How Robber Barons Flaunted Their Money During the Gilded Age (2023)

During the Gilded Age—the decades between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the turn of the century—the explosive growth of factories, steel mills and railroads driven by the Second Industrial Revolution made a small, elite class of businessmen incredibly rich. By 1890, the wealthiest 1 percent of American families controlled 51 percent of the nation’s real and personal property.

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.

Term 'Conspicuous Consumption' Is Coined

The late 1800s super rich had an existence so opulent that it may have been almost unimaginable to the masses of ordinary Americans who labored in the factories and mills they owned. To describe their lifestyle, economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption.”

For the robber barons and their families, Veblen wrote, “the apparatus of living has grown so elaborate and cumbrous, in the way of dwellings, furniture, bric-a-brac, wardrobe and meals, that the consumers of these things cannot make way with them in the required manner without help” from armies of servants.

But the Robber Barons and their families didn’t just enjoy lives of luxury. Just as they competed in business, they were driven to outdo one another with their lavish spending and possessions. Beyond that, they hungered to become the equals of the aristocrats on the other side of the Atlantic.

“The U.S. was a new country, and there was this sense of looking to Europe and emulating royal society,” explains Elizabeth L. Block, a fashion and social historian and editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and author of the 2021 book Dressing Up: The Women Who Influenced French Fashion.

Industrialists who didn’t have early roots in colonial America and belong to an old-money clan would make up for it, Block says, by trying to acquire the persona of a European lord. “They would do that through buying the right things, through their possessions and what they were wearing.”

Here are a few of the most ostentatious ways in which the industrialists and their families flaunted their wealth.

(Video) How Gilded Age Robber Barons Showed Off Their Wealth

Magnificent Mansions

How Robber Barons Flaunted Their Money During the Gilded Age (1)

The Vanderbilt family’s castle-like 250-room mansion on the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, was so massive that three separate hills had to be leveled with dynamite and blasting powder to create a flat space for it, and the structure included nearly 10 million pounds of limestone, according to Ellen Erwin Rickman’s 2005 book on the estate.

To entertain the Vanderbilts and their guests, the mansion was equipped with a bowling alley, an indoor pool, and a library with 10,000 volumes, gardens designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and special smoking and gun rooms. They also could warm themselves at one of the mansion’s 65 fireplaces.

Other industrialists lived in elaborate homes as well. Another wealthy Gilded Age family, the Garretts, who made their fortune in railroads, lived in Evergreen, a Baltimore mansion, where a second-floor bathroom featured Roman tile mosaics and a bathtub and toilet covered in 23-karat gold leaf.

Elaborate, Numerous Wardrobes

How Robber Barons Flaunted Their Money During the Gilded Age (2)

The industrialists and their wives sailed once or twice each year to Paris, where courtiers at Paris fashion houses kept the women’s measurements on file so that they could have the latest designer dresses ready for them to try on.

“They would come back with five dresses, and roll them out at social events during the year,” Block explains. Back in the United States, “newspapers wrote about what these women were wearing.” The couples also would stop in London, where the men went to Saville Row, where tailors made bespoke suits for them out of the finest materials. (Banker and industrialist John Pierpont Morgan, for example, was a customer of Henry Poole & Co.)

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Industrialists’ wives also employed dressmakers back home to make additional clothing for them, because their social status required them to wear a different outfit to each engagement on their calendars. “Many of them were changing outfits five or six times a day,” Block says.

Wealthy Gilded Ave women sometimes even coordinated their clothing with the décor of their mansions, Block says. Caroline Astor, for example, had a life-size portrait of herself in her home’s reception hall, dressed in Paris-made finery. When guests arrived for a dinner party, she would greet them standing beneath the portrait, dressed in the latest fashion for that particular year.

Gilded Age ladies also used jewelry to flaunt their wealth. One socialite, Mrs. Calvin S. Brice, attended a ball wearing what a New York Times account described as a “magnificent” diamond tiara, a pendant of diamonds, and a bracelet and brooch decorated with black pearls and diamonds, according to the book Gilded New York: Design, Fashion and Society, by Phyllis Magidson, Susan Johnson and Thomas Mellins.

