Having started as a bookkeeper in Cleveland, John D. Rockefeller accumulated money while being a merchant, and then bought his first oil refinery in 1862. By 1870 he had started Standard Oil Company of Ohio. His secret agreements with railroads allowed him to ship his oil with rebates and discounts, thusly driving competitors out of business. By 1899, The Standard Oil Company, acting as a holding company, controlled the stock of many companies, with $110 million in capital, and $45 million in profit a year. John D. Rockefeller's fortune was estimated at $200 million.
It is not an unusual tale, the one in which clever businessmen built empires by mercilessly defeating competition, keeping prices high and wages low, and using government subsidies. At the turn of the century, American Telephone and Telegraph had a monopoly over the nation's telephone system, and International harvester made 85% of all farm machinery. The banks had interests tied up in many of these monopolies. This created an interwoven network with overlapping, and powerful, corporate directors, each of whom sat on the boards of many corporations other than their own.
A Senate report in the early twentieth century revealed that Morgan, at his peak of power, sat on the board of forty-eight different corporations, and Rockefeller thirty-seven corporations.
During this rise of big business in the post-war years, commerce and newspapers got back on track, and by the 20th century, many advertising agencies were conducting business in cities across the United States.
Corporations benefited greatly from the advent of advertisements, which, in the first 20 years of the next century, would evolve into "public relations," one of the most important industries in business. This process marked an end to direct sales and the onset of mass-communicating advertising.
In the 1890's, advertisements featuring a central catchy phrase or slogan came into widespread use. For example, Kodak advertised its camera with the phrase: "You Press the Button, We Do the Rest." Some slogans were so catchy, they became familiar by most within the culture; for example, "leggo my eggo." In the nineteenth century, customers bought generic sugar, rice, coffee, molasses, salt, and other products in stores. Packaged goods, however, transformed marketing, for rice, coffee and other products now had brand names, which had a significant role in giving commodities personalities and meanings. Exaggerated, romantic images of beautiful people in a serene world were used to sell products. By the turn of the century, to be sure, many people in the United States had grown weary of such advertising techniques.
While the government attempted to appear neutral, its policies greatly benefited the rich, whether it was passing legislation to enable corporations to exist in multiple states at once or in the form of massive land subsidies to few corporations for the railroad. The irrelevance of the two-party system was made obvious when, in 1877, the Democrats and Republicans arranged to elect Rutherford Hayes. No matter which party was elected, national policy would not change in any significant way.
In 1844, when Grover Cleveland was elected president, he assured industrialists: "No harm shall come to any business interest as the result of administrative policy so long as I am President…a transfer of executive control from one party to another does not mean any serious disturbance in existing conditions." Despite past subsidies to corporations, Cleveland refused to provide relief to Texas farmers to help them purchase grain during a drought. In the same year, Cleveland used his surplus of gold to pay wealthy bondholders at $28 dollars above the $100 value of each bond, representing a gift of $45 million.
The spread of education during this period meant the proliferation of literate workers, both skilled and semiskilled. In the middle and late nineteenth century, high schools aided the industrial system. History, for example, was used to encourage patriotism. The educational and political demeanor of the teachers was controlled by loyalty oaths, teacher certification, and the requirement of citizenship. School officials, furthermore, controlled what textbooks were used -- and not the teachers.
It is during this period when the factory like nature of the classroom revealed itself fully. Many commentators of the time noticed how unenthusiastic were the schoolchildren, and stern were the teachers.
Despite the rise of education system designed to stabilize the industrial system as it evolved, large workers movements, which typically interrupted the industrial system, swept the country in the 1880's and 1890's, at a time when European immigrants were coming to the country at rates higher than ever. A severe depression, in 1893, caused elites to look overseas to battle the problem of under-consumption at home. A populist movement at the time tried to forge a new and independent culture for the nation's farmers.
The Farmer is a man the farmer is the man lives on credit till the fall with the interest rates so high it is a wonder he don't die and the mortgage man's the one who gets it all.
At the height of the 1877 depression, a "farmers alliance" began on a farm in Texas. It took only a few years for it to spread across the state, and by 1886, 100,000 farmers had joined in two thousand suiballiances. They had alternatives to the old way of doing things: join the alliance and form cooperatives; buy things together and get lower prices. In order to keep up with the pace of change, farmers had to borrow money, with the hope the prices of their harvest would stay high.
What they found was rising prices in transporation, the grain merchant for handling their grain going up, and the price of their produce going down. A poor working-man in Philadelphia wrote a book about the times. A sampling: "It is true that wealth has been greatly increased, and that the average of comfort, leisure and refinement has been raised; but these gains are no general: In them the lowest class do not share."
Farmers were up against more than the weather, as eastern banks controlled credit; manufacturing monopolies controlled the price of machines; eastern railroad trusts picked freight prices; depression destroyed asset values. But, farmers and city workers alike reached out towards one another, in order to form new political alliances. In 1892, the Populists presented a platform demanding a national ownership of railroads and telegraph and telephone systems, a system of protecting nonperishable crops out of the market, and a graduated income tax.
"We meet in the midst of a nation bourght to the verge of moral, poltical, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized and the newspapers largely subsidized or muzzled public opinion silenced." The Populist party, however, lost steam as it attempted to adopt the catchy slogans that were developing during the Gilded Age. In the debates regarding the depression of 1893, they coined the phrase "Free Silver," in an attempt to return the country to the gold and silver standard.
The expansion of transportation, the utilization of electricity, and more efficient industry are the pillars that support industrialization in the United States. The advances in technology in the latter half of the nineteenth century did not always mean more relaxed lifestyle. In fact, many people went from spending long hours on the farm to spending even longer hours in factories. This rise of big business in the United States set the stage for the United States to become an economic and political superpower on the world stage.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the United States became embroiled in an increasing number of imperial conquests, expanding its dominion sharply. With the country's entrance into the First World War, in 1917, the trend continued. By war's end, the United States would be among the foremost superpowers in the world, setting itself up to replace the British Empire as the strongest. The 1920's saw the rise of speculation, as well as another age of intense corruption and unparalled wealth, none of which would have been possible if it weren't for the seeds of the Gilded Age.
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