Arts of the Gilded Age

How the Wealthy Class Influenced the Arts and Culture of Post Civil War America


Key Staff

A Social Studies or History Teacher can teach this lesson. It may be useful to enlist the help of an art, music, dance, or drama teacher or specialist for students who may need specific guidance on their arts project if necessary.

Key Skills

Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture
Creative Thinking: Communication and Collaboration
Making Art: Composing and Planning, Performance Skills and Techniques


In this thought provoking, activity packed lesson, your class will learn about and discuss characteristics of the Gilded Age. Using books, internet and other media, your students research the various fine and performing art forms popular during that time period. Students will choose one of the art forms and create a studio project that is relevant to that era. The finished project will be exhibited and/or performed for the class. The lesson culminates in a written commentary about the art forms and their creative and historical significance and a group discussion of the learning process.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Research fine and performing art forms of the Gilded Age.
  • Demonstrate understanding of the historical influences and context of each art form during the Gilded Age.
  • Research and present a creative piece on a chosen art form or specific artist.
  • Write a commentary on the art forms of the Gilded Age and their creative and historical significance
  • Discuss as a group the creative processes and results of their own efforts

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Cooperative Learning
  • Discussion
  • Research
  • Information Organization
  • Self-Directed Learning

Assessment Type

Determined by Teacher


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Learner
  • Projector
Technology Notes

Internet Access is needed.

Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teacher should have knowledge and understanding of the Arts and Culture of Gilded Age in American History. 

If teaching the whole unit on the Gilded Age, teacher should have already taught the Three Newport Mansions of the Gilded Age lesson.

Prior Student Knowledge

Students should be familiar with the Gilded Age in American History

If covering the whole unit on the Gilded Age, students should have been taught the Three Newport Mansions of the Gilded Age lesson.

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Computer Lab
  • Media Center or Library
  • Visual Arts Studio


  • Individualized Instruction
  • Small Group Instruction
  • Large Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


Review and discuss the following facts and characteristics of the Gilded Age in America. Check your school, public library and internet for books, articles and other media on the Gilded Age in America. See the suggested web sites and books in the resource section below or select your favorite titles.

  • 1870’s – 1910’s timeframe (post Civil War): this was a time of recovery and healing. Consider that after a bloody war the citizenry would naturally want to turn their attention to rebuilding what had been destroyed and towards civility and the creation of beautiful works of art.
  • “The Gilded Age” phrase was coined by Mark Twain: This is a book in which Twain pokes fun at the post war society and its emphasis on wealth and opulence.
  • Population growth: immigration, suffering in Europe and a sense of adventure brought many Europeans to the United States.
  • Industrial expansion: factories, coal mining, steel mills, this was the source of the wealth creation for the owners of these industries and the resources that fueled the growing country.
  • Growth of labor unions: the huge gap between the industrialists and their workers led organizers to fight for workers rights and safety.
  • Wealthy individuals built extravagant mansions: prominent Americans wanted to show the world that America was a powerful and influential force in the world.
  • First transcontinental railroad: open travel and communications across the country.
  • Many new inventions including the telephone, camera and harnessing of electricity changed daily life in America: increased communication and available power increased productivity.
  • Large scale philanthropy: contributes to arts and culture, education, charitable works: libraries, universities, hospitals, museums, symphonies and charities were founded and supported by the wealthy class.
  • Introduction of the Jim Crow Laws: the south, still smarting from the war established laws to limit the new found freedom of the slaves by keeping the black people separate from the white society.

Break the class into small groups and assign one of the above topics for them to research. Provide the groups with the web sites listed in the resources section and any reference books you may have available. Tell the class that they are to find at least three facts on their assigned topic to share with the class. If images, will help them tell the story of their topic, have them download and print images to share. Allow the groups sufficient time to complete their research.

Bring the class back together to discuss their research. Ask the following questions or consider discussion starters of your own.

