America in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Course No. 8535
Professor Edward T. O'Donnell, Ph.D.
College of the Holy Cross
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Course No. 8535
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What Will You Learn?

  • Meet some of the important figures from America's progressive era, including Roosevelt and Carnegie.
  • Look at the cities, technology, and progression of thought that led to a modern culture defined through the Gilded Age.
  • See the explosion of the Suffrage movement and the battle to win the women's right to vote.

Course Overview

America stands at a dramatic crossroads:

  • Massive banks and corporations wield disturbing power.
  • The huge income gap between the 1% and the other 99% grows visibly wider.
  • Astounding new technologies are changing American lives.
  • Conflicts over U.S. military interventionism, the environment, and immigration dominate public debate.

Sound familiar? You might be surprised to know that these headlines were ripped, not from today’s newspaper, but from newspapers over 100 years ago. These and other issues that characterize the early 21st century were also the hallmarks of the transformative periods known as the Gilded Age (1865-1900) and the Progressive Era (1900-1920).

Welcome to one of the most colorful, tumultuous, raucous, and profoundly pivotal epochs in American history. Stretching from the end of the Civil War in 1865 to roughly 1920, this extraordinary time was not only an era of vast and sweeping change—it saw the birth of the United States as we and the world at large now know it.

Before the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, America was a developing nation, with a largely agrarian economy; sharp divisions between North, South, and West; and virtually no role in global affairs. Yet by 1900, within an astonishing 35 years, the U.S. had emerged as the world’s greatest industrial power.

During the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the U.S. went from “leading by example” and maintaining an isolationist foreign policy to become a major participant in international events, showing itself as a nascent superpower in the Spanish-American War and World War I.

Numerous other events came together during these same periods to create the U.S. that we know now. In a time rife with staggering excess, social unrest, and strident calls for reform, these remarkable events characterized the Gilded Age and Progressive Era:

  • Industrialization directly gave rise to a huge American middle class.
  • New and voluminous waves of immigration added new material to the “melting pot” of U.S. society.
  • A mainly agrarian population became an urban one, witnessing the rise of huge cities.
  • The phenomenon of big business led to the formation of labor unions and the adoption of consumer protections.
  • Electricity, cars, and other technologies forever changed the landscape of American life.

To delve into the catalytic events of these times is to see, with crystal clarity, how the U.S. went from what we now might consider Third World status in the mid-19th century to become the major power it is today. Knowledge of these pivotal eras also provides insightful perspectives on conflicts that dominate our contemporary headlines—from fears surrounding immigration and income inequality to concern for the fate of the environment—and how they were meaningfully addressed in past times.

Now, in the 24 lectures of America in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Professor Edward T. O’Donnell of the College of the Holy Cross leads you in a sprawling, multifaceted journey through this uproarious epoch. In taking the measure of six dramatically innovative decades, you’ll investigate the economic, political, and social upheavals that marked these years, as well as the details of daily life and the critical cultural thinking of the times. In the process, you’ll meet robber barons, industrialists, socialites, crusading reformers, inventors, conservationists, women’s suffragists, civil rights activists, and passionate progressives, who together forged a new United States. These engrossing lectures provide a stunning and illuminating portrait of a nation-changing era.

A Republic Transforms

In Professor O’Donnell’s description, “The Gilded Age’s amazing innovation and wealth created the conditions—and mobilized the masses—for the Progressive Era’s social reforms.” Across the span of the lectures, you’ll witness this historical progression through subject matter such as:

