The Gilded Age was an era of rapid economic growth, especially in the North and West. As American wages were much higher than those in Europe, especially for skilled workers, the period saw an influx of millions of European immigrants. The rapid expansion of industrialization led to real wage growth of 60% between 1860 and 1890, spread across the ever-increasing labor force. The average annual wage per industrial worker (including men, women, and children) rose from $380 in 1880 to $564 in 1890, a gain of 48%. However, the Gilded Age was also an era of abject poverty and inequality as millions of immigrants—many from impoverished regions—poured into the United States, and the high concentration of wealth became more visible and contentious.
Railroads were the major growth industry, with the factory system, mining, and finance increasing in importance. Immigration from Europe and the eastern states led to the rapid growth of the West, based on farming, ranching, and mining. Labor unions became important in the very rapidly growing industrial cities. Two major nationwide depressions—the Panic of 1873 and the Panic of 1893—interrupted growth and caused social and political upheavals. The South after the Civil War remained economically devastated; its economy became increasingly tied to commodities, cotton and tobacco production, which suffered from low prices. With the end of the Reconstruction era in 1877, African-American people in the South were stripped of political power and voting rights and were left economically disadvantaged.
The political landscape was notable in that despite some corruption, turnout was very high and national elections saw two evenly matched parties. The dominant issues were cultural (especially regarding prohibition, education, and ethnic or racial groups), and economic (tariffs and money supply). With the rapid growth of cities, political machines increasingly took control of urban politics. In business, powerful nationwide trusts formed in some industries. Unions crusaded for the 8-hour working day and the abolition of child labor; middle class reformers demanded civil service reform, prohibition of liquor and beer, and women's suffrage. Local governments across the North and West built public schools chiefly at the elementary level; public high schools started to emerge. The numerous religious denominations were growing in membership and wealth, with Catholicism becoming the largest denomination. They all expanded their missionary activity to the world arena. Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians set up religious schools and the larger denominations set up numerous colleges, hospitals, and charities. Many of the problems faced by society, especially the poor, during the Gilded Age gave rise to attempted reforms in the subsequent Progressive Era.