  • What might need to be rebuilt in a war torn society?
  • What kinds of activities might be “healing” and lift the spirits of a war torn nation?
  • What kinds of activities might be healing to the citizenry after a war?
  • What do you think Mark Twain was suggesting by satirizing the display of wealth and the corruption that existed at the time?
  • Why do you think America was a place immigrants wanted to come to?
  • How do you think the mills, mines and railroads changed life in America?
  • Do you think that the labor unions and workers had equal power to the industrialists? What is the source of power for each party?
  • Do you think that the wealth created by the industrialists was well spent in the creation of mansions and a lavish lifestyle? What do you think they got for their investment? What did our nation get from it?
  • How do you think inventions such as the telephone, camera and the use of electricity changed the way of life in America?
  • What do you think is the legacy of Philanthropy in America?
  • What do you think is the legacy of the Jim Crow Laws in America?

Sample student responses might be:

  • America had to rebuild government buildings, town centers, hospitals schools and churches.
  • Music and dance, all of the arts could provide diversion for the people traumatized by war.
  • I think Mark Twain was saying there was too much gold in the hands of too few people.
  • Immigrants thought they could get a new start at life in America.
  • The mills, mines and railroads provided livelihoods for many people and helped them get out of poverty.
  • I think the industrialists had more power.
  • I think they had equal power just like the constitution says because the workers need jobs and the owners need workers.
  • I think the big mansions are beautiful and now we have beautiful museums to visit because of it.
  • It must have been fun to live in those big mansions.
  • I think the phone made things better because you could know how your family is if they were far away.
  • I think it was a good thing that they donated their money, because now we have museums and scholarships and foundations to cure diseases.
  • It took a long time for things to get better for black people.

List various arts forms and venues with the class. Write the following categories on the board or a chart paper:

  • Music (Instrumental and Vocal)
  • Dance
  • Theater
  • Creative Writing
  • Visual Arts

Solicit a student volunteer to record student’s suggestions for each art category. Ask the class to generate a list of the types of dances, theatrical productions, musical styles, visual arts styles, etc. For example in Dance there could be the following: cotillion, folk, ballet, etc. Have the student recorder list the class responses on the chart or board. Supplement the class answers by suggesting any art disciplines they may not have mentioned.

Resources for this step:

http://vlib.iue.it/history/USA/ERAS/gilded.html breaks down history and characteristics of the Gilded Age by subject and has an extensive list

www.sparknotes.com breaks down history and characteristics of the Gilded Age by subject


Tierney, Tom. Newport Fashions of the Gilded Age Paper Dolls. Dover Publications. 2005

Glubok, Shirley. The Art of America in the Gilded Age/ designed by Gerard Nook. New York. MacMillan. 1974

Prelinger, Elizabeth.The Gilded Age: Treasures from the Smithsonian Art Museum. New York, Watson – Guptill Publications in Association with the Smithsonian American Art Museum. 2000.

Claridge, Laura. Emily Post:daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners. New York. Random House. 2008.

Twain, Mark and harles Dudley Warner. The Gilded Age: a tale of today. New York. Meridian Clasic 1988.

Build Knowledge

Allow the class time to research the arts topics in relation to the Gilded Age in America. Break the class into small groups and assign each group an art form category (i.e. Dance: popular, folk, ballet, ballroom, etc) to research.

Students should include the following information in their research:

  • Research if each venue or art form existed before, during, or after the Gilded Age and how it may have evolved during the Gilded Age. Have students devise a code for these categorizations, such as (+ after/-before/0 during) or (B before/D during/ A after).
  • Describe in detail, and/or provide examples of the art form to present to the class.
  • When possible, identify the creator/author of the art form.
  • Discuss how these art forms related to the mood of the country at this time, how they may have connected to the politics, growth in industry, technology and population, etc.
  • Optional: Each group can research their art form category and corresponding venues, with respect to the mansion they studied previously in the Three Newport Mansions of the Gilded Age lesson.

Distribute the Arts Vocabulary handout. Go over handout checking for student understanding. Encourage the students to use the new vocabulary in preparing and presenting their research.

Direct each student group to present their research to the class. Allow sufficient time for questions and answers.


Direct each student to choose a specific art form for their culminating project. Using the Reference Guide handout as a starting point, have each student find an art form they would prefer to study in depth. Some students may need assistance with deciding which art form to research and pursue as a final project. In this case, use your knowledge of each student and their particular interests and talents to guide them towards a project with which they can be successful.

