Top 10 Things The Gilded Age Gets Factually Right & Wrong



Top 10 Things The Gilded Age Gets Factually Right & Wrong

VOICE OVER: Emily Brayton WRITTEN BY: Don Ekama
How much did "The Gilded Age" get right and wrong? For this list, we'll be looking at events and plot points from this HBO period drama that are historically accurate, as well as the creative liberties taken by creator and writer Julian Fellowes. Our countdown includes the Statue of Liberty's hand, “Downstairs” Happenings, a thriving Black elite, and more!

Top 10 Things The Gilded Age Gets Factually Right and Wrong

Welcome to MsMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Things The Gilded Age Gets Factually Right and Wrong.

For this list, we’ll be looking at events and plot points from this HBO period drama that are historically accurate, as well as the creative liberties taken by creator and writer Julian Fellowes. As we’ll be discussing plot details, a spoiler alert is now in effect.

What do you find most impressive about “The Gilded Age?” Let us know in the comments.

#10: The Real-Life Figures

While “The Gilded Age” is a historical drama, most of the lead characters in its first season are largely fictional. However, the show still grounds its storytelling in authenticity by including a number of real-life socialites and does its best to remain faithful to their actual lives. Characters like Mrs. Astor, Ward McAllister and Mamie Fish were historical figures who dominated the upper echelons of New York society and initially turned their noses up at “new money” families. The show also includes T. Thomas Fortune, the highly influential editor of the “New York Globe” where Peggy Scott is hired to write, and Clara Barton, who was the founder of the American Red Cross, among others.

#9: The Black Press

One of the show’s lead characters, Peggy Scott, is a promising African-American writer who dreams of becoming a published author. Peggy submits her stories to “The Christian Advocate” but turns down their offer after she is asked to conceal her race and also change that of her story's protagonist. This leads to Peggy taking up a writing job with the Black newspaper, the “New York Globe,” which was helmed by the great T. Thomas Fortune. “The Gilded Age” sets itself apart from other period dramas by accurately representing prominent Black families of that era. It also highlights how important the “New York Globe” was for Black writers whose voices had largely been silenced due to racism.

#8: Agnes van Rhijn’s Employment of Peggy Scott

When we first meet Peggy Scott, she offers a helping hand to Marian Brook, lending her the train fare after her purse is stolen and the two strike up a friendship. In return, Marian persuades her aunts to let Peggy stay with them because of the weather and, after discovering her excellent penmanship skills, Agnes offers Peggy a job as her secretary. Now while friendships between black and white women were not necessarily rare at the time, it would’ve been highly unlikely for a woman of Agnes van Rhijn’s status to hire a black woman as her secretary. Even the show's historical consultant, Professor Erica Dunbar noted, in a Vanity Fair interview, that it’s an atypical offer and would most likely never have happened.

#7: The Statue of Liberty’s Hand

In the third episode of the show, Marian is invited to see the Statue of Liberty’s hand at Madison Square Park by her late father’s lawyer, Tom Raikes, who has his sights set on marrying her. She arrives at the park with Peggy and both women are taken aback by the sheer size of the sculpture, which Tom notes as being displayed in New York to raise funds for the statue’s pedestal. Although the sculpture only serves as a backdrop in Marian and Tom’s courtship, its presence is historically accurate, as the real Statue of Liberty’s hand and torch called Madison Square Park its home from 1876 to 1882, the latter year being when “The Gilded Age” begins.

#6: Thomas Edison Lights Up New York City

In his retelling of the societal tussle between Old and New Money families in 1880s New York, Julian Fellowes expertly weaves real historical events into his fictional world. One of such events was Thomas Edison lighting up the New York Times building on September 4th 1882. Although Fellowes pretty much errs on the side of accuracy, he takes some creative license with it, by pushing the event from 3pm in real life to when it’s much darker out on the show, for a more dramatic effect. Also, while the show has Edison flip the switch in front of the New York Times building, in real life, the famed inventor turns it on at his Pearl Street Station, which then illuminates the news organization.

#5: Segregation & Racial Animosity in the North

Going into the writing process for “The Gilded Age,” series creator Julian Fellowes intended to make a “distinctively American” show that was truly reflective of the 1880s clime. To achieve this, he sought to include multiple well-rounded Black characters and an accurate portrayal of their experience in a post-Civil War New York. While a lot of the atrocious crimes associated with segregation and racism frequently occurred in the South, there was still palpable animosity towards Black people in the North. These racial tensions are mostly depicted through the eyes of Peggy Scott, who has to deal with racism from newspaper editors, carriage drivers and even from the white servants at the van Rhijn household.

#4: Rapid Economic Growth & Influx of Immigrants

The historical era from 1870 to 1900, referred to as the Gilded Age, was a period of rapid industrialization that brought with it the fastest economic growth rate in U.S. history. This caused an unprecedented increase in wages that pulled in millions of immigrants from Europe and Asia. The most prominent sector in this period was the railroad industry, which fetched its proprietors - men like George Russell - so much wealth and made them highly influential figures at the time. But as prosperous as this period was for the likes of the Astors and the Russells, it was the exact opposite for the poor, creating significant wealth disparity that is portrayed on the show through its upstairs-downstairs dynamic.

#3: “Downstairs” Happenings

In typical Julian Fellowes fashion, “The Gilded Age” features a glaring class demarcation, depicting the “upstairs” lives of affluent New York socialites and the “downstairs” routines of their domestic servants. For the real-life servants, maintaining the extravagant houses and lifestyles of their socialite employers was a tremendous amount of work that took a significant physical toll on them. As this period came before the advent of electrical appliances, most housework, such as laundry in hot water and cooking large quantities of food, was done manually and posed the threat of extreme fatigue and serious injury. Virtually none of this toiling is portrayed on the HBO show, with the servants spending most of their time just discussing the lives of their upper-class masters.

#2: A Thriving Black Elite

One thing “The Gilded Age” does right is its representation of a thriving community of Black entrepreneurs and their businesses. Set less than two decades after slavery was abolished, the show features a Black elite on a very similar path to wealth creation as the other wealthy white characters. It presents an often overlooked story of freedom and prosperity that Black aristocrats used in fortifying the arsenal that shielded them from the blistering racial discrimination of that era. Not only does the cast of characters include real-life figures like T. Thomas Fortune, it features fictional characters inspired by real people such as Peggy Scott’s father, Arthur, who is based on Philip Augustus White, a successful pharmacist in New York.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

The Architectural Prowess of Stanford White - Right
The Notable Architect Designed Extravagant New York Mansions for Wealthy Families

Mrs. Fish's Parties - Wrong
Her Doll Tea Party Is Just a Tip of the Iceberg When It Comes to the Real-Life Mamie Fish’s Truly Bizarre Events

The Squeaky Clean New York Streets - Wrong
The Show Is Largely Devoid of Horse Manure on the Streets & Heavy Air Pollution

The Opera House - Right
Just Like in Real Life, the Old Money Families Were Vehemently Against the Opening of the Metropolitan Opera House

#1: Old Money vs. New Money

The major storyline of “The Gilded Age” deals with the conflict between the old money van Rhijn-Brook family, and the new money Russell family who live across the street from them. While this living situation would’ve been highly unlikely, their conflict is still rooted in authenticity, as instead of the British royal titles, Americans rose to influence on the strength of their bank accounts. However, even among the rich, the old money fixtures with Dutch heritage, who made their name through real estate and fur trading, acted as social gatekeepers against the new railroad millionaires. This conflict, both on the show and in real life, raises important questions of human nature and our reluctance to acknowledge the inevitability of change.