“Handsome, Bustling, Successful Affairs”: Business and Labor During the Flourishing of American Literary Naturalism

By Alexis Butzner
•Gilded Era
•Progressive Era
•The Invisible Hand
Sherman Anti-Trust Act


Annotated Bibliography



Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward: 2000-1887. New York: Buccaneer Book, 1994.
A utopian novel written in 1888 that revolves around the acclimation of a young man from the nineteenth century to life in the year 2000. Julian West, kept in a sensory-deprivation tank for 113 years, goes to sleep at a time of booming business and unrest over labor issues, and the world of the twenty-first century has resolved those problems by creating a nationally centralized labor structure—the nation itself has become “the sole capitalist” (57) and the needs of the citizens are met equally and justly. The novel outlines several of the labor issues pertinent to Bellamy’s time, and offers a vision of their resolution.

Blackford, Mansel Griffiths. “Businessmen and the Regulation of Railroads and Public Utilities in California during the Progressive Era.” The Business History Review 44.3 (1970): 307-319.
Focusing expressly on the case of California, Blackford shows how businessmen and corporations helped push toward government regulation of railroad and public utilities from 1911-1915. Worried about the dangers of competition to a thriving economy, and considering railroads and utilities “natural monopolies,” the California legislature set about limiting competition by regulating rates both for services as well as locations where companies would be permitted to operate. As a result of these changes, which Blackford contends arose out of a desire for fairness and uniformity rather than cheapness or greed on the part of the railroad and utility corporations, the regulatory commission jumped from having investigated 113 complaints in 32 years to 4,040 in just four years.

Campbell, Ballard C. “Understanding Economic Change in the Gilded Age.” OAH Magazine of History 13.4 (1999): 16-20.
In the context of offering a pedagogical approach to teaching students about the economics of the Gilded Age, Campbell gives a clear and useful overview of some of the major issues at stake, and works to dispel what he perceives to be common myths. He notes that although the idea prevails that there was a chasm separating the wealthy and despicable “robber barons” from the destitute workers, standards of living increased dramatically and wages doubled between 1870 and 1900. Additionally, he tracks the dual movement of the American economy (via the “western movement” of agriculture and industrialization), contrasting it with the economies of other nations to show the extent and power of America’s economic growth.

Chandler, Jr. Alfred D. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1977.
Chandler aims to demonstrate that the period between 1840 and 1920 in the United States, in that period of transition between rural, agrarian economy and urban, industrial economy, marks the point at which “the visible hand of management replaced what Adam Smith referred to as the invisible hand of market forces” (1). In this model, traditional, small-scale enterprise is superseded by large-scale enterprise (“modern multiunit enterprise” [6]), which requires the institution of hierarchical levels of management. Chandler’s study, importantly, focuses not on the individuals responsible for this change (the ‘Robber Barons’, politicians, or land magnates of the period), but rather on the rise of business enterprise and the managerial class as a whole.

Connolly, James. “Bringing the City Back in: Space and Place in the Urban History of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 1.3 (2002): 258-278.
Taking Bellamy’s Looking Backward as a jumping off point, Connolly argues that the specific identities of important cities have been occluded in favor of more generic treatments of social and political history. This has, he avers, resulted in a shunting aside of factors that are crucially important to understanding the experience of the individual within urban spaces. The majority of the article is, however, comprised of a historiographical exploration of the field, which has bibliographic use but does not result in a deeper investigation of the issues he poses.
[The number, size, and social complexity of cities increased exponentially from the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth. On the eve of the Civil War, 6.2 million Americans lived in cities with populations of 8,000 or more. By 1920, that figure had mushroomed to 54.3 million. By 1910, the U.S. had three cities of more than one million (in 1860 it had none) and thirteen more with at least a third of a million inhabitants (in 1860 there were two).2 As Bellamy recognized, growth encouraged segmentation. Different parts of the city came to be dedicated to different social and economic activities: commerce, manufacturing, finance, entertainment, vice, residences for the well-to-do or the poor, suburbs for the middle class, and neighborhoods for particular racial or ethnic groups. These spatial patterns arose during the mid-nineteenth century in established cities, but frequently took shape during the period of intense urbanization running from the Civil War through World War I in newer urban settings. They were not natural byproducts of city growth but instead products of conflict and negotiation among the many groups and interests active in the city. Exploring their making and remaking offers a unique way to approach questions about social relations, identity formation, and the exercise of power (260)]

