To Gild the lily? We know that means unnecessarily adorning something already beautiful. The expression is a condensation of Shakespeare’s metaphor in King John: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily … is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”
Thirty years after the Civil War, America had transformed itself into an economic powerhouse and was fast becoming the world’s leading producer of food, coal, oil and steel. But the transformation had created stark new divides in wealth, class and opportunity. By the end of the 19th century, the richest 4,000 families in the country—less than one percent of all Americans—possessed nearly as much wealth as the other 11.6 million families combined. The simultaneous growth of a lavish new elite and a struggling working class sparked passionate and violent debate over questions still being asked today: How is wealth best distributed, and by what process? Should the government concern itself with economic growth or economic justice? Are we two nations—one for the rich and one for the poor—or one nation where everyone has a chance to succeed?
The story is told in the riveting American Experience: The Gilded Age (PBS Distribution).
The Gilded Age, as it later came to be known, was dominated by larger-than-life men who wielded power across industrial and economic sectors. While the elite luxuriated in splendor, America’s cities were bursting with immigrants and former slaves looking for opportunity. A message resounded among the working class: Was America a land of opportunity or a closed system run by the few for their own gain? The program is a compelling portrait of an era of glittering wealth contrasted with extreme poverty.