There was a time in U.S. history when the business magnates and titans of industry boasted more wealth than even today’s top technology innovators and visionaries.
During America’s Gilded Age — which spanned most of the latter half of the 19th century, from around 1870 to 1900 — the inflation-adjusted wealth and impact of America’s most towering figures far overshadowed what we see today.
The wealth of people like John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Henry Ford, and Andrew Carnegie would by today’s standards be measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars — far more than tech giants like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and even Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest individual in the world as of 2019.
Wealth so vast can often highlight the financial inequality of an era. It’s this idea of grandeur in the face of unresolved social concerns that led Mark Twain to coin the phrase “Gilded Age” in his 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. The title suggested that the thin veneer of wealth for the elite masked broader issues for many in the lower and middle classes.
But the progress made in the United States during the Gilded Age can’t be denied. As part of the Second Industrial Revolution, the country underwent an impressive economic expansion — led by the day’s larger-than-life figures of wealth and power. Much of this growth was courtesy of railroads — which now spanned from coast to coast — as well as factories, steel, and the coal mining industry.
Big business boomed, with technology such as typewriters, cash registers, and adding machines helping to transform how people worked. And the economic explosion included not only industrial growth, but also a growth in agricultural technology such as mechanical reapers.
In a time of such great expansion and fewer regulations surrounding wealth and business practices, circumstances were perfect for the rise of a class of extremely wealthy individuals who made up a very small percentage of society. They had the power and means to create opportunities and jobs for the many, though with less social prioritization on workers’ rights, issues like discrimination, exploitation, and low wages marked the era.
Still, it’s impossible to overstate the impact these individuals had on America’s development. With technology booming and immigrants flocking to the United States seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families, they left their mark on the United States — and on history.
Captains of Industry and Robber Barons
The wealthy elite of the late 19th century consisted of industrialists who amassed their fortunes as so-called robber barons and captains of industry. Both can be defined as business tycoons, but there was a significant difference in the way they made their fortunes.
The term “robber baron” dates back to the Middle Ages and carries a negative connotation. Robber barons typically employed ethically questionable methods to eliminate their competition and develop a monopoly in their industry. Often, they had little empathy for workers.
Captains of industry, however, were often philanthropists. They made their wealth — and used it — in a way that would benefit society, such as providing more jobs or increasing productivity.
John D. Rockefeller
Born in 1837, John D. Rockefeller became one of the richest men in the world as the founder of the Standard Oil Company. In 2018 dollars, Rockefeller’s net worth is said to eclipse $400 billion — nearly three times the 2018 estimated net worth of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com and the wealthiest individual in the world.
Standard Oil dominated the oil industry, controlling roughly 90% of the refineries and pipelines in the United States by the early part of the 1880s.
While he has faced some criticism historically for how he accumulated his wealth, Rockefeller’s charitable efforts paint him as a philanthropic captain of industry. Over the course of his life, his donations to charitable causes exceeded $500 million (unadjusted for inflation).
Andrew Carnegie served as a great example of an American rags-to-riches story. Born to a poor Scottish family, he and his parents immigrated to the U.S. when he was 13. He built his fortune by investing in the steel industry and became the owner of Carnegie Steel Company, which by 1889 was the largest steel company in the world.
Despite some criticism of how some workers at Carnegie Steel were treated, Carnegie himself was extremely active in terms of philanthropy. In his efforts to contribute to society, he established the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the New York Public Library, and a college that would become part of Carnegie Mellon University.
He also wrote “The Gospel of Wealth,” an article that argued that the wealthy have a responsibility to contribute to the greater good of society.
John Pierpont Morgan was a financier from a wealthy family and is considered by many to have been among the robber barons during America’s Gilded Age.
At face value, Morgan contributed greatly to American industry. He invested in Thomas Edison and the Edison Electricity Company; helped to create General Electric and International Harvester; formed J.P. Morgan & Company; and gained control of half of the country’s railroad mileage. He also created the first billion-dollar company, U.S. Steel. At one point in his life, he was a board member of as many as 48 corporations.
However, Morgan engaged in some unethical and anticompetitive practices to ward off competition. For example, he was believed to head a money trust that controlled the banking industry and was commonly considered a figurehead of Wall Street. He also created a monopoly by slashing the workforce and their pay to maximize profits while eliminating the competition. Workers’ wages were often as low as a dollar a day or less, and conditions for employees were poor, with increased fatalities even as wages grew.
