The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910


By Esther Crain

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An expansive exploration of The Gilded Age in New York City, from of the extravagant lifestyles and magnificent mansions of the ultra-rich to the daily doings of the wretchedly poor who lived in the shadows of their newly constructed skyscrapers. Written by the curator of Ephemeral New York and illustrated with hundreds of rarely-seen images.

Mark Twain coined the term the "Gilded Age" for this period of growth and extravagance, experienced most dramatically in New York City from the 1870s to 1910. In forty short years, the city suddenly became a city of skyscrapers, subways, streetlights, and Central Park, as well as sprawling bridges that connected the once-distant boroughs. In Manhattan, more than a million poor immigrants crammed into tenements, while the half of the millionaires in the entire country lined Fifth Avenue with their opulent mansions.

The Gilded Age in New York City covers daily life for the rich, poor, and the burgeoning middle class; the colorful and energetic entrepreneurs known as both “captains of industry” and “robber barons” including John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Leland Stanford, and J.P. Morgan;  the opulence and excess of the new wealthy class; the influx of immigrants which caused the city's population to quadruple in 40 years; how new-found leisure time was spent in places such as Coney Island and Central Park; crimes that shocked the city and altered the police force; the rise of social services; and the city's physical growth both skyward and outward toward the five boroughs.

With more than 300 illustrations and photographs (including images colorized specifically for this book) combined with firsthand accounts and fascinating details, The Gilded Age in New York presents a vivid tapestry of American society at the turn of the century.


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The Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion, a 130-room Renaissance-style chateau on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, epitomized Gilded Age glamour and extravagance.


In 1866, New York's population of just over 800,000 was concentrated below 23rd Street. Residents traversed cobblestone roads by horsecar and illuminated their homes with candles and gas lamps. The tallest structure of what could barely be called a skyline was Trinity Church's 281-foot spire on lower Broadway. For entertainment, New Yorkers paid twenty-five cents to gaze at the oddities in Barnum's Museum near City Hall, or they took in one of the musical comedies in the Theater District on Broadway near Union Square. To reach the new Central Park from downtown required a lengthy carriage ride up a bumpy Fifth Avenue past open fields; crossing the East River to the city of Brooklyn meant boarding a ferry.

By 1900, the Empire City had become the Imperial City. New arrivals poured in from across the world and helped push the population to 3.4 million. Wealth generated by Wall Street and industrial labor fueled a housing boom of opulent Fifth Avenue mansions, gable-roof apartment flats, and rows of shabby tenements. Electric streetlights bathed nighttime sidewalks in a brilliant glow, especially along the new uptown Theater District approaching 42nd Street. Steel-frame office towers rose twenty stories and skimmed the heavens. Threading the metropolis were elevated train tracks, asphalt avenues, and a graceful bridge webbed with steel cables. Trains and cable cars carried the growing middle class from new residential enclaves uptown, in Harlem, and in Brooklyn to their jobs downtown and on Sunday outings to Coney Island. At the cusp of the twentieth century, New York was bursting with beauty, power, and possibilities.

The most common observation about New York is that it never stops evolving. Yet it's hard to imagine an era in Gotham's history more transformative than the Gilded Age, roughly between the end of the Civil War and 1910. While much of the fractured nation was regrouping, New York was already on the rise, fueled by fortunes made from wartime financing and manufacturing. For the next three decades, the confident city, with its "pull-down-and-build-over-again spirit," as Walt Whitman called it, marched northward, extended skyward, and then increased its size sixfold by annexing the cities and villages that shared its harbor. New York in this exhilarating era became a hub of invention and ingenuity, pioneering telephone service, artificial light, mass transit, ambulances, and moving pictures. Social activism found momentum here, too. Movements for labor rights, children's welfare, private and public benevolence for the struggling, and for the suffrage and independence of women set the stage for the city of the twentieth century to be one of progressive ideals.

The Gilded Age in New York attempts to capture what it was like to live in Gotham then, to be a daily witness to the city's rapid evolution. Newspapers, autobiographies, and personal diaries offer fascinating glimpses into daily life among the rich, the poor, and the surprisingly large middle class. The use of photography and illustrated periodicals provides astonishing images through which we can see and comprehend the era. Some document the bigness of New York: the construction of the Statue of Liberty, the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, the mansions of Millionaire's Row. Others reveal small, fleeting moments: Alice Vanderbilt posing proudly in her "Electric Light" ball gown at the masquerade ball that shifted the hierarchy of society; city residents enjoying carriage rides and promenades in the lungs of the city, Central Park; a line of desperate men waiting for free coffee at the Bowery Mission, one of a growing number of mission houses that catered to New York's lost and unwanted.

