When I explain that I write romances set in the Gilded Age many people ask, “Wait, when is the Gilded Age again?” Understandable since history classes focus mostly on Tammany Hall and financial scandals that bear a striking resemblance to the end of Trading Places.
I get it. Crooked politicians are old news to us, and forgettable presidents with boring names (HELLO, Ulysses, Rutherford, Grover, Chester?) aren’t exactly memorable. But wait! Did I mention robber barons? New York’s rigid Knickerbocker society? New money vs. old? Electricity and railroads? The era is rife with conflict and turmoil, the perfect setting to throw in a pair of opposites and watch the sparks fly.
That’s what I did in my new release, Magnate. Born in the slums of Five Points, Emmett Cavanaugh climbed his way to the top of a booming steel empire. He loathes New York’s “high society” types, the ones who never let him forget his past.
Elizabeth Sloane can play the Stock Exchange as deftly as New York’s most accomplished brokers—but she needs a man to put her skills to use. Emmett reluctantly agrees when the stunning socialite asks him to back her trades and split the profits.
These two could not be more different, and serve as just one example of the various groups that collided in the Gilded Age. That melting pot is one reason that helps make this era so unique.
What else makes the Gilded Age stand out?
1) The Architecture
The Beaux-Arts style buildings that sprung up throughout the Gilded Age are imposing, beautiful, and classic. If you’ve ever seen Grand Central Terminal, Chicago’s Union Station, Washington D.C.’s Union Station, or the New York Public Library, then you can appreciate the majesty of this style. Part rococo, part baroque, part classical…these buildings are bold on the outside and full of surprises inside.
2) The Clothes
Three words: House of Worth. This is the French fashion house that defined haute couture as we know it today. From elaborate day dresses and ball gowns, to evening gowns and capes, Worth dressed many of the wealthy American ladies of the Gilded Age (because they were the few who could afford the prices!).
3) The Technology
In the Gilded Age was the rapid rise of the telephone, telegraph, and electricity. Steel production became more accessible, which allowed architects to build the first skyscrapers in Chicago, New York, and St. Louis. Faster, bigger steamships and long railroads allowed people to crisscross the globe.
4) The Parties
Excess is an apt description for the Gilded Age. Want to throw a lavish ball for your dog? Want to host a dinner party on horseback? Want to wear a dress that is wired with electricity? Absolutely nothing was too over the top for the wealthy in this era.
5) The Women
American women really made an impact to better the lives around them in the late 19th century. Suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton brought women’s issues to the forefront. Clara Barton formed the American Red Cross. Mary Church Terrell became the first president of the National Association of Colored Women and a founding member of the NAACP. Jane Addams creates Hull House and later co-founds the ACLU.
And perhaps my favorite was Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for U.S. President. Woodhull and her sister opened the first female-run brokerage firm in the U.S. at a time when women were unheard of on Wall Street. A former clairvoyant, Woodhull advocated free love and was the first woman to address a congressional committee. Wouldn’t you love to have her over for dinner?
Award-winning author Joanna Shupe has always loved history, ever since she saw her first Schoolhouse Rock cartoon. Her current series, the Knickerbocker Club, is set in Gilded Age New York City. When she’s not writing or doing laundry, she can be found online at Facebook or Twitter.