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The Gilded Age Revisited: A Library Program & Booklist


The Gilded Age Revisited: A Library Program & Booklist

Gilded Age

The Gilded Age, a term coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their novel “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today,” refers to a fascinating period in American history from the 1870s to the early 1900s. It was a time of unprecedented economic growth, industrialization, and rapid social change, but also marked by widespread corruption, social inequality, and political unrest.

The HBO series The Gilded Age has revived much interest in this era, which left its mark on New York City, where the opulent lifestyles of the city’s rich and famous captured the public imagination.

On April 15 at 7pm,  join Susan and Art Zuckerman as they give you a peek into this fascinating period marked by immense economic and social change, great conflict between the old ways and brand new systems, and huge fortunes made and lost.

Learn about the most opulent times and lavish lives of the wealthy and the ruling class. Hear about the richest families who ever lived in New York including the Astors and their Society of “the 400,” the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, the Rockefellers and many more.  You will also hear about the billionaire “Witch of Wall Street”, the “Murder of the Century” and the hideous nose condition of the most prominent banker in the country. 

 However, this was also the time of the greatest poverty in New York as chronicled in the book, “How the Other Half Lives”.  Crime, filth, and tenements spread in cities and there was violence and riots at the turn of the century.  You will hear about how many people in urban and rural areas labored under the shadow of poverty, including those working in the mills, factories and sweatshops, and new immigrants.  Reform movements of this time will also be addressed.  

You can also revisit this era by checking out some books/ebooks of fiction and nonfiction that are set in those times, and feature true crime,  scandals, and the luxurious lives of well heeled families.


all my secrets

All My Secrets by Lynn N. Austin (Series: Gilded Age)

When her husband’s unexpected death bestows his fortune on a male heir, Sylvia tries to marry her daughter off to a wealthy husband to maintain their lifestyle, but is stopped by her mother-in-law, who wants more for her granddaughter.

All the Pretty Places : a Novel of the Gilded Age by Joy Callaway

A captivating story of a strong woman in a striking setting, examining the life-changing effects of the beauty of nature and how that splendor is restricted to the rich and privileged in the Gilded Age.

An American Beauty by Shane Abe

When a railroad baron falls for a uniform girl at a gambling parlor thirty years his junior, he moves her to New York posing as a well-heeled Southern widow where her shrewd investing instincts build her a fortune.

The Duchess Takes a Husband by Harper St. George (Series: The Gilded Age Heiresses)

American “Dollar Princess” Camille, now the Dowager Duchess of Hereford after her horrible husband’s death, decides to ask Jacob Thorne, co-owner of an infamous club and the illegitimate son of an earl, for help discovering if she can find pleasure with a man. In exchange, she agrees to a fake engagement in order to help Jacob gain backing for a new business venture. Camille ends up on a voyage of self-discovery, working through the ways she suffered at the hands of her husband and exploring how she can help ensure other women don’t suffer her same fate. 

Murder Wears a Hidden Face by Rosemary Simpson (Series: A Gilded Age Mystery)

February 1891: New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is hosting an exhibition of Chinese art objects, timed to coincide with the arrival of a new Chinese cultural attaché, Lord Peng. Prudence and Geoffrey are invited to attend the opening ceremonies. But among the throng of dignitaries making their way through the galleries is one decidedly unwelcome and unexpected visitor–an assassin who stabs the attaché to death, then flees through Central Park. As witnesses, Prudence and Geoffrey quickly become immersed in the case and join former New York detective Warren Lowry in investigating the murder. But there are complications. The Peng family will no longer enjoy diplomatic standing and is threatened by deportation and possible disgrace or execution in their homeland. Desperate to remain in the West, they flee into the labyrinth of Chinatown, enlisting the protection of a long-lost uncle, now the leader of one of the city’s most feared Tongs. But that alliance comes with a price; Peng’s son must become his uncle’s apprentice in crime, while his eldest daughter will be forced to marry a Tong leader she has never met. With a killer still at large, bent on revenge for a long-ago injustice and determined to eliminate every member of the Peng family, Prudence and Geoffrey are plunged into the heart of a culture about which they know very little. Each foray into the narrow streets and alleyways of Chinatown could be their last.