Many today remain fascinated by the Gilded Age. Perhaps it's the contradictions and extremes of the era that draw us in. White marble mansions modeled after Italian palazzos lined Fifth Avenue just a streetcar ride away from the airless flats and rookeries of the East Side slums. Upstate water piped into the receiving reservoir in Central Park offered New York households fresh running water, yet it wasn't until 1901 that tenements were required to have bathrooms in each apartment. While children of the well-to-do danced around maypoles in Central Park, the children of the struggling classes sewed shirts and made artificial flowers in factories. Votes were purchased, prostitution was out in the open, and despite the wealth and glamour of Caroline Astor's fabled Four Hundred, two brutal recessions made the Gilded Age one of bracing hardship for thousands, rather than a time of frivolous balls and dinners at Delmonico's.

If there is one place in today's city that best evokes ghosts of the Gilded Age, it would be the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street. Here is Madison Square, in the 1860s and 1870s the center of the most fashionable neighborhood. The Theater District was centered on 23rd Street, hotels and private clubs for the prosperous lined Fifth Avenue, and Broadway was the northern end of the Ladies' Mile shopping district. The first row of electric streetlights in the city lit the night sky here in 1880. And on a wedge-shaped plot across Madison Square, a magnificent skyscraper rose. What became known as the Flatiron Building transfixed crowds that gathered outside the Fifth Avenue Hotel and watched as it climbed into the clouds in 1902. "[It] appeared to be moving toward me like the bow of a monster steamer—a picture of a new America still in the making," said photographer Alfred Stieglitz, one of many artists who found wonder and enchantment in the Flatiron.

Walk along the intersection of these three streets, or in any part of the city, really, and the phantoms of the Gilded Age start to appear. The flat-roofed tenements with their rickety fire escapes; the five-cent lodging houses where homeless working kids could grab a bed and a meal; the boats that plied the East River, taking the poor, sick, and insane to public hospitals and asylums on Blackwell's Island. The elegant mansions, the police roundsman with his nightstick, the festive German beer gardens, the women of Ladies' Mile in their crisp shirtwaists and ostrich feather hats handing packages to their drivers before heading back uptown. Underneath the facade of the modern city, the ghosts of the Gilded Age dwell.


The Dawning of the Gilded Age

"Lincoln's death—thousands of flags at half mast—& on numbers of them long black pennants—from the shipping densely crowding the docks, the same—numerous ferry boats constantly plying across the river, the same solemn signal—black—business public & private all suspended, & the shops closed—strange mixture of horror, fury, tenderness, & a stirring wonder brewing."—Walt Whitman, 1865


Mourning in the Metropolis

The wood and silver casket containing the body of Abraham Lincoln arrived by ferry at the Desbrosses Street wharf on April 24, 1865. Under bright, balmy morning skies, crowds of solemn onlookers watched as soldiers carefully placed the casket onto an American flag–draped hearse.

Accompanied by a cortege of politicians, military officers, and representatives of civic groups, the hearse began wending its way east, pulled by six gray horses cloaked in black cloth. "The procession moved along Desbrosses Street to Hudson Street, along Hudson to Canal, through Canal to Broadway, and thence to City Hall Park," wrote the New York Times on April 11, 1915. "Everywhere dense masses of people lined the way, all of whom reverently bared their heads as the procession passed."

Inside City Hall, the open casket was set on a black platform at the top of a circular staircase over the rotunda. For the next twenty-four hours, the body of the slain president lay in state, as it had done in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. At each stop made by his funeral train, throngs of mourners honored the martyred leader.

For most of his presidency, New Yorkers had been sharply divided along class and ethnic lines in their affection and loyalty toward Lincoln. Yet since April 15, when word of the president's death reached the city, their grief had become immense, deep, and palpable. After hearing the news that morning, Walt Whitman, an admirer of the sixteenth president's, later described walking past shuttered stores on Broadway that were covered in black. At noon, rain began. "Black clouds driving overhead. Lincoln's death—black, black, black—as you look toward the sky—long broad black like great serpents," he wrote.

The lawyer George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary a day later on April 16: "An Easter Sunday unlike any I have seen.… Nearly every building in Broadway and in all the side streets, as far as one could see, festooned lavishly with black and white muslin. Columns swathed in the same material. Rosettes pinned to window curtains. Flags at half-mast and tied up with crape.… Never was a public mourning more spontaneous and general…"

Eight days after Strong's diary entry, City Hall was awash in sorrow. "Thousands passed reverently before the remains throughout the day and night, and thousands more were turned away, unable to gain admittance," the Times stated. "'As night came on,'" wrote one who saw the spectacle, "'the scene grew more impressive. The heavy draping of the rotunda caused the light from the chandeliers to assume a sickly glare as it was reflected from the silver ornaments of the coffin and catafalque on the faces of the passing crowd.'"

