The Met Gala is celebrating the Gilded Age. During that time, child labor was legal and people of color faced brutal working conditions.
- This year, the
Met Gala's theme is "Gilded Glamour," celebrating fashionduring the age of industrialization.
- The Gilded Age is notoriously the era with the most significant wealth inequality in American
When the Met Gala takes place on Monday, May 2nd, be prepared to see corsets and updos, silks and satins. The theme of this year's ball is "Gilded Glamour and White Tie," celebrating the plush American fashion from the 1870s to 1900 when industrialization was taking off in New York and beyond.
Gilded, however, is not golden. The era was given its nickname thanks to a book written by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. The authors meant to indicate that gilded means that only the surface is shiny—the sheen still hides corruption and rot underneath.
While that was a time of extravagance for some white elites, the average worker was not living in lavish comfort. Many Black Americans and immigrants entering the U.S. faced extreme poverty and harsh working conditions in factories.
It is notoriously the era with the most significant wealth inequality in American history.
Children were forced into back-breaking labor because no laws existed to protect them. The first child labor law wasn't created until 1938.
Newly-emancipated Black people—who saw the Emancipation Proclamation issued only years prior in 1863—faced racial terror and discrimination trying to make a living. Reconstruction had collapsed, and Jim Crow segregation was the law of the land, especially in Southern states. This resulted in many Black people moving from the South to cities in the North and West in what is now known as the Great Migration.
While Black people searched for economic viability, newly arriving immigrants faced their own set of struggles.
During the late 19th century, roughly 11.7 million immigrants migrated to the US. Of them, 90% were of European descent—primarily Irish and eastern European—and approximately 2% were of Chinese descent.
Upon arrival to the US, immigrants quickly took jobs in the booming industrial sector in factories and garment shops. Most workers at the time had very few options for employment beyond factories. According to a UCLA report, around 67% of the US population worked for someone else in the late 19th century.
Workers were grouped with others from different countries to ensure they couldn't speak the same language. This was a strategy to stave off any worker uprisings. They also faced verbal abuse by managers because of their limited proficiency in English.
Black Americans who migrated to urban centers in the Midwest and on the West and East coasts were also subjected to harsh working conditions in the factories.
It was not uncommon for workers to put in 16-hour days and have their wages cut if they didn't reach their daily quota. The factories functioned similarly to present-day sweatshops across the global south.
During that time, work accidents were frequent. Workers lost limbs, were permanently disabled, or died on the job.
Eventually, workers began to organize, creating unions, but those were not without flaws. Black workers, in particular, faced discrimination and were banned in some cases from joining unions.
Chinese migrants were brought to the US during the Gilded Age to build the railroads.
Chinese migrant workers, in particular, were brought to the US during the Gilded Age to build railroads across the West and Midwest.
Notably, Chinese immigrants set up roots in those parts of the country and worked to apply for citizenship. However, in 1882, the US government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which placed a ban on Chinese laborers entering the US.
While many people of color struggled during this period just to survive, white real estate titans and industrialists saw their wealth balloon. Four families in particular—the Rockefellers, the Fricks, the Carnegies, and the Bakers—held great monopolistic power.
In the 1880s, Robert G. Ingersoll, a New York-based attorney, hosted weekly feasts at his mansions on Fifth Avenue. According to the Smithsonian, one of his homes had a piano on every floor and a theater that sat 200 people.
Since the 1990s, the US has seen a similar trend toward heightened economic inequality, with a few individuals controlling a large portion of overall wealth. This has also been driven in part by new technological innovation. Many economists refer to our present era as a "Second Gilded Age."
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