only a preserve of the few nobility and rich members of society who stayed in the urban centers (Shrock 2004). The majority of the people were always busy working on the farms and thus lacked time to seek entertainment. However, this changed during the Gilded Age with the establishment and expansion of the American middle class. With the availability of money to spend and time to spare the American middle class resorted to public entertainment as a way of utilizing their leisure time. The American middle class and general population during the Gilded Age spent more money on having a good time than their parents (Diggins, 1999). Consumerism was promoted during the Gilded Age by the notion that access to products was more important than access to means of production (Diggins, 1999). Therefore, Americans quickly accepted the fact that they could buy luxurious goods and receive special services regardless of their class. The notion of classless consumption informed the large number of Americans who turned up to popular entertainment venues to watch performances that had once been a preserve of the rich.
Popular live entertainment reigned as the most popular form of entertainment during the Gilded Age in America. Before the 1870s the most popular form of popular entertainment was the minstrel shows which consisted of various comic skits and musicals (Levine, 1988). Most of the minstrel shows were based on scripts that mocked the minority and poor in the American society such as people hailing from the African-American community and immigrants such as the Irish (Levine, 1988). During the Gilded Age, the minstrels were relegated to the backburners largely because most of the minstrel shows were deemed discriminatory, blatantly racists and therefore inappropriate by the majority of the working class. The minstrel shows only reduced in popularity due to the unprecedented success of Variety Theater and an ever-increasing diversity of popular entertainment (Shrock, 2004). The Gilded Age saw a proliferation in the number of diverse forms of popular entertainment such as burlesque, amusement parks, dime museums, and vaudeville among numerous other cheap forms of amusements (Shrock, 2004). Most Americans also took to outdoor sports and recreational activities to spend their leisure time. Sporting activities such as baseball, biking became integral parts of the American popular entertainment culture during the Gilded Age.
The Variety Theater, during the Gilded Age, drew greater audiences and appealed to most Americans than the traditional legitimate theater. Before the Gilded Age American legitimate theater was a preserve of the elite who were well learned and versed in matters literature. Legitimate theater directors and actors only performed serious literary work such as Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and other works by famous literary writers such as William Shakespeare (Levine, 1988). The variety theater that became famous during the Gilded Age differed with the legitimate theater as it focused on entertaining the vast American middle class. Variety Theater applied a broad and democratic approach to stage plays and performances to appeal to an audience of largely unsophisticated and unrefined middle-class Americans. The variety theater was driven by the aim of expanding the scope of public entertainment and therefore strove to attract people hailing from all classes and cultural backgrounds. The American Variety stage collections featured diverse materials, plays, and performances that appealed to a wider and more democratic audience than ever before in the history of American theater (Shrock, 2004). To ensure the success of variety theater, owners of the theater companies provided exemplary service to all members of their audiences without discrimination on the basis of race or culture (Shrock, 2004). The shows, plays, and performances were also played in respectable theaters and playhouses. The show owners also relied on the newly introduced forms of advertisements to market their shows and plays. Since most of the American middle class hailed from a moral background the show owners portrayed variety theater with an aura of moral respectability to win them over.
Amusement parks established outside major cities offered cheap forms of public entertainment to many Americans who thronged them during their leisure time in the Gilded Age. The parks reflected the mechanization and efficiency of American industrialization while also serving as a source of fantasy and escape from the realities of working life to the average American worker. Among the first amusement parks to be developed in the United States included the Ponce de Leon in Atlanta and the Idora Park in Ohio (Shrock, 204). These parks were an instant hit leading to the earnest development of other amusement parks in the late nineteenth century. Most American amusement parks consisted of picnic grounds were people and their families could relax and also rides such as the Giant Swing where children could play. The amusement parks such as Dreamland and Luna Park were based on nationally known parks and international fairs and attracted massive numbers of people. In 1909, Coney Island’s amusement park drew over twenty million visitors a number greater than the combined attendance at Disneyland and Disney World in 1989 after adjusting the population differentials (Shrock, 2004). The amusement parks offered ample and standardized public entertainment to people hailing from diverse cultures and classes in America. However, due to the rampant racism in America, more so in the South, during the Gilded Age, most African Americans were secluded from visiting the amusement parks.