  • The Industrial Age and the Rise of Big Business: Follow America’s epic industrial ascent in the 19th century, the emergence of vast corporations and trusts, the making of industrial magnates such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, and the transformation of the nation into a consumer society.
  • Revolutionary Technologies and Social Culture: Grasp how steel, electrical power, mass transportation, and recorded sound radically changed American life. Learn about the conspicuous excesses of the new super rich, the lifestyles of the exploding middle class, and the phenomena of American music, spectator sports, and stage entertainment.
  • The Dark Side of Progress: Take account of the devastating social problems that followed advances in industry and technology: extreme income inequality and poverty, graft and political corruption, severe exploitation of industrial workers, rampant labor violence, and the ills of urban crime, squalor, and disease.
  • The Crusade for Rights: Observe how the clash of progress and poverty spurred far-reaching efforts to secure legal rights for the disenfranchised. Study historic activism for workers’ rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, and the rights of consumers, and uncover the early and often overlooked struggle for African–Americans’ civil rights.
  • The New American Woman: Track significant changes in the lives of American women, such as major increases in women in the workforce, new public roles for women, the dynamic presence of women in reform initiatives, and the remarkable story of the women’s suffrage movement.
  • The Many Faces of Reform: Study the astonishing spectrum of reform movements that defined the Progressive Era, encompassing:
  • the dramatic unfolding of labor organizing, labor/capital conflict, and reform;
  • urban reforms, from regulation of deplorable tenements to sanitation and social work;
  • historic political reforms, from the ballot initiative to the civil service system;
  • the “busting” of powerful trusts and banking conglomerates; and
  • the conservation of wilderness and the world’s first national parks.

A Fascinating Window on Momentous Times

In his teaching, Professor O’Donnell demonstrates an extraordinarily comprehensive and penetrating knowledge of the eras in question, together with a flair for bringing the human realities of the times alive through powerful storytelling. Among numerous impactful episodes, you’ll witness the monumental moment in 1880 when electric arc lighting first lit American streets, causing men to fall on their knees before what seemed to be “lightning brought down from the heavens.” You’ll relive the events of the heartrending Bread and Roses strike of 1912, the wealth-flaunting gaudiness of Mrs. Vanderbilt’s ball of 1883 (which cost six million dollars in today’s currency), and the storm of suffragist picketers who besieged the White House in 1917.

And you’ll encounter great personalities, whose vision and dynamism symbolized and transformed the temper of their times. In addition to luminaries such as Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, you’ll meet the likes of saloon-busting reformer Carrie Nation, African-American rights activist Ida B. Wells, muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens, suffragist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, environmentalist John Muir, and Theodore Roosevelt, whose accomplishments in conservation and economic regulation made him one of the greatest reformers of the times.