Lavish Parties

The Gilded Age super-rich sought to outdo one another by throwing grandiose soirees with massive guest lists. After aspiring socialite Alva Vanderbilt and her husband, William Kissam Vanderbilt moved into their new mansion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in 1883, for example, they celebrated by inviting 1,000 guests to a late-night housewarming party in which everyone had to dress in historical costumes.

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“Guests wore powdered wigs from the 18th century, and commissioned costumes from French courtiers,” Block explains. They went to the opera, then changed from their opera clothes into costumes. Then they went to the ball, had dinner at 2 a.m. and stayed all night, while their carriage drivers waited outside in the cold.

Another socialite, Cornelia Martin, put on an 1897 ball in which the interior of Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was transformed into a replica of the Palace of Versailles. Her husband Bradley Martin dressed as Louis XV in a suit of brocade, while the hostess took on the persona of Mary Stuart in a gown embroidered in gold and trimmed with pearls and precious stones. Another guest wore a suit of gold-inlaid armor valued at $10,000 ($336,000 in today’s money). “The power of wealth with its refinement and vulgarity was everywhere,” one attendee later recalled.

The popularity of costume parties led super-rich women to come up with outlandish attire. One socialite, Kate Fearing Strong, wore a taxidermied white cat as a headdress and a skirt fashioned from cats’ tails to the Vanderbilts’ housewarming ball, which earned her the nickname “Puss.”

Extravagant Furnishings

Gilded Age industrialists and their wives decorated the interiors of their mansions lavishly, sometimes importing entire suites of furniture from Europe as a way of demonstrating their well-traveled worldliness and sophistication.

“Others searched beyond Europe to find furniture in Morocco, hangings in Turkey, bowls on the Mount of Olives and fans in Japan,” Arnold Lewis, James Turner and Steven McQuillin write in their book, The Opulent Interiors of the Gilded Age. They took particular pride in owning candelabra previously possessed by the King of Bavaria, or statues that had once graced the homes of a noble French family.

While they had enormous budgets for decorating, the American elite didn’t always have the sophistication to get their money’s worth. “I think we definitely see that with Alva Vanderbilt’s choices for the interior of her home,” Block explains. “Maybe she didn’t know the difference between a medieval and a Renaissance tapestry or one from the 18th century, whereas the Europeans certainly would have.”

Exotic Dining

Gilded Age industrialists also indulged themselves at the dining table, where they demonstrated their prosperity by consuming the finest food in gluttonous quantities. Perhaps one of the most voracious eaters of the era was railroad magnate “Diamond” Jim Brady, who got his nickname from his habit of wearing so much finery that his biographer H. Paul Jeffers described him as “a walking jewelry store.”

According to Jeffers, Brady’s mass consumption of calories started with an enormous lunch that typically included two lobsters, deviled crabs, clams, oysters and beef, along with two whole pies for dessert. But that only was enough to hold him until late afternoon, when it was time for dinner. According to Jeffers, Brady would start with “a couple of dozen oysters, six crabs, and bowls of green turtle soup,” and then proceed to a main course that included two whole ducks, six or seven more lobsters, a sirloin steak, vegetables, topped off by pastries and a five-pound box of chocolates.

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As a restaurateur who served him recalled, Brady sometimes would invite eight to 10 guests to join him—and then eat the dinners of anyone who didn’t show up. A restaurant owner called him “the best 25 customers I ever had.”

The super-wealthy lived large, but their opulence had a dark side. The wealth that paid for it all often was obtained through corrupt business practices, and served as a reminder of how the income gap between the powerful few and the many who worked for them became even more extreme. To author and journalist Jack Beatty, the Gilded Age actually was the “Age of Betrayal,” in which the obsession with wealth caused Americans to lose sight of the democracy they’d fought to sustain during the Civil War.


How robber barons flaunted their money during the Gilded Age? ›

Lavish Parties

The Gilded Age super-rich sought to outdo one another by throwing grandiose soirees with massive guest lists.

How did robber barons make their money? ›

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.

What did robber barons do during the Gilded Age? ›

A 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.

How did the Gilded Age tycoons make their money? ›

During the Gilded Age, a number of businessmen made large sums of money by putting themselves in control of whole industries, such as railroading, banking, oil, and others. The practice of being the only person who controls a particular industry is known as having a monopoly over that industry.