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1991.
Cronon examines the growth of Chicago and its impact on the American West up to the 1890s, focusing especially on the last half of the nineteenth century; he argues that “the central story of the nineteenth-century West is that of an expanding metropolitan economy creating ever more elaborate and intimate linkages between city and country” (xiii). While the first part of the book deals primarily with the settlement of Chicago, it builds to a discussion of the introduction of the railroads in the 1950s, which enabled the city to become a central locus of exchange. The second part of the book deals primarily with the rise of resources, and discusses in detail the production, transportation, and marketing of three major commodities: grain, lumber, and meats. The third part of the book builds on this information to demonstrate the prominence of Chicago as an economic powerhouse, including its role in the distribution of money and credit to other parts of the country.

Green, James R. The World of the Worker: Labor in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980.
Sometimes criticized as an overly leftist study of labor and working conditions in the twentieth century; Green purports to provide an extensive social history through 1980. He notes that traditional accounts (he cites primarily studies from the late sixties and seventies) focused on influential figures in the labor movements, and wishes to shift the discourse to “the relationship between the meaders and the masses of workers” (xi). The book focuses primarily on the period from 1910 to the 1970s, although some analysis is provided of the lead-up to the Progressive Era.


Heilbroner, Robert L. The Economic Transformation of America. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1977.
In what is essentially a textbook-style study of economic change in the U.S., Heilbroner offers an easy to read overview broken down by rough chronological period; he has been criticized in reviews for a now-controversial stand painting workers as lacking active roles in the industrial process, but despite this provides a clear account of the mechanisms of economic growth, the technologies that enabled industrialization, and the legislation necessitated by the changes.

James, John A. and Mark Thomas. “A Golden Age? Unemployment and the American Labor Market, 1880-1910.” The Journal of Economic History 63.4 (2003): 953-994.
Using a dataset constructed from 1910 census statistics and worker surveys, James and Thomas seek to counter the claim that the period around the turn of the twentieth century was a “Golden Age” of labor markets. The 1910 census was the first to provide data on employment, and the authors note that the rate of unemployment for non-farm employees was significant [4.97% in 1909 and 5.28% in 1910—with significant variations across gender and racial lines (white males had, across the board, higher unemployment rates than white females, and in many cases higher rates than their non-white counterparts)] The authors provide a detailed breakdown of this information by region, and cite both the high “natural rate” of unemployment and the turnover inherent in cyclical employment as clear indicators that things were not as rosy as the appellation “the Golden Age” would imply.

Josephson, Matthew. The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists 1861-1901. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1934.
Josephson focuses primarily on the buildup to what would become the Progressive Era during the era of major railroad development and captains of industry. He “attempts the history of a small class of men who arose at the time of our civil war and suddenly swept into power” (vii), and in so doing presents mini-biographies of the major figures of the period. He argues that these men appeared at a time when the nation was a mercantile-agrarian democracy, and that the role of these so-called ‘Robber Barons’ was to transform that mercantile-agrarian nation into a hierarchically controlled and unified industrial society.

Kirkland, Edward C. American Economic History Since 1860. New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1971.
A substantial bibliography of sources related to American economic development through the date of publication. Kirkland heavily concentrates on sources related to the period between 1877-1914 (firmly entrenching it in the discourse about the Gilded Age and Progressive Era), and offers a helpful organizational rubric to lead scholars to studies on very focused topics.

Kolko, Gabriel. The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916. New York: The Free Press, 1963.
Kolko argues that, despite the appellation “Progressive Era,” the period from the start of the twentieth century to the beginning of the United States’ involvement in the war was actually quite conservative. Rather than political regulation of the economy, he contends, the era was marked by business’ growing control over politics; he notes the role of political leaders and legislation in allowing industry veto and decisive power in regulatory processes, and offers a great deal of statistical evidence to demonstrate the explosion of economic expansion.

