Famous people of the Gilded Age

The Gilded Age is a period in American society at the end of the Nineteenth Century (roughly 1870-1900). The Gilded Age is characterised by rapid economic growth and conspicuous outer wealth, providing a mask for problems, such as poverty, inequality and social injustice. The phrase Gilded Age was coined by Mark Twain in The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873), which is a satire on materialism and political corruption.

Famous Business people of the Gilded Age

Cornelius Vanderbilt (May 27, 1794 – 1877) Vanderbilt amassed his fortune through his dominance of railroads and shipping. He built and controlled many of the most significant railroads in America, such as the New York Railroad and the Grand Central Terminal.

Collis_P_Huntington_by_Stephen_W_Shaw Collis Potter Huntington (1821 – 1900) Huntingdon was a key figure in building the Central Pacific Railroad – the first transcontinental railroad, and other railroads, such as the Southern Pacific. Part of his business success was due to his heavy political lobbying and bribing of politicians. When his bribery came to light, he became symbolic of the greed and corruption of the railroad industry. He became a figure of satire and hate, though he defended his actions in building railroads.

Andrew Carnegie (1835 – 1919) Born in Scotland, Carnegie moved to America where he became very wealthy through dominating the US steel industry. After selling his steel corporation in 1901, he devoted the rest of his life to philanthropy.

John Pierpont “J. P.” Morgan (1837 – 1913) J.P.Morgan built a financial empire based on banking, and investment. He arranged the biggest mergers of his day. Morgan was a key player in the formation of great corporations such as General Electric 1892 and the US steel corporation. He used his wealth to supply the US government with gold during the 1895 financial crisis.

rockefellerJohn D. Rockefeller (1839 – 1937) Rockefeller founded Standard Oil in 1870; the firm soon gained monopoly power over the production and distribution of oil (mostly Kerosene for lighting until 1900.) Standard Oil’s monopoly power was achieved through aggressive tactics to undercut rivals and using his vertical power of controlling railroad fees. Standard Oil was seen as embodying the worst excesses of the new ‘Trust’ monopoly companies. It was eventually broken up in 1911 by the Supreme Court – a symbolic attack on the monopolies of the Gilded Age. Rockefeller retired in 1897 and spent his remaining years in philanthropic pursuits.

George_Westinghouse George Westinghouse, Jr. (1846 –  1914) Westinghouse was an engineer and entrepreneur. He invented the air brake for trains which helped to make them safer. He was also a leading pioneer in the electricity industry and competed with Thomas Edison. Eventually, his system of A.C. (developed by Nikola Tesla) became the dominant source of electricity in America and the whole world.

Thomas Edison (1847 – 1931) Pioneer of the mass use and distribution of electricity. Edison was one of the most prolific inventors, who developed commercially available electric light bulbs. Edison also was a pioneer in electricity distribution, though his preferred DC system was not widely adopted.


Political figures of the Gilded Age

Susan B Anthony (1820 – 1906) was a campaigner for civil rights and women’s suffrage. One of the most influential women who helped secure women the right to vote.

Ulysses_S._Grant Ulysses S Grant (1822 – 1885) 18th President of the US from 1869 to 1877. Grant played a pivotal role in the reconstruction period following the Civil War. He sought to protect African-American rights, end slavery and prosecute the Klu Klux Klan. He was less successful on economic issues – presiding over the five-year industrial depression following the 1873 panic. He was also subject to many charges of corruption.

Grover-Cleveland Grover Cleveland (1837 –  1908) Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th President of the US, and one of the more memorable presidents in an era of ‘forgettable presidents’. Cleveland was a Democrat who supported laissez-faire economic policies and classical liberalism. His greatest contribution was his personal honesty and campaigns against corruption and bribery – which, at the time, were rife in American politics and business.

eugene-debs Eugene Debs (1855-1926) Trade Union Leader, and five times Presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America. Debs organised the 1894 Pullman Strike which was a coordinated effort to bring the railroads to a standstill over disputes on pay cuts. Debs symbolised a growing trade union militancy in response to the growing inequality and wage gap of the Gilded Age.

theodore_roosevelt-150 Theodore Roosevelt (1858 – 1919) Theodore Roosevelt was a leading political figure fighting corruption and the power of monopoly trusts. In his role as New York Mayor and NY police commissioner, he challenged corruption and the spoils system. He served as President (1901-1909) and continued his reforming zeal, helping to create a Progressive Era in contrast to the Gilded Age excesses.

Cultural/literary figures of the Gilded Age

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882) was a leading poet, Transcendentalist and influential philosopher. He espoused no fixed doctrine but expanded on ideas of freedom, nature and the possibilities of man.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811 – 1896) – Stowe was a writer who helped popularise the anti-slavery movement. Her book ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ (1852) depicted life under slavery and contributed to turning public opinion in the North against slavery.

Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892) – Poet who provided a bridge between Transcendentalism and realism. He published Leaves of Grass (1855) and revised this great American epic throughout his life. Whitman is considered one of the great American poets. His vagabond lifestyle and mystical poetry providing a counter-balance to the materialism of the Gilded Age.

Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886). One of America’s greatest female poets, Emily Dickinson’s themes of death and immortality became very popular and influenced the development of modern poetry. During her lifetime, she lived mainly in seclusion, and her poetry wasn’t widely read until after her death.

writer Mark Twain (1835 – 1910) American writer and humorist, considered the ‘father of American literature’. Famous works include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). It was Twain who coined the phrase Gilded Age in The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873)

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Famous People of the Gilded Age”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net, 12th February 2016. Updated 10th February 2017.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910 at Amazon


America in the Gilded Age: Third Edition

Book Cover


America in the Gilded Age: Third Edition at Amazon


Further Reading

Definition of the Gilded Age (1870-1900) – What the Gilded Age meant for America, and where the phrase came from.


horace-Greeley People of the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) Influential figures and groups of people in the aftermath of the American Civil War and the drive to rebuild the south and defend new civil rights. Including Presidents Johnson, Grant and leading ‘carpetbaggers’, ‘scallawags’ and radical Republicans.

Woodrow_Wilson People of the Progressive Era (1890-1920) A period of increased federal intervention to tackle the abuse of the Gilded Age. The Progressive Era also saw women gain the vote, and increased efforts to tackle corruption.


Famous Americans – Great Americans from the Founding Fathers to modern civil rights activists. Including presidents, authors, musicians, entrepreneurs and businessmen.

Similar Eras

britishIndustrial Revolution (1750s – 1900) The great inventors, entrepreneurs and businessmen of the industrial revolution. Also the social activists of the era.

giuseppe-garibaldi People of the Nineteenth Century (1801-1900) Nineteenth Century saw the economic boom of the industrial revolution and worldwide movements for political change.

Queen_Victoria Victorian age (1837 – 1901) The principal figures of the Victorian age and the second half of the industrial revolution.