In America in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, you’ll contemplate profound shifts in American society that marked what is arguably the most significant period of change in our history. These compelling lectures vividly reveal the thinking, the struggles, the conquests, and the triumphs that made the United States the global force it is today.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    1865: "Bind Up the Nation's Wounds"
    Begin to investigate the key historical forces that characterized the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, and the competing ideals that defined these eras. As a starting point, take account of the U.S. in 1865, and the extraordinary social, political, and economic changes unleashed by the devastation of the Civil War. x
  • 2
    The Reconstruction Revolution
    The era of Reconstruction following the Civil War was a turbulent and divisive period in American life. Learn about governmental policies and legislation that were enacted to safeguard the welfare of former slaves and average citizens, and how these policies were then progressively dismantled, ultimately returning the South to white-dominated rule. x
  • 3
    Buffalo Bill Cody and the Myth of the West
    Examine the complex and fascinating story of the conquest of the American West. First, assess key myths surrounding the West and how it was settled. Explore the motives and realities of westward migration, the components of the western economy, and the conflicts with Native Americans that led to violence and tragedy. x
  • 4
    Smokestack Nation: The Industrial Titans
    Trace the process by which the U.S. rose from developing nation status in 1865 to become the world's greatest industrial power by 1900. Study the unfolding of the American industrial revolution; the advent of big business in the railroad, steel, and oil industries; and the concurrent explosion of consumerism and advertising. x
  • 5
    Andrew Carnegie: The Self-Made Ideal
    This lecture examines the notion of the "self-made man" as it pervaded Gilded Age America. Investigate why this idea took on unprecedented popularity in the 19th century, how it was strongly promoted by figures from Horatio Alger to Andrew Carnegie, and explore how the ideal became entwined with social Darwinism. x
  • 6
    Big Business: Democracy for Sale?
    In the late Gilded Age there was wide agreement that troubling trends threatened the young republic. Explore rising public anxiety over the power of big business and the era's economic inequality, governmental corruption, and violent conflict between labor and capital. Take account of how business leaders responded to critics and reformers. x
  • 7
    The New Immigrants: A New America
    Here, learn how widespread immigration during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era transformed U.S. society. Delve into the diverse factors underlying immigration, and the perceived threats and social problems posed by immigrants. Observe how society at large reacted to the influx, and grasp the ways in which immigrants fundamentally changed the nation. x
  • 8
    Big Cities: The Underbelly Revealed
    The huge growth of cities was a hallmark of the Gilded Age. Study the forces leading to massive urbanization, such as industrialization, migration and immigration, and revolutionary technologies. Then track the serious social problems that resulted, from crime and disease to political corruption, which spurred intense scrutiny from reformers. x
  • 9
    Popular Culture: Jazz, Modern Art, Movies
    Take a wide-ranging look at the transformation of American art and entertainment during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Chart the accomplishments of the Ashcan School of painting and realist fiction. Witness the birth of ragtime, blues, and jazz, and the rise of spectator sports, stage entertainment, and the new medium of film. x
  • 10
    New Technology: Cars, Electricity, Records
    Technological changes in late 19th-century America radically changed the country and the world. Track the evolution of electrical power, and the impact of both electric lighting and electrified machinery. Grasp the economic and social changes brought about by the automobile and the cultural effects of recorded music as big business. x
  • 11
    The 1892 Homestead Strike
    Travel into the world of American workers, and view the poignant social problems that accompanied industrialization. Learn how technological changes in industry affected living conditions for workers, and follow the rise of labor movements, violent strikes, and intense conflict between labor unions and management. x
  • 12
    Morals and Manners: Middle-Class Society