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.

Who made the most money during the Gilded Age? ›

Bernstein and Swan in All the Money in the World (2008) mention the top four richest Americans ever—all tycoons of the Gilded Age—respectively: John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and William Henry Vanderbilt. Henry Ford was ranked only the 12th.

How did robber barons keep their power? ›

Using unethical economic techniques, these robber barons created a vast amount of wealth and power, until they had almost full control of a specific industry. They continued this way through political bribery and corrupt practices.

How did robber barons benefit the economy? ›

Robber barons contributed to great economic and industrial expansion in the U.S. by building financial empires in key industries, such as railroads and steel. With fewer business regulations than there are today, robber barons were able to amass great wealth.

Who was new money in the Gilded Age? ›

As the historian Keith Taillon explains in a recent New Yorker article, the old-money world of Wharton's New York “disdained ostentation.” The real-world counterparts to Wharton's Beaufort family were the new-money Vanderbilts, powerful industrialists who flaunted the wealth they had gained through shipping and ...

Were the robber barons good or bad? ›

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.

How did robber barons treat his workers? ›

The Robber Barons cared little for the working conditions and safety of their employees. The Robber Barons kept wages at a minimum, and reduced wages as they felt fit. Many families were on the breadline and their children were also forced to work to enable them to survive.

What did robber barons steal? ›

Instead of physically robbing individuals, the 19th century robber barons were said to have stolen control over natural resources, paid unfairly low wages, and pushed out their competition using questionable business practices.

Who gave money to charity in the Gilded Age? ›

Stephen Girard: At his death in 1831, Girard left the largest American fortune to date to charitable causes. John D. Rockefeller: Amassed enormous wealth in the oil industry and established the Rockefeller Foundation. Cornelius Vanderbilt: Gave $1 million to found Vanderbilt University in 1873.

How was the Gilded Age successful? ›

The Gilded Age was a period of economic growth as the United States jumped to the lead in industrialization ahead of Britain. The nation was rapidly expanding its economy into new areas, especially heavy industry like factories, railroads, and coal mining.

How did wealthy people live during the Gilded Age? ›

While the wealthy lived in opulent homes, dined on succulent food and showered their children with gifts, the poor were crammed into filthy tenement apartments, struggled to put a loaf of bread on the table and often accompanied their children to a sweatshop each morning where they faced a 12-hour (or longer) workday.

What led to the rise of 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.

Why were robber barons called that? ›

The term robber baron derives from the Raubritter (robber knights), the medieval German lords who charged nominally illegal tolls (unauthorized by the Holy Roman Emperor) on the primitive roads crossing their lands or larger tolls along the Rhine river.

Which robber baron was the richest? ›

Industry: oil. 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.

Who were 3 Important figures of The Gilded Age? ›

Who were some of the key figures of the Gilded Age? Among the best known of the entrepreneurs who became known, pejoratively, as robber barons during the Gilded Age were John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Leland Stanford, and J.P. Morgan.

How much were children paid in The Gilded Age? ›

Children hired by factories worked twelve hour days, six days a week, for about a dollar a day; the younger children who were around the ages of 4-7 were not even paid for their work.

Who is the richest person to ever live? ›

Who was the richest person ever? The richest person ever is thought to have been an emperor with an accumulation of wealth often described as “unimaginable” or “incalculable.” The title goes to 14th-century African emperor Mansa Musa, and his wealth has been estimated to be the modern day equivalent of $400 billion.

Did robber barons pay taxes? ›

''Robber barons'' like J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller did not consume most of their income, and their intangible wealth avoided state-level personal property taxes as well.

Why did robber barons use child labor? ›

…or Robber Barons? A monopoly is having exclusive control of a commodity or service in a particular market. Child labor included factory work, agriculture, or doing odd jobs. Businesses wanted to hire children because they were a cheap source of labor.

How did robber barons take advantage of pure capitalism? ›

They connived with politicians to obtain advantages for themselves by controlling government and the law; they manipulated the public power for private gain.

Was everyone wealthy in the Gilded Age? ›

While the rich wore diamonds, many wore rags. In 1890, 11 million of the nation's 12 million families earned less than $1200 per year; of this group, the average annual income was $380, well below the poverty line. Rural Americans and new immigrants crowded into urban areas.