Myers, Gustavus. History of the Great American Fortunes. New York: Modern Library, 1907.
Myers attempts a historical survey of the economic powerhouses of the United States, from colonialism and the introduction of slavery through the first decade of the twentieth century. After tracing the rise of traders and shippers, he becomes especially interested in the importance of land fortunes, including that of the Astor family. Myers figures the entrepreneurs in an almost exclusively negative light, discussing them as responsible for the corruption of the economic infrastructure of the nation, and he has been criticized for his clear anti-capitalist bias, but the detail in his muckraking tendency leads to a great deal of specific legal and economic information.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Standing at Armageddon: The United State 1877-1919. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987.
Moving away from the standard periodization of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, Painter traces a history suggesting that the nation did not break evenly into a period of agrarian interests followed by urbanization, and rather that the span from 1877 to 1919 was tied together by a reformist impulse and the fear of middle- and upper-classes about the dangers of working class revolt—in particular, an apprehension about potential violence from the ranks of the dispossessed. Painter also argues that World War I exerted a particular power of shaping social conformity that leads to the close of this period (now considered in her estimation as a single continuum).

Prettyman, Gib. “Gilded Age Utopias of Incorporation.” Utopian Studies 12.1 (2001): 19-40.
Prettyman argues that, although corporations and corporate capitalism are often views as key to dystopias rather than utopias, the genre of the Utopia of Incorporation had a profound appeal to and effect on the rising commercial culture of the Gilded Age. Looking at novels by Edward Bellamy and others, Prettyman demonstrates that utopian works of this genre saw cooperative and centralized economic powers as having revolutionary motive force (and, unlike other types of utopian novels, foregroung their revolutionary mechanism rather than hiding it); Prettyman also emphasizes the interest—seen as pragmatic by its authors rather than utopian or revolutionary—in utilizing notions of total inclusion while maintaining a hierarchy of management structures.


Shackel, Paul A. and Matthew M. Palus. “The Gilded Age and Working-Class Industrial Communities.” American Anthropologist 108.4 (2006): 828-841.
Shackel and Palus aim to use historical archaeology to reconstruct and examine facts of the working class condition from the time of the Civil War to World War I, arguing that the use of oral history and archaeological data can offer a fresh perspective on the period. The authors argue that as the working class became inscribed into the new labor structures of industrialized society, conditions and salaries worsen—and mobility and instability increases. They trace the role of children in the workforce, as well as segregation and discrimination practices. [Focusing on Virginius Island in West Virginia, the authors take note of the trappings of various households—in particular various types of tableware, containers for medicine and alcohol—as markers of the prosperity of the class, and they argue that “Although these people created a material world that reflected Victorian ideals, and workers obtained goods similar to what was the norm in manager's households a generation earlier, they did not conform to the fullest expectations of burgeoning U.S. consumerism or fully embrace the consumer market. “]

Sklar, Martin J. The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916: The Market, the Law, and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.
Sklar’s main thesis suggests that commercial manufacturing and the rise of corporate capitalism, simultaneous with their effect on the American Economy, also fundamentally altered the face of politics and society as a whole. One main thrust of the book, then, revolves around Anti-Trust debates and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act; Sklar argues that the Sherman Act was not intended to inhibit corporate growth, but rather was simply concerned with curbing unfair practices in the development of trusts.

Stresser, Susan. “Customer to Consumer: The New Consumption in the Progressive Era.” OAH Magazine of History 13.3 (1999): 10-14.
Stresser argues that, as mass production and distribution became possible in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, marketing and branding had a profound effect on the marketplace. Customers, or shoppers who engage in face-to-face interations to purchase products and services, give way to consumers, who through the growing influx of advertising, consolidated shopping opportunities such as those provided by department stores, and mail-order capabilities—all available at lower prices thanks to factories and industrial processing—began to shop and consume a great deal more.