A silk mourning ribbon was worn by many to honor the Civil War president.

On April 25, 1865, President Lincoln's funeral car, pulled by sixteen horses and guided by soldiers from the city's 7th Regiment, slowly made its way from City Hall up Broadway to Union Square. There, mourners watched from the windows of bunting-draped buildings as the procession continued north to 30th Street.

One by one, an estimated 120,000 mourners paid their respects. "So short is the landing between the stairways that eight out of ten of the visitors, in their eagerness to catch an immediate glimpse, and their anxiety to maintain the look as long as practicable, forgot the step at the head of the downward flight and stumbled into the arms of the hard-worked policemen," wrote the Times on April 25.

By one o'clock the next day, the president's coffin was taken from City Hall and moved to a canopied funeral car. A second procession of approximately seventy-five thousand citizens passed key locations that connected Lincoln to the city. Just above City Hall, it approached the rough edges of the notorious Five Points slum, which Lincoln had visited as a presidential candidate and where he had become visibly distraught by the destitute children he encountered. At Bleecker Street, it passed Mathew Brady's former portrait studio, where Lincoln had sat for the photo that introduced him to the nation. As the procession reached Waverly Place, it came within blocks of Cooper Union, where Lincoln had spoken in 1860 as a little-known Republican hopeful for president.

At Union Square, the northern end of New York's commercial heart, the procession stopped. Politicians honored Lincoln with speeches; clergymen offered prayers. A front-row view could be purchased, and crowds watched and listened from roofs and windows.

Late in the afternoon, the procession resumed, moving west to Fifth Avenue and ultimately to the train depot at Tenth Avenue and 30th Street. From there, the casket would go to Albany en route to burial in Illinois. After the train departed, the city was left to deal with its sorrow and await the return to normalcy.


Abraham Lincoln, taken February 27, 1860: Hours before wowing New Yorkers with his historic speech at Cooper Union in February 1860, Lincoln stopped by the portrait studio of Mathew Brady at Broadway and Bleecker Street. There, Brady took the photo that helped transform the Republican presidential hopeful from political unknown to national leader.

The Rebellion in the South

Lincoln's funeral procession ended the Civil War in New York City the same way it started: in a rare moment of unity. As the 1860s began, New York was a tense, fractured metropolis. Economic expansion in the 1840s and 1850s, fueled by huge waves of cheap labor in the form of German and Irish immigrants, made the Empire City the nation's capital of commerce and industry. About eight hundred thousand people called Manhattan home. Omnibuses ferried residents to and from new brick and brownstone neighborhoods past Union and Madison Squares to the commercial districts that fanned out from Lower Broadway.


Then the Panic of 1857 ushered in the worst economic downturn in a generation. Factories and businesses closed; thousands were out of work. Recovery had arrived by 1860, yet city officials feared that Southern secession would cripple New York's economy. Cotton was America's leading export. Though it grew in the soil of Southern states, city insurers, brokers, and cargo companies financed and shipped millions of dollars' worth to European textile-mill cities such as Manchester, England. Southern businessmen also regularly visited the metropolis, filling the coffers of hotels, restaurants, and fine-goods shops.

The South and New York City each made a fortune off the international cotton trade. If that collusive relationship fell apart, New Orleans publisher James Dunmore De Bow predicted, "The ships would rot at her docks; grass would grow in Wall Street and Broadway, and the glory of New York, like that of Babylon and Rome, would be numbered with the things of the past."

New York City in 1860 was a bustling metropolis of capital and commerce on the rise again after a recession hit in 1857. Streetcar and ferry lines fed into downtown Manhattan, the center of business and government.

On the eve of the 1860 presidential election, abolitionists and conservative Protestants supported the antislavery Republicans. The merchant class and working class, joined by poor immigrants and the city's political establishment, sided with the proslavery Democrats. On Election Day, city residents delivered almost twice as many ballots to Lincoln's opponents as to Lincoln. But the state gave its electoral votes to Lincoln.

As South Carolina became the first state to leave the Union in December 1860, Mayor Fernando Wood—elected on a pro-Southern platform in 1859—made a last-ditch effort to maintain trade with the South by proposing that the city secede and form its own country. "Amid the gloom which the present and prospective condition of things must cast over the country, New York, as a Free City, may shed the only light and hope of a future reconstruction of our once blessed Confederacy," he told the Common Council (the city's governing body) on January 7, 1861. Wood's cronies on the council loved the idea.