When confronted with the possibility of regulations that could threaten his bottom line, he and other robber barons of the time contributed money to ensure that a business-friendly presidential candidate, William McKinley, was elected in 1896.
Despite the numerous negatives associated with how Morgan built his wealth, some of his actions did benefit the United States and society. For example, his wealth was so vast that he was able to help bail out the federal government twice during an economic crisis, first in 1895 and again in 1907.
Automaker Henry Ford was a captain of industry who is considered to have treated his workers well. He believed that well-paid workers would be happier and more efficient. For that reason, he instituted a $5-a-day pay rate, which was twice as much as other auto manufacturers paid.
In addition, during a time when workers were required to work 10 hours a day, six days a week, Ford scheduled his workers for eight-hour days, five days a week.
Ford was known to be generous with his wealth in terms of charitable contributions. He donated personal funds to organizations that he created, such as the Henry Ford Hospital for the working poor who could afford to pay only some of the cost of their medical care. Over the course of his life, he donated approximately $14 million to this institution.
Other organizations created by Ford included the 80-acre Valley Farm for orphaned boys; a school for African American children in Georgia; and a Detroit trade school. He also paid for work camps for boys during the Great Depression.
In addition to his charitable efforts, Ford was a known pacifist. He was part of a peace ship to Europe that hoped to put an end to World War I.
- The Gilded Age
- Meaning and History of the Term “Robber Baron”
- Gilded Age, 1878-89
- Politics in the Gilded Age (PDF)
- The Gilded Age, 1870-1900: The Second Industrial Revolution
- Andrew Carnegie: Man of Steel (video)
- Biography: J.P. Morgan
- Robber Barons or Captains of Industry?
- John D. Rockefeller
- Robber Barons
- J.P. Morgan
- The Philanthropy Hall of Fame: Henry Ford
- 19 Robber Barons Who Built and Ruled America
- Gilded Age 1870-1900 (PDF)
- Sherman Anti-Trust Act (1890)
Who were the captains of industry or robber barons of the Gilded Age? ›
"Robber baron" is a term used frequently in the 19th century during America's Gilded Age to describe successful industrialists whose business practices were often considered ruthless or unethical. Included in the list of so-called robber barons are Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D. Rockefeller.Who were the captains of industry in the Gilded Age? ›
This lesson will cover the three main Captains of Industry Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and JP Morgan.Who were the 5 captains of industry? ›
These include people such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, Leland Stanford and John D. Rockefeller.Who were the robber barons and what did they do? ›
robber baron, pejorative term for one of the powerful 19th-century American industrialists and financiers who made fortunes by monopolizing huge industries through the formation of trusts, engaging in unethical business practices, exploiting workers, and paying little heed to their customers or competition.How did captains of industry treat their workers? ›
Workers were treated badly by the capitalists and their management organizations. Workers were often forbidden to strike, paid very low wages, and forced to work very long hours. Working conditions in both factories and mines were deplorable. Housing for the working class was crowded and substandard.Who was the most ruthless robber baron? ›
Jay Gould was a railroad developer and speculator. He was arguably the most ruthless robber baron of the Gilded Age and one of the richest men of his era.Why are robber barons also called captains of industry? ›
people saw them as Captains of Industry because they were inventive, hardworking and led the way in the rise of American business.What did robber barons do during the Gilded Age? ›
Among the richest of the rich were the so-called robber barons, whose extreme avarice drove them to use unethical business practices and exploit workers to create lucrative monopolies, and in the process amass fortunes that would amount to billions of dollars in today's money.Who were the big names in the Gilded Age? ›
Vast fortunes were made and lost; in fact, the top 4 richest Americans ever — John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and William Henry Vanderbilt — were Gilded Age tycoons.Who was the richest robber baron in the Gilded Age? ›
Cornelius Vanderbilt, 1794–1877
Wealth: At his death, Vanderbilt's fortune was estimated to be around US$100m which, as a share of US GDP at the time, makes him perhaps the second-wealthiest American in history, after only John D Rockefeller. How he made his money: Shipping, then railroads.