Tell students that they will now work independently to create a studio project/creative piece (i.e. song, creative writing, dance, play or dramatic reading, drawing, etc.) using the characteristics of their chosen art form. Students must place the piece within the setting of the Gilded Art Period, and if applicable, mansion they previously studied. Suggest to students to create a timeline of tasks they need to accomplish to chart their progress and finish their projects on time. See Student project timeline chart handout.

Allow some time for students to complete their initial research. Walk around offering suggestions and feedback.

Assign a written commentary to the class. You may wish to have students pair up and do this assignment with another person from their group. Consider the following writer’s guidelines or come up with suggestions of your own:

  • 350 to 500 words.
  • Compare and contrast the art form or artist they researched with another art form or artist from the Gilded Age.
  • Assess how the historical time period (the Gilded Age) influenced the art form.
  • Describe the venue where their creative piece would be performed or displayed. Optional: students can place their work in the mansion about which they previously studied in Three Newport Mansions of the Gilded Age lesson.
  • An opinion about the significance of the historical art form and its contribution to the culture then and now.
  • Each student will perform or present their completed creative piece, or studio project, and present their written commentary. Direct students to keep notes in their journal on each piece presented, as they will have a culminating project at the end of this unit that will touch on each piece.
Allow time for student discussion after each presentation. Have students ask questions and make constructive comments on each presentation and its justification. Remind student of the ideal atmosphere for a critique. (You may wish to refer to ARTSEDGE's How to Write a Successful Critique.)


Engage the class in a group discussion about the lesson. Consider the following questions or come up with your own discussion starters:

  • Review all the work completed in this lesson, and if applicable the Three Newport Mansions lesson
  • Compare and contrast the style and imagery of their creative pieces with what they know and understand about the Gilded Age.
  • How do creative pieces from the Gilded Age differ from creative pieces in the same art forms in the present era?
  • Was it easy/hard/interesting gathering facts about the Gilded Age?
  • Were they able to find and decipher the information they needed?
  • What did they learn that they didn’t expect to discover?
  • Could they make a connection between the historical influences and context of the time and the artwork that was created during that time?
  • Was it limiting or liberating to create an art piece appropriate to the Gilded Age?
  • Can you draw any similarities/differences between the issues facing America during the Gilded Age and issues facing America today?
  • What do you think you learned in this lesson? About the arts? About yourself? About the Gilded Age?
  • Going forward how will this knowledge influence your observations of art, architecture and current events?

Possible Student responses may be:

  • My dance was simple compared to the cotillion.
  • Today there are lots of styles of paintings and music, back then there were less choices.
  • There were so many facts, I didn’t know what to read first.
  • I really got into it.
  • I was surprised to learn that ___________.
  • It made sense that after the Civil War people would want to experience luxury and be excessive.
  • It was okay making a “Gilded Art” Style artwork, but next time I want to do my own thing.
  • I liked drawing all the decorations.
  • Telephones and the railroad changed things then, today computers and cell phones are changing things.
  • I learned_____________.
  • When I walk through town/the city I can tell how old a building is


Use the Assessment Rubric to evaluate students' understanding and the successful completion of their projects.


Students may attempt to stage Black Tomb (Kurozuka), the Noh play that they read at the beginning of the lesson. The complete libretto is at the Emory University's Noh Theater Web site for your use.

You may wish to have students conduct further study of other forms of Japanese theater, especially Bunraku and Kabuki. The EdSITEment lesson Hamlet Meets Chushingura: Traditions of the Revenge Tragedy explores similarities and differences between cultures by comparing Shakespearean and Bunraku/Kabuki dramas.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education

Grade 9-12 Dance Standard 7: Making connections between dance and other disciplines


Grade 9-12 Music Standard 8: Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts


Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 6: Comparing and integrating art forms by analyzing traditional theatre, dance, music, visual arts, and new art forms

Visual Arts

Grade 9-12 Visual Arts Standard 6: Making connections between visual arts and other disciplines

National Standards in Other Subjects
Historical Understanding

Historical Understanding Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective

United States History

US History Standard 2: Understands cultural and ecological interactions among previously unconnected people resulting from early European exploration and colonization

US History Standard 31: Understands economic, social, and cultural developments in the contemporary United States

Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts

Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes



Joyce Payne
Original Writer

Ann Reilly

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Use this collection of resources and articles to devise an approach for supporting individual needs in the classroom: from English Language Learners or students with disabilities, to conflict resolution and giving feedback.



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