American burlesque became quite popular in America during the Gilded Age and led to the development of American show business. Burlesque is a form of Variety Theater made up of a collection of numerous genres such as music, comedy, and female striptease (Levine, 1988). The burlesque was originally an integral part of the Victorian public entertainment culture in Britain. Americans however, copied the Victorian burlesque and modified it by integrating it with various styles of American theater genres (Shrock, 2004). The American burlesque was presented as a populist blend of satire, comedy, performance art, music, and adult entertainment. The burlesque was popular in the urban centers and drew huge audiences which were mainly male. Show owners would only hire beautiful female performers who were dressed in elaborate and colorful costumes to appeal to the largely male audiences. The huge popularity of the burlesque performances enabled burlesque performers to achieve stardom and thus American show business was born. With advancements in theater technology, mood-appropriate music, and dramatic lighting was added to burlesque performances to further enhance the impact of the burlesque plays (Levine, 1988). The striptease element of the burlesque led to morality questions being asked by most conservative Americans prompting the extensive legislations of burlesque performances.
Vaudevilles and athletic activities such as baseball offered cheap public entertainment alternatives for most Americans during the Gilded Age. Vaudeville was a controversial genre of Variety Theater that was popular among the middle and lower classes in America while heavily criticized by the rich and powerful. A vaudeville performance was made up of a series of acts and plays grouped in a common bill and mostly involved performances by popular musicians and dancers (Levine, 1988). Vaudevilles employed numerous concepts aimed at attracting large audiences such as concert saloons, minstrelsy, freak shows and dime museums (Levine, 1988). The most controversial aspect of the vaudevilles was the concert saloons where audiences were served alcohol amid plays to make them drink more. The middle classes were enthralled by the concert saloons while the rich and powerful criticized them as prostitution dens. Baseball, on the other hand, developed as a form of leisure activity in the mid-1850s. Through newspaper advertisements and reports, baseball spread throughout the nation making it a national pastime and game. Baseball offered an opportunity for the American people to perform physical exercises during their leisure time. Baseball has since grown into a competitive sport in contemporary America.
The American Variety Theater and other popular entertainment forms were deemed democratic as they broadened the scope of public entertainment in Gilded Age America. Before 1870, public entertainment was a preserve of the rich. However, the American Variety Theater changed this notion during the gilded age by expanding the scope of public performances across America. The audiences that attended public performances during the Gilded Age were deemed democratic as they hailed from all classes, ethnic, and cultural groups (Shrock, 2004). Women who were also previously banned from attending public entertainment events also got included in the audiences thus signifying the broad and democratic scope of the American Variety Theater. However, the American Theater was not fully democratic as Americans of African descent were prohibited from joining other Americans in the public entertainment forums. Most of the popular entertainment forums in America during the Gilded Age were for Whites only thus excluding Blacks and Coloreds. Segregated from mainstream American entertainment forums the African Americans came up with their own public entertainment forums, plays, and performances near their black settlements. They also created their own plays or modified the popular plays such as Othello to address issues pertinent to their struggles as a community.
The Gilded Age in America was a result of the occurrence of massive changes in the political, economic, and social fabric of American society. It was also shaped by the establishment of the American consumerism culture and a prevalent middle class that is still prevalent today. The consumerism culture of Gilded Age America led to massive evolution and development in the field of popular entertainment in America.
Diggins, J. P. (1999). Thorstein Veblen: Theorist of the leisure class. Princeton, N.J: Princeton Univ. Press.
Levine, L. W. (1988). Highbrow/lowbrow: The emergence of cultural hierarchy in America. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Shrock, J. (2004). The Gilded Age. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.
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