The Nurse’s Secret: A Thrilling Historical Novel of the Dark Side of Gilded Age New York City by Amanda Skenandore

Based on Florence Nightingale’s nursing principles, Bellevue is the first school of its kind in the country. Where once nurses were assumed to be ignorant and unskilled, Bellevue prizes discipline, intellect, and moral character, and only young women of good breeding need apply. At first, Una balks at her prim classmates and the doctors’ endless commands. Yet life on the streets has prepared her for the horrors of injury and disease found on the wards, and she slowly gains friendship and self-respect. Just as she finds her footing, Una’s suspicions about a patient’s death put her at risk of exposure, and will force her to choose between her instinct for self-preservation, and exposing her identity in order to save others. Amanda Skenandore brings her medical expertise to a page-turning story that explores the evolution of modern nursing—including the grisly realities of nineteenth-century medicine—as seen through the eyes of an intriguing and dynamic heroine.


after the ball

After the Ball : Gilded Age Secrets, Boardroom Betrayals, and the Party that Ignited the Great Wall Street Scandal of 1905 by Patricia Beard

Journalist Beard details the great Equitable Life Assurance scandal of 1905 that captured the national spotlight and shook Wall Street. The death in 1899 of Equitable’s president and founder, Henry Hyde, created a power vacuum in one of the era’s richest and most powerful companies. Hyde’s chosen successor, his son James Hazen Hyde, quickly became embroiled in a struggle for control of the company with the “old guard.” James’s extravagant lifestyle and expensive tastes came to be used against him. The story’s culminating event is an opulent costumed ball that featured 600 guests and a play written for the occasion. The ball gave Hyde’s enemies the ammunition they were looking for to discredit him as a rich, frivolous playboy who was too irresponsible to be handling the serious business of life insurance. They falsely accused him of charging the cost of the ball to the company, among other things. The saga is complete with betrayal, romance, accounting fraud, sneaky backroom deals, and connections to some of the most powerful men of the era, including President Theodore Roosevelt.

All That is Wicked : A Gilded-Age Story of Murder and the Race to Decode the Criminal Mind by Kate Winkler Dawson

Dawson tells the thrilling story of Edward Rulloff-a serial murderer who was called “too intelligent to be killed”–and the array of 19th century investigators who were convinced his brain held the key to finally understanding the criminal mind.

America in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era by Edward T. O’ Donnell

Over decades marked by economic, political, social, and technological upheavals, the US went from an agrarian, isolationist country to the world’s greatest industrial power and a nascent geopolitical superpower. In a time rife with staggering excess, social unrest, and strident calls for reform, these and other remarkable events created the country that we know today: industrialization gave rise to a huge American middle class; voluminous waves of immigration added new material to the “melting pot” of US society; 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.

Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune by Anderson Cooper

The story of the Astors is a quintessentially American story–of ambition, invention, destruction, and reinvention. From 1783, when German immigrant John Jacob Astor first arrived in the United States, until 2009, when Brooke Astor’s son, Anthony Marshall, was convicted of defrauding his elderly mother, the Astor name occupied a unique place in American society. The family fortune, first made by a beaver trapping business that grew into an empire, was then amplified by holdings in Manhattan real estate. Over the ensuing generations, Astors ruled Gilded Age New York society and inserted themselves into political and cultural life, but also suffered the most famous loss on the Titanic, one of many shocking and unexpected twists in the family’s story.

Diamonds and Deadlines : A Tale of Greed, Deceit, and a Female Tycoon in the Gilded Age by Betsy Prioleau

Among the fabled tycoons of the Gilded Age–Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt–is a forgotten figure: Mrs. Frank Leslie. For twenty years she ran the country’s largest publishing company, Frank Leslie Publishing, which chronicled postbellum America in dozens of weeklies and monthlies. A pioneer in an all-male industry, she made a fortune and became a national celebrity and tastemaker in the process. But Miriam Leslie was also a byword for scandal: She flouted feminine convention, took lovers, married four times, and harbored unsavory secrets that she concealed through a skein of lies and multiple personas.   Cultural historian Prioleau draws from diaries, genealogies, and published works to provide an intimate look at the life of one of the Gilded Age’s most complex, powerful women and unexpected feminist icons.

The Edge of Anarchy : The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America by Jack Kelly

At the pinnacle of the Gilded Age, a boycott of Pullman sleeping cars by hundreds of thousands of railroad employees brought commerce to a standstill across much of the country. Famine threatened, riots broke out along the rail lines. Soon the U.S. Army was on the march and gunfire rang from the streets of major cities. This epochal tale offers fascinating portraits of two iconic characters of the age. George Pullman, who amassed a fortune by making train travel a pleasure, thought the model town that he built for his workers would erase urban squalor. Eugene Debs, founder of the nation’s first industrial union, was determined to wrench power away from the reigning plutocrats. The clash between the two men’s conflicting ideals pushed the country to what the U.S. Attorney General called “the ragged edge of anarchy.” 

empty mansions

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman & Paul Clark Newell Jr.

A rich mystery of wealth and loss, connecting the Gilded Age opulence of the nineteenth century with a twenty-first-century battle over a $300 million inheritance. At its heart is a reclusive heiress named Huguette Clark, a woman so secretive that, at the time of her death at age 104, no new photograph of her had been seen in decades. Though she owned palatial homes in California, New York, and Connecticut, why had she lived for twenty years in a simple hospital room, despite being in excellent health? Why were her valuables being sold off? Was she in control of her fortune, or controlled by those managing her money?

