When Industry Was King: The History of the Robber Baron Era

When Industry Was King: The History of the Robber Baron Era

During America’s Gilded Age, from around 1870 to the early 1900s, the greats responsible for the industrial revolution would have made people like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Bill Gates almost seem like people of ordinary wealth (taken into account the dollar value between the periods, of course).  The original kings of industry’s wealth would have translated into the hundreds of billions of dollars in today’s society, and for a good reason. Just as today, only a small handful of people enjoyed such wealth: the robber barons.

This era saw railroad expansions traverse this great country as well as advancements in virtually every industry that not only kept America afloat but made it a force to be reckoned with the world over. This includes areas like mining, steel production, and factory efficiency.

America was put on the map as the global leader in producing products at almost alarming speeds for the time, but all this efficiency and innovation mostly benefited the pocketbooks of the wealthiest industrialists.

For all the positive advancements made in the country during the time, the wealthy class had reached new heights and regulations on industry were almost nonexistent.  Because of this, the working class did, in many ways, suffer.

Changes in the ways industries conducted business resulted from regulations beginning to be put in place to protect worker’s rights and safety. This helped ensure that when someone left home in the morning to go to work, they would be more than likely to return home to their family in the evening. 

Regardless of whether or not you believe that the robber barons made a more negative or positive impact on society, the fact remains that they did leave a mark on their era and the world as it once was would never be the same. 

What it meant to be a robber baron

The term “robber baron” carries negative connotations.  It refers to those who were the “superpowers” of the various enterprises at the time who did everything in their power to monopolize and manipulate industries to increase their wealth.

They earned this moniker because they were greedy, ruthless, and unafraid to use any means necessary to quash competition. They showed zero regard for how this affected their employees or their competitors.  All they cared about was their bottom line.

These men ran the gamut as far as the different types of industries they monopolized.  From the aforementioned steel and railroad industries, they also ran the tobacco industry, oil industry, and controlled the majority of the banks in the country.

However, despite  their ruthless behavior, they were also well known for being great philanthropists that performed great charity in the country. Whether out of genuine kindness or simply a sense of duty, there were numerous benefits that came from their  charity.

Many of these charities remain in effect in today’s society well over a hundred years later. 

Robber barons: great Americans or greedy individuals?

While these men who were touted as “robber barons,” had the potential to serve the American public and help develop a middle class by paying their workers a fair wage and attempting to care for society, most did not. 

Overall, they were simply powerful businessmen who cared more about making money than anything else.  Their ruthlessness knew no bounds, and, at the height of their influence, they were unable even to be regulated by the US Government.

Regardless of their industry, in order to achieve maximum profits, the robber barons were known for similar unscrupulous tactics, and they did not take into account the millions of lives that would be forever changed and destroyed in the wake of their greed.  Some of those tactics included:

  A blatant disregard for their employees and their safety and wellbeing 

  Even with the conditions their employees were required to work in, most even lowered the paltry wages their workers received and forced them to work longer hours than ever before

  Not only were families unable to feed themselves without assistance, many children were forced into the workforce to help pay for basic expenses

  Unions were banned, preventing workers from joining forces against the unfair conditions they were forced to work in

  These captains of industry were not above bribing politicians and authorities in order to continue to get away with their criminal acts

  Not only were they known to manipulate the stock market in their favor, but the robber barons were also known to put all of their competitors out of business, monopolizing their respective industries and causing discord in the economy

These predatory actions were just the tip of the iceberg of what the robber barons were capable of to ensure that they remained at the pinnacle of their industries and retained unimaginable wealth.


Putting names to the deeds: who were the robber barons and what industries did they monopolize?

There were a number of men who were considered key players in the robber baron game during this time period.  While the majority of them found themselves working in different areas of industry, that did not keep them from doing their best to monopolize their prospective industries, no matter who they had to get out of their way. 

Who exactly were these men, and what roles in industry did they play in America?

The Baron von Steal: Andrew Carnegie

Born a man of little if no means in 1835, Andrew Carnegie fought for everything he ever had or became in life.  He went from pauper to millionaire, all through sheer determination and work ethic. It was that same work ethic that made him almost hated amongst his employees.

Because he expected so much from his workers, he was thought of as a “slave driver,” which caused several revolutionary attempts to get him to change his working methods as a boss and treat his employees more like people and less like cattle.

Towards the end of his life, Carnegie donated nearly 90 percent of his fortune, funding universities, libraries, and cultural centers such as Carnegie Hall. 

Putin’ on the Ritz: John D. Rockefeller

Also born in the year 1835, John D. Rockefeller is known for being THE robber baron of the Oil Industry, created the Standard Oil Company.  In today’s world, he would be worth the equivalent of over 400 million dollars, which is twice the amount of wealth of the richest man in the world today. 

In hopes of preventing some of the criticisms that he faced as an oil tycoon, it is thought that Rockefeller was only too happy to reciprocate by giving back astronomical amounts of money to charities to offset his less than ideal business practices.  He also went so far as to write a book in which he focused much of it encouraging other wealthy people to give back to the poor, as it was the rich man’s civic duty to give back to those who were less fortunate, which would be literally everyone in the world in relation to him.

One of the meanest men in history: J.P. Morgan

Though J.P. Morgan can be thought of as leaving one of the longest-lasting marks in the history of the American economy and the financial industry as a whole, he was also considered to be one of the most underhanded, unscrupulous businessmen in world history.

A few of Morgan’s claims to fame included:

  Being on the board of close to 50 companies

  Funding and helping to create The Edison Electric Company

  The J.P. Morgan Corp was the first company to make over a billion dollars, and at one point owned over 50% of the railroads in the country

He was very well known for cutting employee wages and forcing them to work long, dangerous hours.  It is also believed that he “helped” William McKinley become president in 1896, as McKinley was thought to have been in the back pocket of Morgan and other robber barons at the time.

Regardless of his faults, Morgan did help bail out the US economy twice during his time as a captain of industry.


The best never rest: Henry Ford

While most who were associated with the robber baron era were considered to be almost demonic in the way they treated their employees in order to get ahead in industry, the antithesis to that ideal would be Henry Ford.

 He believed in paying his employees what would be considered more than a fair wage at the time and limited their work days to less than 10 hours per day.

Even with this “radical” way of conducting business at this time, Ford was still able to succeed, and the Ford Motor Company is still going strong today.  Unfortunately, Ford’s outlook was not adopted by others during this time, which, in many ways made it a dark period in American history

The end of the robber barons

Unlike William McKinley, whose presidency was backed by the robber barons, Theodore Roosevelt could not be bought, and he made it one of his missions to eliminate the robber barons’ low-down, dirty ways, as he wanted to be a president for the people, not the corporations.

Through new regulations and rules that went into effect during his presidency, the robber baron era came to an end and the American workforce as a whole became stronger for it. 

Unionization became a way for workers to ensure that their rights were being taken into consideration, and they would not be retaliated against because of it.  While the new way of life did not take place overnight, it was something that continues to benefit the American workforce even today.

It could have been a thing of beauty

While there is no denying that their philanthropy and charity had positive impacts on society, as well as the advancements they brought about in their respective industries, the greed and ruthlessness of the robber barons tended to outweigh the good they did.  

If another similar era comes around again, it is hard to imagine that the impact would be as great. At a time when industry flourished and great wealth was created, the robber baron era could have been a thing of beauty, but it will forever be marred by the greed that robbed the American people of dignity and an opportunity to have a fair chance. 

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