    Discover how the American middle class was a direct product of industrialization and the new employment categories it created. Investigate the key features of the new middle class lifestyle, encompassing suburban living, consumption, and leisure. Also identify defining middle-class values, from respectability and manners to personal hygiene and the "cult of domesticity." x
  • 13
    Mrs. Vanderbilt's Gala Ball
    Take the measure of the new breed of multimillionaire industrialists that emerged in the Gilded Age as a visible public presence. Contrast the earlier American mindset of republican simplicity with the new rich who displayed and flaunted their wealth through vast estates and European-style aristocratic living. x
  • 14
    Populist Revolt: The Grangers and Coxey
    Follow the dramatic rise of the Populist movement, which aimed to address broad economic suffering. In particular, study the phenomenon of the People's Party, a political party that demanded major governmental changes to curb injustice and oppression, lighting a fire that lived on in the reforms of the Progressive Era. x
  • 15
    Rough Riders and the Imperial Dream
    Delve into the complex process by which the U.S. reversed its longstanding policy of isolationism to become actively involved in global affairs. Investigate the core ideas that built a case for American internationalism, as they manifested in the events of the Spanish-American War and the building of the Panama Canal. x
  • 16
    No More Corsets: The New Woman
    The lives of American women changed in far-reaching ways during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Trace late-19th-century social trends that led to more public roles for women and emerging ideas of women's rights. Learn about the women's suffrage movement and its embattled crusade to gain voting rights for women. x
  • 17
    Trust-Busting in the Progressive Era
    Witness how the Progressive movement took shape in the late 19th century, fueled by alarm over the unbridled power of large corporations. Grasp the era's new definition of American economic freedom, and examine actions taken under presidents Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson to dismantle railroad, meatpacking, and oil trusts, and to reform banking and taxation. x
  • 18
    The 1911 Triangle Fire and Reform
    Learn about reformers' efforts to address the miserable living and working conditions of industrial workers, and new labor laws that followed the galvanizing events of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and the Bread and Roses Strike. Also study the movements to eradicate child labor and to federally regulate food and medicines. x
  • 19
    Theodore Roosevelt, Conservationist
    Trace the origins of the conservation movement in the 19th century, and its early initiatives to establish federal protection of wilderness in the face of staunch opposition from commercial interests. Grasp the astonishing conservation record of President Theodore Roosevelt, whose efforts created a wide spectrum of national parks, wildlife preserves, and national forests. x
  • 20
    Urban Reform: How the Other Half Lives
    Study how progressive reformers responded to the troubles of big cities through urban planning, new thinking about poverty, and the establishment of "settlement houses" and social work to aid the urban poor. Also learn about activism to address alcohol abuse and prostitution, as well as governmental actions to reform housing, urban sanitation, and public health. x
  • 21
    The 17th Amendment: Democracy Restored
    Sweeping progressive reforms changed the face of American politics. Observe how initiatives at the city level began the eventual transformation of urban political machines into players in political reform. Examine major political reforms at the state and federal levels, culminating in the civil service system, popularly elected senators, and voting rights for women. x
  • 22
    Early Civil Rights: Washington or Du Bois?
    Discover how African Americans fought racism and violence in the early 20th century. Study the system of white supremacy called Jim Crow, and its economic, social, and political oppression. Review significant civil rights activism and legal victories that laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. x
  • 23
    Over There: A World Safe for Democracy
    As the Progressive Era ends, follow the complex events that led the United States into World War I. Learn how an initial federal policy of neutrality changed to one of "preparedness" and then intervention, amid conflicting public sentiments and government pro-war propaganda. Also trace the after-effects of the war on U.S. foreign policy. x
  • 24
    Upheaval and the End of an Era
    Finally, take account of the period of national turmoil that followed World War I. Study the wave of labor strikes, anti-radical hysteria, and race riots of the early post-war years. Grasp the economic, political, and social factors that gave way to a climate of renewed isolationism and conservatism during the Roaring 20s. x

