Late 19th century is known as the Gilded Age, started from 1965 to 1900. It was marked by the greed and vulgarity, as well as the enormous consumption of the newly rich who flaunted their personal wealth. Meanwhile, the average Americans and recent immigrants still lived a frugal life. This was the time when the urban life first soared when the urban population increased from 8 million to 30 million. Its rapid growth without proper administration caused many problems, including unsanitary living conditions, widespread poverty, and political corruption. New advances in science encouraged people to attend higher education and brought various improvements in living conditions.
The drastic increase in urban population brought many changes in cultural life of the Gilded Age. Politics became the public entertainment for large crowds, where both men and women attended political meetings to hear candidates speak, even though most women were not allowed to vote at that time. It was also the most discussed topic in saloons, which were the social center for working-class men and new immigrants. By 1900, there were more saloons than grocery stores and meat markets. New forms of mass entertainment emerged: movie theaters, art museums, symphony orchestras, vaudeville, sporting events, and circuses.
Darwinism and Realism were two powerful forces in the Gilded Age. Darwin’s “natural selection” and the theory of biological evolution were seen as atheism, challenging many fundamental beliefs. This led to “social Darwinism,” which attracted many supporters, including the oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, and “reform Darwinism,” which later became one of the pillars for the “progressive” movement. Realism was the new movement in art and literature. It emphasized on the real images of America in both beauty and ugliness, resulting from the Civil War, and the impact of modern science.
1920s is known as the “New Era,” in which dramatic changes took place, along with the overthrow of traditional values and the rejection of new values. The impressive economic growth, which stemmed from the booming industry and advances in technology, gave people the American the highest standard of living in the world. It created the new “consumer culture,” converting people from frugal to enthusiastic shoppers. Advertising became a huge enterprise and defined how people behave and how they pursue happiness. With the consumer culture, many comforts and conveniences such as flush toilets, handheld cameras, vacuum cleaners, etc. became widely available among the urban middle class.
The powerful consumer culture generated what is called “mass culture”: more people saw the same advertisements, bought the same products at the same stores. During the 1920s, movies became the chief form of mass entertainment with 80 million viewers a week. The number increased after sound in movies was presented, and in 1930, 115 over 123 million American watched movies weekly. The rise of movies expanded consumer culture, set standards in music, fashion, dancing, and hairstyles, and simulated the sexual revolution. Radio was also very popular, with 41 million radios manufactured in 1920. It changed the patterns of daily lives and transformed jazz music to national craze. The ownership of automobiles became widespread during this time, which became the example of modern mass-production techniques and made spectator sports a national entertainment.
Jazz and Modernism were two dominant influences in the New Era. Jazz was the symbol for the rebelliousness and spontaneity in young Americans during that time. The emergence of sexual revolution, birth control, and new clothing fashions gave women more freedom and reflected the rebellion against traditional female roles. For African American, the Harlem Renaissance in New York was the black first movement in art and literature, showcasing their distinctive contributions to American culture. The theory of relativity of Albert Einstein shaped the idea of Modernists, who believed that everything is relative. Modernist art focused on the unconventional values, while Modernist literature relied on cynicism, which were both the result after the Great War.
The American’s life in late 19th century and in the 1920s both marked many changes in culture, with the rise of urban life and advancements in science. However, as I saw it, the changes in the Gilded Age was more of the discovery of new life, in which people were enjoyed these changes without let those interfering in their everyday lives. While in the New Era, the traditional ways of life and the modern ways of life clashed into each other and fought for influences, which caused many dramatic changes and upset many people. The politics in these two eras were also vastly different. While politics in the Gilded Age was marked by the political corruption and heavy influences of giant corporations, politics in the New Era was marked by the public demand for honest, efficient government and public services, as well as social reform. The way people consume is another contrast: sparing and economical in the Gilded Age, and extravagant and carefree in the New Era.
In both eras, conflicts between city and country, industry and agriculture, as well as the continuing racial and ethnic wars still have not been resolved. As an example, even though women had gained many rights over time, most of these rights were only applied for white women, while women in other races still suffered. In addition, only the middle-class and upper-class benefited from most of the new conveniences and fresh features of cultural life, while generally the poor, with little income, was excluded from them. Farmers were also upset during these two times, as they were ignored by the political process, and the falling crop prices resulted in many farmers leaving farms to move to the cities for better opportunities.
There were some similarities between both eras in cultural life. For example, Realism movement in the Gilded Age, and the Modernism movement in the New Era both took place after a war: Civil War, and the Great War, respectively. It appears that the horrors in these two wars forced people to rethink traditional ways of life. Another reason that caused people to create these movements was the great technological, and scientific advancement. However, while Realists tended to show the less romanticized and more realistic aspect of life, Modernists tended to break all standards of good taste and behave in a shocking way.
Mass entertainment was also introduced in both eras and was well received by people, but it influenced the nation in a different scale. For instance, movies and cinemas first appeared in the Gilded Age. At the time, they were only really popular means of entertainment for working women, while in the New Era, movies became the chief form of entertainment for all Americans. Another example is sports. Even though sports had become a part of popular culture at the end of the 19th century in large cities, it was not until during the 1920s, with widespread automobile ownership and rising income, that it became the nation’s interest.