How much was 30 dollars in the Gilded Age? ›

$30 in 1800 is worth $709.55 today

This means that today's prices are 23.65 times higher than average prices since 1800, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index. A dollar today only buys 4.228% of what it could buy back then.

How can I get old money? ›

If the money has been passed down during the course of many generations, it is old. If earned recently, the wealth is considered new. Many of the families living in the United States with old wealth descended from the early industrialists.

Who was the cruelest robber baron? ›

John D.

Rockefeller controlled much of the American oil industry during the late 19th century and his business tactics made him one of the most notorious of the robber barons.

Who are robber barons 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.

Why did America favor robber barons? ›

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 gave away the most money in history? ›

Feeney gave away his fortune in secret for many years, until a business dispute resulted in his identity being revealed in 1997. Feeney has given away more than $8 billion.
Chuck Feeney.
Chuck Feeney AC
BornCharles Francis Feeney April 23, 1931 Elizabeth, New Jersey, U.S.
CitizenshipIreland United States
4 more rows

Who was the most important person in the Gilded Age? ›

Andrew Carnegie

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.

Who gave large sums of money to charity? ›

The Americans who gave the most to charity in 2021
RankDonor or donorsAmount in millions
1Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates$15,000 $15,000
2Michael Bloomberg$1,660 $1,660
3William Ackman and Neri Oxman$1,200 $1,200
4Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan$1,049 $1,049
6 more rows
8 Feb 2022

What was special about the Gilded Age? ›

Gilded Age (1878-1889) The growth of industry and a wave of immigrants marked this period in American history. The production of iron and steel rose dramatically and western resources like lumber, gold, and silver increased the demand for improved transportation.

Who wins in the Gilded Age? ›

Warning: This article contains spoilers about Monday's season 1 finale of The Gilded Age. The Russells have triumphed at last.

What were 3 major problems of the Gilded Age? ›

Problems of the Gilded Age
  • Unhealthy & Dangerous Working Conditions. The Gilded Age saw a rise in unhealthy and dangerous working conditions. ...
  • Monopolies. Companies emerged during this era that sought to eliminate or get rid of competition. ...
  • Government & Business Corruption. The government practiced laissez faire economics.

How did the poor live during the Gilded Age? ›

Tenements were low-rise apartment buildings that often were overcrowded and had inadequate plumbing and ventilation. The picture above shows a family of seven who lived together in one room. Living conditions for poor workers were unsanitary and sometimes hazardous to the health of those who lived there.

Where did the rich live in the Gilded Age? ›

While the homes of the Gilded Age began as brownstones in Midtown, by the 1880s the wealthy had moved up Fifth Avenue to Manhattan's Upper East Side to build ornate homes that borrowed architectural details from French chateaus and the Italian Renaissance and were adorned with elaborate moldings, fireplaces and wood ...

How did the Gilded Age impact the poor? ›

As the rich grew richer during the Gilded Age, the poor grew poorer. The great wealth accumulated by the “robber barons” came at the expense of the masses.

How did robber barons create monopolies in the United States in the late 1800s? ›

Robber barons took over industries such as railroads, banks, steel, cotton, oil, tobacco and liquor. To monopolize these industries, they would use tactics such as creating trusts, exploiting workers, and disregarding customers or competition.

In what ways did robber barons influence government and benefit from it during this era? ›

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.

How were robber barons often portrayed in a positive light? ›

The men who were called robber barons were often portrayed in a positive light, as “self-made men” who had helped build the nation and in the process created many jobs for American workers.

Why did robber barons make an impact on wealth and political power? ›

Robber barons were destructive to society because of their corrupt political methods to generate capital. Corruption in politics was widespread during this period. This caused many robber barons to take hold of the government to ensure the survival of their business and their 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.

Were robber barons good or bad for the United States? ›

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.

How did the robber barons impact American history? ›

The Robber Barons changed the lives of Americans forever, bringing about complex social and economic changes that led to riots, strikes and the emergence of the unions. The Robber Barons amassed wealth and power during the period of intense economic and industrial growth following the American Civil War.

Which robber baron was the most influential? ›

Rockefeller controlled much of the American oil industry during the late 19th century and his business tactics made him one of the most notorious of the robber barons.


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