Four months later, however, all sympathy for the South evaporated. On April 12, the Confederate bombing of Fort Sumter launched the Civil War. City residents united behind Lincoln's fight to preserve the Union. "President Lincoln's proclamation calling for seventy-five thousand men in order to suppress the Rebellion at the South, and to cause the laws to be duly executed, waked up the people to a realizing sense of their duty, as well as of the danger impending over them," wrote the New-York Tribune on April 16, 1861. "Knots and groups of men have been seen during the day standing in front of prominent buildings on Broadway and other public thoroughfares, discussing the call for men, and among them all but one sentiment appeared to prevail, and that was to 'fight in support of the American flag, and in defense of the American Union.'"

Thousands of New Yorkers signed up for the military, including fifty thousand Irish immigrants, who vied to be part of the famous Sixty-Ninth New York Regiment ("gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked" was their motto). Many of the Irish hoped that putting their lives on the line for their country would earn them the respect and dignity they had yet to secure in the city. Tens of thousands of German immigrants also volunteered for military duty, as did two thousand African Americans. In total, nearly 150,000 New York City residents would fight for the Union over the next four years.

Citywide support for the North hit its peak on April 20. An estimated quarter of a million residents gathered in what came to be known as the Great Sumter Rally in Union Square. "The excitement that prevailed is altogether unparalleled," wrote the New York Herald on April 21, 1861, noting the streamers that fluttered from windows, rooftops, and steeples. A giant American flag from Fort Sumter had been draped over a statue of George Washington. "Of the five stands erected for the accommodation of the public, and more especially of the orators of the occasion, each one was filled to overflowing, and the living cordon that surrounded them was packed as closely as human beings could exist amassed together."

George Templeton Strong observed the rally. In his diary that day, he wrote: "The Union mass-meeting was an event.… The crowd, or some of them, and the ladies and gentlemen who occupied the windows and lined the housetops all round Union Square, sang 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' and the people generally hurrahed a voluntary after each verse."

Before the bombardment of Fort Sumter launched the Civil War in April 1861, Mayor Fernando Wood, New York's Confederacy-sympathizing mayor, proposed a fantastical idea: that New York become an independent nation so trade with the South wouldn't be interrupted by war. The bombardment of Fort Sumter ended his plan.

A City Embraces "War Fever"

The giddy patriotism that seized the city continued through the spring and summer of 1861. The Stars and Stripes waved from tenement windows, store rooftops, men's hats and lapels, and even wagons, stagecoaches, and ship masts. Recruitment offices popped up block by block, and broadsides tacked to poles and fence posts urged young men to enlist.

"Respond to your country's call," one poster, for Company I in Brooklyn, beckoned, advertising $23 pay per month. Another, for the New York State Light Artillery, lured men with a promise of easy work—echoing the prevailing wisdom at the time that it would take mere weeks for the Union to crush the South. (Even Secretary of State William Seward was predicting that victory would take sixty days.) "No musket drill! No trenches to dig!" the poster read, directing potential enlistees to a recruiting station on Hudson Street.

Men in military regalia occupied city streets, saloons, and parks, as they trained and waited for orders to head south. Tent cities and barracks to house them sprang up in City Hall Park, the Battery, even newly opened yet still unfinished Central Park. Troops on their way to war would march up Broadway, to the cheers of thousands. "The aspect of Broadway was very gay indeed," reported the New York Times on April 20. "Minus the firing of pistols and the explosion of Chinese crackers, it was many Fourth-of-Julys rolled into one.… Evidently, all political partisanship was [cast] aside." New Yorkers heeded the call to war so enthusiastically that almost half of the sixteen thousand troops sent to protect Washington, D.C., in those early weeks came from Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Recruitment station posters advertising hefty cash bonuses helped convince thousands of men to enlist in the military, but more were needed—and in 1863, the nation instituted its first wartime draft.



  • "A beguiling, lavishly illustrated book that. . . epitomizes what Ms. Crain calls the city's incredible energy and sense of its own greatness and destiny."—Sam Roberts, The New York Times
  • "Crain unspools the story of four decades in crisp prose studded with pictures."—Entertainment Weekly

On Sale
Jan 11, 2028
Page Count
304 pages

Esther Crain

About the Author

Esther Crain is an author and native New Yorker. She launched Ephemeral New York, a website that chronicles the city's past and has been profiled in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and New York Post. She is also the author of The New-York Historical Society's New York City in 3D in the Gilded Age

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