NYC’s Gilded Ages is a digital exhibit that was created by students in the Barnard College course, New York City’s Gilded Ages: Coming of Age, Past and Present, during the fall 2015 semester. The class and virtual exhibit were made possible by cooperation with the New-York Historical Society and with funding provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Students were advised by Barnard professors and New-York Historical Society curators. New York City’s Gilded Ages: Coming of Age, Past and Present is part of Barnard’s educational initiative, Barnard Teaches: Real Place + Digital Access, which explores, integrates, and extends the concept of placed-based learning with new and emerging digital technologies.
The First Gilded Age (ca. 1870–1920) was a period of extreme socioeconomic and cultural change. As this industrial era promoted a thriving American infrastructure, and a narrow band of wealthy elites at its peak, the transformation of the cityscape came at a cost: unfettered capitalistic gains were supported through the exploitation of natural resources, colonized peoples, immigrants, and laborers. Similarly, the Second Gilded Age, the global one of our modern era, has also been characterized by the dichotomy of economic inequality, and the consequent cultural, economic, and environmental changes that have resulted. Across both eras, nowhere were the effects of progress more prominent than at its epicenter: New York City.
So, what defines a Gilded Age of this massive urban scale? Key qualities include wealth and income inequality, immigration, and rapid changes in the urban environment. More importantly, however, are not the changes to the city, but to the people living in it. Both Gilded Ages are defined by an explosion of voices across all races, genders, and social classes, each occupying a different role in society that, when combined, reflects the myriad of different characteristics of these eras. But not all individuals had access to means of memorialization. The wealthiest have the means to commemorate themselves and their loved ones, and we can piece together their legacies by what they have left behind. In this sense, their personal belongings aren’t simply objects; they exist in time, place, and space, inseparable from not only personal identities, but also from the major issues and conflicts of their time. Material objects—the things that people wear, display, or use—are laden with meanings and communicate information such as wealth, gender, age, and personal taste. At the same time, objects are also integral in creating identities; they can help a person both feel and look the part they aspire to play on the urban stage. As social historians, it is our role to investigate the multifaceted nature of these objects, to combine their narratives to paint an accurate picture of lives both past and present.
This digital exhibit is constituted by pointed comparisons of objects from both Gilded Ages. Curators from The New-York Historical Society, and professors from Barnard College, selected objects from the First Gilded Age from New-York Historical’s collection for students to research. Inspired by the themes they uncovered through material and archival research, students then chose contemporary objects that resonated with those of the First Gilded Age, and studied them through documentary, digital, and ethnographic research. The objects and their subsequent comparisons naturally fit into certain categories, each of which can be applied to a specific societal sector of both Gilded Ages. They are divided into these conceptual distinctions below.
NYC’s Gilded Ages uses these paired objects to highlight nuanced connections between both Gilded Ages. Common to many themes is the idea of public presentation, identity construction, and hidden methods of production. This digital exhibit aims to compare and contrast these two larger-than-life eras, using the distinctions and evolutions between them to gauge qualities endemic to both.
Figure 1 – Left: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “On the Promenade, Brooklyn Bridge, N.Y., U.S.A.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Link. Right: Copyright Sebastian Siebert | Dreamstime.com.
Figure 2 – Left: Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. “Manhattan: Central Park – The Mall.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1892. Link. Right: iStock.com/littleny.