Some of the best examples of the Gilded Age in antiques and furnishings are the mansions themselves, that housed the decor, such as the ostentatious, palatial homes of the rich, such as that of the Breakers, whose dining room is shown above. (Photo courtesy DeeDee Wood)

The term “Gilded Age” was coined by Mark Twain to describe a period of United States history in the late 19th century, spanning a time period between the 1870s to 1900.
Twain was poking a satirical finger into society at the time, describing serious social problems in society and class differences, covered by a thin gilt of gold.
Rapid economic growth, industrialism and expansion of wealth all contributed to interiors, exteriors, home decor and the building of some of the finest mansions and public venues the United States, or the world, had ever seen.
Everything that glittered was truly gold in the Gilded Age.
The Gilded Age saw very rapid economic growth in the US, as industrialization led to huge wage growth, strong labor forces, and a quick, massive amount of wealth for business owners and the social elite, especially in the North and West.
Railroads, mining, factories and finance ruled the day in this era.
During this time period, as well, there was a huge divide between immigrants, impoverished regions, lack of labor laws and unequal concentrations of wealth.
It was a tumultuous time period in this country’s history, as the engines that ran the machines symbolized the might of the bank rolls driving the homes, furnishings and decor of the wealthy, all built to impress with jaw-dropping results.
Some of the finest examples of the Gilded Age in antiques and furnishings are the mansions themselves, that housed all of the decor, such as the ostentatious, palatial homes of the rich New York elite, who built “summer cottages” in Newport, R.I.
The Vanderbilts, Berwinds, Oelriches, Astors and other important families built their homes in this gilded area of the United States.
The Breakers, Elms, Chepstow and other places of importance were usually only used in the summer, coining the phrase “summer cottages.”
They were built for railroad magnets, silver barons, financial powerhouses and other elites of the Gilded Age.
Inside of the mansions were priceless vases, inlaid furniture, exotic rugs, hardwoods from all around the world, marble staircases, Greek and Roman statues, murals and more.
Many of these museum homes can still be seen today for tours and antiques aficionados will find respite within their walls, a taste of yesteryear come to life.
Gilded mansions are not just contained in Newport, but can be found all over the United States in any important city that contained empire-builders and their impressive homes.
St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh — many places in the Midwest and West and more — all saw the rise of the mansion and the contents within, all built to show the might and power of the industrial tycoon that lived there.
The Gilded Age saw wealthy entrepreneurs, such as John D. Rockefeller, Henry Frick and Andrew Carnegie, among others, become generous philanthropists, donating millions to build Gilded Age public buildings, such as gilded, marbled libraries, public parks, libraries and zoos.
The New York City Library is a prime example of a Gilded Age public building, with Beaux Art and Romanesque facades, all that glittered was gilded in this palatial venue.
Other places of note are many buildings in Washington, D.C., Carnegie Hall in New York, the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, and many libraries all over the country built in this time period.
Many styles were used in private and public venues, but the idea was to treat the wealthy like American royalty, so only the best would do in the architecture, planning and decorating of these places.
Styles such as the Renaissance, Romanesque, Rococo and Beaux Arts were employed. Heavy gold gilding, hardwoods, exotic marbles and European imports and copies dominated decorating in this age.
The Gilded Age brought about about new ideas in design, bringing ideas of embellishment and grandeur from France, fine art from Europe, mural techniques from Italy, and Roman statuary in outdoor gardens.
The more impressive, the better, and the more expensive, the more impressive.
This time period combined classical ideas from Rome, in combination with Renaissance ideas.
Architectural elements included elaborate balconies, pilasters, massive stone interiors and exteriors, grandiose furnishings, ballrooms, opulent fabrics and large Roman arches.
Silver services, fine china, expensive dining sets, beds imported from France, ancient castle decor, and copies of every conceivable, dazzling element or decoration was utilized. Some people said ornamentation fell from Heaven during the Gilded Age.
The Gilded Age ended, many believe, with the stock market crash of 1929, and never recovered.
Fortunes were lost, palatial mansions abandoned.
But they are still there to see, some being made into museums and public venues, to spy upon the age of marble, gold, opulence and grandeur.
Ideas from Europe, Italy, France and other exotic places around the world, fueled by quick fortunes and the need for impressing competition, all fueled this sparkling, dizzying, outlandish mixture of an age that had the saying, “all that glitters is gold.”
(Editor’s note: DeeDee Wood is the store manager at Tharpe Antiques, in Easton, part of the Talbot Historical Society.)