History 110e: Rise of the Machines

childmachineWelcome to History 110e, aka Rise of the Machines: Politics, Technology, and Inequality during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

TuTh 9:50AM – 11:25AM
Soc Sci 1 110


This course serves as a general introduction to the politics and history of the United States of America from 1877 through the First World War. It follows the USA as the country evolved from its fragmented, unstable post-Civil War inception to a more centralized, statist, corporate dominated nation-state in the 1920s. Through the course, we will also visit the many ways that technologies changed or were changed by the society that created and used them.


The course will require students to take three identification tests, complete a final essay examination, and write a term paper. The ID tests will be worth 10 percent of the grade each, the final examination essay 25 percent, the term paper 25 percent, and section participation the remaining 20 percent. Section participation is mandatory as is class attendance. Students who miss more than one section will receive a lower grade in the class. See my classroom rules.

Students who take this class should be prepared to devote 15 hours a week to its requirements. Around five hours involves attending lectures and sections; the rest should be dedicated to the reading and writing assignments.

Learning outcomes:

Students who complete this course will come away with a strong overview of the political and cultural history of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in the United States, roughly the 1870s through the outbreak of the First World War. In addition, students will develop an appreciation of the huge impact that technology had on US society during those years, and on the debates over that impact that remain with us to this day. This period of American history saw the rise of the telephone, the wireless telegraph, the automobile,  and electric light. Were the enormous gains in productivity that accompanied these innovations shared by all Americans? How did assumptions about ethnicity, race, and gender common during these years affect the social distribution of those technologies? Students who complete all the requirements for History 110e will have given focused thought to these questions.


Nell Irvin Painter, Standing at Armageddon
Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent
Lawrence Levine, Highbrow Lowbrow
Ernest Freeberg, Age of Edison

Buy your books here.

Selected online readings and my PowerPoint slides

Week 1 (April 4 and 6): Introduction to the class

Readings: Painter, preface, introduction, and chapters one and two
Chapter two from Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk.

Sections begin on week two

Week 2 (April 11 and 13): Reconstruction, railroads, and the “radical center”

McGerr, chapters one and two

Section discussion tasks:

  1. Make a list of things that were invented in the United States between the 1870s and The First World War.
  2. In the introduction to her book, Nell Irvin Painter argues that during the Gilded Age, a debate took place between “identity-of-interest” advocates and “democratizers.” What were the essence of these conflicting philosophies? Who do you think could be understood as one or the other category in chapters one and two? Make a list.
  3. What is Du Bois’ perspective on the Freedman’s Bureau?

inventions 1870 - 1920


mora gilded age inventionsWeek 3 (April 18 and 20): Knights, farmers, and temperance

Painter, chapter three

Discussion questions: Nell Irvin Painter notes that the Gilded Age saw a wide variety of “panacea” cures for American society (sort of one thing fixes all silver bullet cures). Make a list of them. Would any of them have worked by themselves? Are any of them still around?

Identification exam #1 (April 20)

Week 4 (April 25 and 27): Let there be [electric] light

Freeberg, chapters one through eight

Discussion questions: Reading through Freeberg’s chapters, what were the benefits of electric light? What problems did electric light pose? Were the benefits worth the problems? Is the world a better place because of electric light? How would you figure out how to answer this question? Can it really be answered?

Week 5 (May 2 and 4): The Progressive Empire

Painter, chapters four through six
McGerr, chapters three through five

Please submit a one page prospectus on your term paper. It should be a double spaced essay explaining what invention you will explore and what you’ve found out about it in The New York Times.

A template for your assignment will appear on your Google Classroom page.

Discussion questions:

  1. Make a list of ways that McGerr thinks the Progressives wanted to “transform” Americans. What does he mean by the “radical center”? How much did Americans want to be transformed? For that matter, how much would you want to be transformed, Progressive style?

Week 6 (May 9 and 11): White supremacy on wheels

Painter, chapter seven
McGerr, chapter six

Du Bois, On Booker T. Washington and  Others
Ida Wells, The Reason Why the Colored American is not at the World Columbia Exposition
The Maimie Caldwell Case
The Anti-Separate Coach Committee of Kentucky
Plessy v. Ferguson
Plessy v. Ferguson, Louis Harlan dissent

Identification exam #2 (May 11)

Discussion questions: How do we reconcile the Progressive Era with the period’s extremely regressive race politics? How did the Progressives see segregation as a “shield”? Can we understand W.E.B. Du Bois as a Progressive?

Week 7 (May 16 and 18): Movies, records, radio (and the highbrows who hated them)

Levine, entire book
McGerr, chapters seven and eight

Discussion questions:

  1. How did consumer culture challenge the Progressives?
  2. After reading Levine, do you think that we still think in “highbrow / lowbrow” terms?

Week 8 (May 23 and 25): Women and machines

Painter, chapters eight and nine

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics
Veblen, On Conspicuous Consumption

Please submit a one page introduction to your term paper (a template for the assignment will appear in Google Classroom). This is a draft of the beginning of your paper.

Discussion question: Nell Irvin Painter writes: “American thinking about gender was as multilayered and contradictory as that regarding race.” Make a list of all the layers and contradictions. How did they manage to come together to win the 19th Amendment?

Week 9 (May 30 and June 1): The great machine war

Discussion questions: How did World War I impact Progressivism? How did Progressive impact United States involvement in World War I?

Painter, chapters ten and eleven
McGerr, chapter nine

Identification exam #3 (June 1)

Week 10 (June 6 and 8): Charlie Chaplin explains it all

Study for your final exam; your term paper due on Google Classroom.

Final examination: Tuesday, June 13 4:00–7:00 p.m. No alternative exams except in the case of sickness or emergency. Please do not ask for one otherwise.

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