What did captains of industry do? ›
Captains of Industry Definition: The men who deserved to be called Captains of Industry were those who made a positive contribution to the nation by expanding markets and increasing trade, providing more jobs and increasing productivity.Who was the robber baron who dominated the oil industry? ›
Rockefeller founded Standard Oil Company in 1870 and dominated the oil industry until the end of the century. He became the world's richest man and the first American worth a billion dollars.
Some Americans viewed them as "robber barons," a ruthless and greedy bunch that would stop at nothing in pursuit of their own fortunes. Others viewed them as captains of industry and credited them for making the United States the richest industrial nation of the world.Who is the most famous captain of industry? ›
Some of the most famous include Andrew Carnegie, Invar Kamprad, and Bill Gates. Andrew Carnegie is frequently cited as one of the first great captains of industry in the Industrial era.Who was the first captain of industry? ›
Rockefeller. The positive term was coined by Thomas Carlyle in his 1843 book, Past and Present. John Davison Rockefeller was an American industrialist and philanthropist. He was the founder of the Standard Oil Company, which dominated the oil industry and was the first great U.S. business trust.How did robber barons benefit the economy? ›
Robber barons also greatly benefited the economy and pushed American expansion. This expansion created greater competition. Robber barons eliminated competition by cutting their prices, which benefited the consumers.Who were the robber barons and what was the way they looked at their success? ›
The robber barons were highly successful industrialists and bankers who drove the expansion of American capitalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their often questionable business tactics and propensity towards monopolism led to both government intervention and the establishment of workers' unions.How did the robber barons fall? ›
The public's increasingly negative view of trusts, or monopolies, transformed into legislation with the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890. The law did not end the reign of robber barons, but it signaled that the era of unregulated business would be coming to an end.How did the captains of industry hurt society? ›
Jim Fisk and Jay Gould clearly earned the title because they did not contribute to building something such as a railroad system. Instead, they destroyed such systems through clearly illegal actions and disregard for anyone else. Their actions hurt the economy of the United States.Why were some people called captains of industry? ›
The men that used ingenious business methods to create monopolies and vast wealth were also known as Captains of Industry because they exhibited leadership in their field and commanded the respect of the business world. Often times these Captains of Industry gave back their communities by participating in philanthropy.
What are captains of industry also known as? ›
Robber Barons and the Captains of Industry
Some nineteenth-century industrialists who were called "captains of industry" overlap with those called "robber barons," however. Rockefeller revolutionized the petroleum industry and defined the structure of modern philanthropy.
Andrew Carnegie, steel magnate, has the prototypical rags-to-riches story. Although such stories resembled more myth than reality, they served to encourage many Americans to seek similar paths to fame and fortune. In Carnegie, the story was one of few derived from fact.What happened to the Gould fortune? ›
Gould died of tuberculosis, then referred to as "consumption" on December 2, 1892, and was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York. His fortune was conservatively estimated for tax purposes at $72 million (equivalent to $2.17 billion in 2022), which he willed in its entirety to his family.How did captains of industry benefit the nation? ›
A captain of industry is defined as “a business leader whose means of amassing personal fortune contributes positively to the country in some way.” Furthermore, a business leader who increased productivity, expanded markets, provided more jobs, or showed acts of philanthropy were considered captains of industry.Do we have robber barons and captains of industry today? ›
Today's so-called robber barons or captains of industry run digital monopolies, using similar 19th century tactics to drive out competition, exploit customer's personal information, avoid taxes and engage in highly unethical business practices.How did robber barons control the government? ›
They connived with politicians to obtain advantages for themselves by controlling government and the law; they manipulated the public power for private gain. And the government was eager to oblige.What roles did robber barons play in the industrialization of the United States? ›
These men used union busting, fraud, intimidation, violence and their extensive political connections to gain an advantage over any competitors. Robber barons were relentless in their efforts to amass wealth while exploiting workers and ignoring standard business rules—and in many cases, the law itself.
Robber Barons used the ideas of Social Darwinism, the notion that corporate consolidations provided social mobility and opportunity, and the great economic prosperity available to justify the existence of monopolies.Who was the most important person in The Gilded Age? ›
He epitomized the Gilded Age ideal of the self-made man, rising from poverty to become one of the wealthiest individuals in the history of the world. Born into a humble family in Scotland, Carnegie came to the United States with his impoverished parents at the age of 13.