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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 208-page printed course guidebook
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  • 208-page printed course guidebook
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  • Suggested readings
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Your professor

Edward T. O'Donnell

About Your Professor

Edward T. O'Donnell, Ph.D.
College of the Holy Cross
Dr. Edward T. O'Donnell is Associate Professor of History at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. He earned his Ph.D. in American History from Columbia University. Since 2002 Professor O'Donnell has worked extensively with the federal U.S. Department of Education program Teaching American History. He has served as the lead historian for several grants and has led hundreds of workshops and seminars and delivered...
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Reviews

America in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 74.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting course! I didn’t really know what this era was called, but since I’m very interested in the Civil War so learning about right after it was great. So many changes and inventions happened.
Date published: 2019-08-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Content good, presentation a bit rough and uneven depth in coverage of some topics
Date published: 2019-07-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Fine Course! My wife and I, both history majors in college half a century ago, enjoy listening to Teaching Company history CDs on long road trips. Our favorite professor is the late Rufus Fears (The Wisdom of History is superb), but this series on The Gilded Age and Progressive Era is a close second - well worth the cost!
Date published: 2019-04-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from wonderfully presented by a talented educator Professor O'Donnell is a talented lecturer with an easy listening style and engaging way of presenting historical material. I have enjoyed many of the great courses over the past few years, but Professor O'Donnell is one of the best presenters I have heard. He teaches at Holy Cross - my alma mater - I just wish he was there when I was a student. I ordered another course taught by him, so I can't wait to get into it!
Date published: 2019-03-24
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Too Subtly Manipulative This course is grossly agenda driven. For that reason, I can’t recommend it, unless you already know enough about real history to not be duped by Prof. O’Donnell’s personal representations. The first lecture gives a clue as he describes wealthy entrepreneurs as “arising” as though certain talents and other factors played no role. Progressives are credited with all good answers to the evils of the day. In the next lecture, when discussing the various perspectives on reconstruction after the Civil War, O’Donnell appropriately names “radical Republicans” the drivers for full equality, but then characterizes the opposition as “conservatives.” He describes this group as “some northerners and nearly all white southerners.” We all know this to be the Democrat party, but he doesn’t make that connection until the very end of the lecture when he correctly links the KKK to the Democrats. Lincoln’s successor and reconstruction obstacle Andrew Johnson is not identified by his party either, only that Lincoln saw him as a reasonable unity ticket candidate in 1864. Why does the professor obscure the true racists, the Democrats, with the term conservative which would be associated with Republicans in the modern age? Lecture three delves into westward expansion. Professor O’Donnell uses a banal approach, setting up absurd strawman myths, then knocking them down. One such myth is that Americans envision the pioneer movement as crossing a boundary line, such as the Mississippi River. Huh? The third myth “holds that the West was settled primarily by white Americans. But in fact, an incredibly diverse array of people participated in the great migration to the West.” However, as the professor moves into the migrants’ contact with native tribes, the negative effects are solely attributed to “white” settlers. One example of many: “However, the world of the Native American entered a period of crisis as a floodtide of white migration began moving westward.” When discussing the cattle drives and cowboys, O’Donnell interjects that at least a third of cowboys were not white, 15% were African-American. Why make such bizarre racial interjections? It is clear that failures and bad behavior are attributable to “whites,” while achievements are the result of “diverse” populations. Apparently Prof. O’Donnell doesn’t understand that “whites” are diverse, too, some good, some not so much. Any student (or professor) of history should know that the expansion of the United States was characterized by the some of the same bad behaviors as occurred in expansions or conquests throughout human history, but it arguably led to much better overall outcomes than those earlier historical events. The next lecture moves into the early industrial age. Professor O’Donnell again exposes his personal views as he ventures into economics: “Entrepreneurs also began to pay a market wage, rather than the traditional just wage – one agreed upon by the master craftsmen of a particular trade. Under the new market wage, each employer paid the lowest wage the market would bear.” So the professor appears to prefer “artisan” monopoly over “big business” monopolies. If monopolies of any kind are OK, why was the later trust-busting considered such an achievement? This quote from a Slate review of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States best sums my review of this course: “I am less concerned with what Zinn says than his warrant for saying it, less interested in the words that meet the eye than with the book’s interpretive circuitry, which doesn’t. Largely invisible to the casual reader are the moves and strategies that Zinn uses to bind evidence to conclusion, to convince readers that his interpretations are right.” I have only been through the first four lectures. To be fair there is some useful historical fact in the course, but one has to be alert for the propaganda. I hope in the future professors of the Hegelian, Frankfurt School critical theory, Columbia University, Howard Zinn line of agenda and opinion history are eschewed in favor of best evidence-based history.
Date published: 2019-03-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Interesting and Timely This 2015 TC course is useful in getting an historical perspective on many of today’s issues and concerns, without having to reach all that far back into the past (for me, at least, with grandparents born in the early 1880s and 1890s!). At first, I wondered about putting together such dissimilar periods, but Professor O’Donnell has a compelling rationale that he explains in the last lecture, that American history exhibits an ongoing “struggle” between competing American social, political, and economic ideals: “For a time, the ideals of interventionist government and the common good prevail. Then, the pendulum seems to swing back toward the ideals of laissez-faire and individualism. We’ve seen this shift many times in American history. The Gilded Age was followed by the Progressive Era, which was followed by the conservative Roaring Twenties, which was followed by the reform era known as the New Deal, which was followed by a period of conservatism in the 1950s, which was followed by the period of reformist activism in the Great Society of the 1960s.” (Course Guidebook, Page 82) This course is really fascinating in that the period covered has so much that speaks to us today, e.g., race relations, immigration, capital vs. labor, income inequality, feminism, populism, radicalism, and conservation (as a precursor to environmentalism). It also allows us to put into better perspective matters that we may think are exclusive to our time. This is most striking in Professor O’Donnell’s treatment of responses to the mass immigration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that prompted the 1924 law drastically limiting immigration for the next forty years. Professor O’Donnell is a fine presenter, with a well-developed set of lectures that employ top-notch graphics. You get a good feel for the period and the struggles described. While the subject matter could be given a partisan tilt, I did not feel that Professor O’Donnell stacked the deck. For example, while praising the Progressives for their many reform accomplishments, he also noted the stain on their record in embracing eugenics. In all, I find Professor O’Donnell not only a fine presenter, but also a fair-minded one. The 192-page Course Guidebook has useful lecture summaries and illustrative material from the video lectures. There is also a good bibliography.
Date published: 2019-02-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Awesome! This course is so well done; the professor is interesting and provides so much information to explain every point. The difference between this and what I should have learned in high school is that this is presented in an interesting fashion and holds my attention. The fact that I can watch over and over makes this video download so valuable. Can't wait to purchase other courses!
Date published: 2019-02-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Approach The period between the Civil War and WWI is often neglected in the study of American history, but is so impprtant in the development of womens rights, the denial of rights to American blacks, the rise of organized labor, environmental issues and consumerism. The lectures are well thought out and presented.
Date published: 2018-12-28
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