Food in the Gilded Age : What Ordinary Americans Ate by Robert Dirks

The Gilded Age is renowned for a variety of reasons, including its culture of conspicuous consumption among the newly rich. In the domain of food, conspicuous consumption manifested itself in appetites for expensive dishes and lavish dinner parties. These received ample publicity at the time, resulting later on in well-developed historical depictions of upper-class eating habits. This book delves into the eating habits of people of lesser means. Concerning the African American community, the working class, the impoverished, immigrants, and others our historical representations have been relatively superficial. The author changes that by turning to the late nineteenth century’s infant science of nutrition for a look at eating and drinking through the lens of the earliest food consumption studies conducted in the United States. These were undertaken by scientists, mostly chemists, who left their laboratories to observe food consumption in kitchens, dining rooms, and various institutional settings. Their insistence on careful measurement resulted in a substantial body of detailed reports on the eating habits of ordinary people. 

Greed in the Gilded Age : the Brilliant Con of Cassie Chadwick by William Hazelgrove

She might be one of the greatest con artists of all time. Cassie Chadwick conned millions of dollars out of banks by claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie. It was a simple but brilliant con that reflects the ethos and the high-flying greed of the Gilded Age.

Mrs. Astor’s New York : Money and Social Power in a Gilded Age by Eric Homberger

Mrs. William Astor, a central player in New York’s world of aristocratic excess, was an arbiter of social acceptability while also working to keep the undesirables in their place. Homberger takes us to the extravagant balls that defined the social season, develops the rise of the media involved with social life, and describes the elites’ tony neighborhoods. All this occurs against the backdrop of a city teeming with poverty.

The Murder of the Century : the Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars by Paul Collins

Collins revisits 1897 New York, where the discovery in the East River of a male torso with arms was first dismissed as a medical-student prank. But other findings of body parts soon convinced experts that a grisly murder had been committed. The public became galvanized by the horrific crime, in large part because of the spotlight turned on the case by the two masters of yellow journalism, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Collins shows how the press sensationalized both the crime and the hunt for the murderer.

The Republic for which it stands : the United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 by Richard White

After the Civil War, war-weary Americans were ready to move on. They had banished slavery and longed for peace, but instead they got chaos and change. Consolidation and industrialization upended the work world. The South fought to rob blacks of their hard-won freedoms. Land-hungry citizens moved west, stripping Native Americans of their homelands and herding them into reservations. Stanford historian White tells this tumultuous story with authority, an eye for detail, and a dash of moral outrage. A noted historian of the West, he covers monetary policy, land use, social history, literature, and biography as he examines America from 1865 to 1896.

richest woman in america

The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age by Janet Wallach & Coleen Marlo

No woman in the Gilded Age made as much money as Hetty Green. At the time of her death in 1916, she was worth at least 100 million dollars, equal to more than 2 billion dollars today.  Abandoned at birth by her neurotic mother, scorned by her misogynist father, Hetty set out as a child to prove her value. Following the simple rules of her wealthy Quaker father, she successfully invested her money and along the way proved to herself that she was wealthy and therefore worthy. 

The Scarlet Sisters : Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age by Myra MacPherson

Journalist MacPherson presents an engaging dual biography of sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin. Bursting from impoverished childhood after the Civil War, they took provocative, sometimes scandalous, stances on women’s issues that captured the attention of both the public and the media. Much of this study focuses on nine years, 1868 to 1877, when both women publicly challenged the social norms and mores of the Gilded Age to push for women’s rights in the US. MacPherson ably presents the sisters’ well-publicized endeavors with excellent use of newspaper coverage. 

What Would Mrs. Astor Do? The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age by Cecilia Tichi

Mrs. Astor, an Old Money heiress of the first order, became convinced that she was uniquely qualified to uphold the manners and mores of Gilded Age America. Wherever she went, Mrs. Astor made her judgments, dictating proper behavior and demeanor, men’s and women’s codes of dress, acceptable patterns of speech and movements of the body, and what and when to eat and drink. The ladies and gentlemen of high society took note. “What would Mrs. Astor do?” became the question every social climber sought to answer. And an invitation to her annual ball was a golden ticket into the ranks of New York’s upper crust.

Who Killed Jane Stanford? : A Gilded Age Tale of Murder, Deceit, Spirits and the Birth of a University by Richard White

A true crime tale involving the unsolved murder of Jane Stanford (1828–1905), the widow of robber baron Leland Stanford, who died in Hawaii of strychnine poisoning a month after a previous attempt to kill her the same way in San Francisco. Despite her wealth and power (among other things, she and her husband founded Stanford University), her murder was covered up; the true cause of death was concealed from the public for years; and it was reported that she’d died from heart failure. White provides the fruits of decades of research and analysis, in what is likely to be the last word on the case, including a plausible solution. 

Archana Chiplunkar. Adult Services & Acquisitions Librarian


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