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What is a meaningful name for a girl? ›
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Only a few years after Emancipation, the Gilded Age also ushered in the new Black elite, also known as “the colored aristocracy,” “black 400,” 'upper tens,” and “best society,” as noted by Willard B. Gatewood in his book, Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880-1920.How much was $30 in the Gilded Age? ›
Value of $30 from 1800 to 2022
$30 in 1800 is equivalent in purchasing power to about $709.55 today, an increase of $679.55 over 222 years. The dollar had an average inflation rate of 1.44% per year between 1800 and today, producing a cumulative price increase of 2,265.17%.
Rockefeller gets all the press, but Andrew Carnegie may be the richest American of all time. The Scottish immigrant sold his company, U.S. Steel, to J.P. Morgan for $480 million in 1901.What is a captain of industry example? ›
Usually, captains of industry is a positive term to describe businesspeople as being notably powerful, wealthy, successful, or influential. For example, captains of industry is often used when describing the incredibly wealthy American entrepreneurs of the 1800s, such as J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller.Who got rich in the oil industry during the Gilded Age? ›
Rockefeller (in oil) and Andrew Carnegie (in steel), known as robber barons (people who got rich through ruthless business deals). The Gilded Age gets its name from the many great fortunes created during this period and the way of life this wealth supported.Who controlled oil in the Gilded Age? ›
The man primarily responsible for creating this near-monopoly, and who dominated the oil industry as Carnegie stood foremost in steel, was John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937). Thrifty and industrious, Rockefeller began his career at the age of sixteen as a bookkeeper in Cleveland, Ohio.Who got rich in the steel industry during the Gilded Age? ›
In 1901, banker John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) purchased Carnegie Steel for some $480 million, making Andrew Carnegie one of the world's richest men. That same year, Morgan merged Carnegie Steel with a group of other steel businesses to form U.S. Steel, the world's first billion-dollar corporation.Who were the 4 main robber barons? ›
The practice of being the only person who controls a particular industry is known as having a monopoly over that industry. Four men in particular made names - and, subsequently, much money - for themselves during this time: JP Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie.Who were the 3 robber barons? ›
"Robber baron" is a term used frequently in the 19th century during America's Gilded Age to describe successful industrialists whose business practices were often considered ruthless or unethical. Included in the list of so-called robber barons are Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D. Rockefeller.
What is the difference between a robber baron and a captain of industry? ›
Robber barons typically employed ethically questionable methods to eliminate their competition and develop a monopoly in their industry. Often, they had little empathy for workers. Captains of industry, however, were often philanthropists.Why were industrialists during the Gilded Age called captains of industry? ›
The men that used ingenious business methods to create monopolies and vast wealth were also known as Captains of Industry because they exhibited leadership in their field and commanded the respect of the business world. Often times these Captains of Industry gave back their communities by participating in philanthropy.Was Morgan a robber baron or a captain of industry? ›
J.P. Morgan was a Captain of Industry, because throughout his career he helped America financially in times of need. He helped struggling businesses and railroad companies, and throughout the process he also made millions. He soon became the wealthiest man of the time.What caused robber barons? ›
The Rise of Robber Barons
Conditions which favored vast accumulations of wealth included the extensive natural resources being discovered as the country expanded, the enormous potential workforce of immigrants arriving in the country, and the general acceleration of business in the years following the Civil War.
: someone who owns or manages a large, successful business or company.Was Andrew Carnegie a baron or a captain of industry? ›
Andrew Carnegie: A Captain of Industry Andrew Carnegie, a Gilded Age industrialist, was a captain of industry, because he expanded the American steel industry through hard work, becoming one of the richest people in history, and then donated about 90% of his fortune in an attempt to improve society.Was Carnegie a captain of industry? ›
One of the captains of industry of 19th century America, Andrew Carnegie helped build the formidable American steel industry, a process that turned a poor young man into the richest man in the world. Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, in 1835.How did the robber barons impact American history? ›
Although some robber barons positively contributed to society, primarily through philanthropy or donations, ultimately, they caused more harm through unfair trading practices, driving companies out of business, stealing capital, and exploiting the workforce.