Gilded Age and Progressive Era

The Rise of Big Business

Clock 90 minutes

This lesson explores the rise of big business during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.  Students will gain an understanding and analyze the technological, organizational, and economic factors that led to the rise of big business and its effects through a historical narrative, primary sources, the lives of Gilded Age businessmen, and several dynamic activities.  Students will better understand the role of business in American society in history and today.

Founding Principles

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Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

Property Rights image

Property Rights

The natural right of all individuals to create, obtain, and control their possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, as well as the fruits of their labor.

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Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.


“Gospel of Wealth”

“Individualism, Private Property, the Law of Accumulation of Wealth, and the Law of Competition; for these are the highest results of human experience, the soil in which society so far has produced the best fruit. Unequally, or unjustly, perhaps, as these laws sometimes operate, and imperfect as they appear to the Idealist, they are, nevertheless … the best and most valuable of all that humanity has yet accomplished.” - Andrew Carnegie (1889)


The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries experienced the growth of a modern industrial economy characterized by factories and mass production, linked transportation networks, and large corporations in the United States. The growth was mostly fueled by the rise of big business which dominated most industries as effective organization and management created efficient businesses that utilized various competitive strategies to cut costs and undercut rivals. Although many industrialists engaged in philanthropy, the rise of big business raised many troubling questions including monopoly and the detrimental effects on competition in a capitalist economy, unfair and corrupt business practices and political influence, government regulation of business and the economy, the poor treatment of workers, and economic inequality. Big business and the questions it raised remained central to the discussion of the American economy and politics throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century.


  • Students will examine the causes of the rise of big business and its characteristics in the Gilded Age.
  • Students will understand the effects of big business on the American economy, politics, and civil society, as well as the debates related to those effects.
  • Students will analyze the constitutional principles associated with government regulation of business in a system of private enterprise, and compare and contrast the regulatory approaches of different presidential administrations toward big business during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.


  • Handout A: Background Essay: The Rise of Big Business
  • Handout B: Rise of Big Business Radio Interview Role-Play
  • Handout C: Big Business Social Media Feed
  • Handout D: Business and Advertising in the Gilded Age
  • Handout E: Big Business and Philanthropy

Key Terms

  • Mass production
  • Mass marketing
  • Regulation
  • Corporation
  • Capital
  • Industry
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Competition
  • Trusts
  • Vertical integration
  • Horizontal integration
  • Monopoly
  • Oligarchy
  • Consumerism
  • Rebate
  • Philanthropy
  • Socialism
  • Interstate commerce
  • Executive agency

Essential Virtues

  • Contribution
  • Courage
  • Integrity
  • Initiative
  • Justice
  • Perseverance
  • Responsibility
  • Resourcefulness


National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • 1) Thematic Standards
    • II. Time, Continuity, and Change
    • VI. Power, Authority, and Governance
    • VII. Production, Distribution, and Consumption
    • VIII. Science, Technology, and Society
    • X. Civic Ideals and Practices
  • 2) Disciplinary Standards
    • 1. History
    • 3. Civics and Government
    • 4. Economics

Center for Civic Education

  • 9-12 Content Standards
    • I. What are Civic Life, Politics, and Government?
    • II. What are the Foundations of the American Political System?
    • V. What are the Roles of the Citizen in American Democracy?

UCLA Department of History: National Center for History in the Schools, United States History Content Standards (NCHS)

  • United States History Content Standards
    • United States Era 6: The Development of the Industrial United States (1870 – 1900)
    • United States Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890 – 1930)

Background 15/20 minutes

Have students read Handout A: Background Essay: The Rise of Big Business and answer the review questions.

Activities 70 minutes

Activity 1 » 30 minutes

  1. Have students read Handout B: Rise of Big Business Radio Interview Role-Play.
  2. Assign the students evenly into groups for all of the roles and assign one role to each group for all of the businessmen, the interviewer, and the audience. Hand out name-tags with the name of the respective role to the members of each group. The groups with the businessmen should research the biographical sketches provided in Handout B. The groups with the interviewer and audience should develop questions to ask the businessmen during the role-play.
  3. Give the students about 20 minutes to read the material and prepare for their roles. Then, ask each businessman and interviewer group to send a representative to the front of the class to perform the radio interview. The interviewer should ask questions to each of the businessmen present and then allow the audience participants time to ask questions as well.
  4. Debrief the students and lead a discussion about the major themes in the rise of big business and how the role-play demonstrated those themes.

Activity II » 20 minutes

  1. Assign students into groups of three to complete the writing exercise in Handout C: Big Business Social Media Feed. Students will creatively assume the roles of at least three historical figures and compose a social media feed based upon different topics. For each figure, the students will write five posts and then responses from the other two figures for each post.
  2. An alternative assessment could be to assign Handout C for individual students to complete either in class or for homework.
  3. After the assignment is completed, have students volunteer to read interesting or creative threads to the class.

Activity III » 20 minutes

  1. Assign students into groups of three to complete the assignment in Handout D: Business and Advertising in the Gilded Age. Students will analyze several advertisements from the Gilded Age and assess the images and techniques used to sell brand-name products. The groups should elect a spokesperson to report their findings for one of the advertisements to the class.

Wrap-Up 15 minutes

Historians in the early half of the twentieth century, and some historians today, adopted the view of the Progressive Era that the business leaders who built the modern American economy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were “robber barons.” These historians believed that industrialists were greedy, fought any government regulation, were corrupt monopolists who controlled politics, and mistreated workers while personally benefitting with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. On the other hand, other historians have described the business leaders as “captains of industry.” This view interprets the Gilded Age industrialists as builders of factories and large businesses in a capitalist society. Although there was economic and social dislocation as well as industrial strife, the industrialists created the largest economy in the world which benefitted Americans with prosperity, paid workers more, benefitted consumers with falling prices, and expanded global trade. Teachers can wrap up this section of the unit by explaining what “robber barons” and “captains of industry” were and comparing and contrasting them according to the following questions:

  • Based upon the evidence and what you have learned, to what extent could the business leaders of the Gilded Age be considered “robber barons” or “captains of industry?” Cite specific evidence for your belief.
  • Which is the better way to understand the challenges the industrialists faced and the solutions they proposed?
  • Do you have a more complex understanding of the changes in business and the role of business leaders after studying this section of the unit?


Have the students write 5-7 sentences on the new ideas they learned about the rise of big business after completing this section of the unit.

Extensions 20 minutes

  1. Assign students into groups of three to complete the assignment in Handout E: Business and Philanthropy. Students will compare and contrast philanthropy and business in the Gilded Age and today.
  2. The debrief for this assignment should discuss the following questions:
    1. What responsibilities do business leaders today have in their communities?
    2. How can philanthropy contribute to a healthy civil society in the United States?

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