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The Rise of Big Business

90 min


  • Students will examine the causes of the rise of big business and its characteristics in the Gilded Age.
  • Students will understand the effects of big business on the American economy, politics, and civil society, as well as the debates related to those effects.
  • Students will analyze the constitutional principles associated with government regulation of business in a system of private enterprise, and compare and contrast the regulatory approaches of different presidential administrations toward big business during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

  • Mass production
  • Mass marketing
  • Regulation
  • Corporation
  • Capital
  • Industry
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Competition
  • Trusts
  • Vertical integration
  • Horizontal integration
  • Monopoly
  • Oligarchy
  • Consumerism
  • Rebate
  • Philanthropy
  • Socialism
  • Interstate commerce
  • Executive agency

Have students read Handout A: Background Essay: The Rise of Big Business and answer the review questions.

Activity 1 » 30 minutes

  1. Have students read Handout B: Rise of Big Business Radio Interview Role-Play.
  2. Assign the students evenly into groups for all of the roles and assign one role to each group for all of the businessmen, the interviewer, and the audience. Hand out name-tags with the name of the respective role to the members of each group. The groups with the businessmen should research the biographical sketches provided in Handout B. The groups with the interviewer and audience should develop questions to ask the businessmen during the role-play.
  3. Give the students about 20 minutes to read the material and prepare for their roles. Then, ask each businessman and interviewer group to send a representative to the front of the class to perform the radio interview. The interviewer should ask questions to each of the businessmen present and then allow the audience participants time to ask questions as well.
  4. Debrief the students and lead a discussion about the major themes in the rise of big business and how the role-play demonstrated those themes.

Activity II » 20 minutes

  1. Assign students into groups of three to complete the writing exercise in Handout C: Big Business Social Media Feed. Students will creatively assume the roles of at least three historical figures and compose a social media feed based upon different topics. For each figure, the students will write five posts and then responses from the other two figures for each post.
  2. An alternative assessment could be to assign Handout C for individual students to complete either in class or for homework.
  3. After the assignment is completed, have students volunteer to read interesting or creative threads to the class.

Activity III » 20 minutes

  1. Assign students into groups of three to complete the assignment in Handout D: Business and Advertising in the Gilded Age. Students will analyze several advertisements from the Gilded Age and assess the images and techniques used to sell brand-name products. The groups should elect a spokesperson to report their findings for one of the advertisements to the class.

Historians in the early half of the twentieth century, and some historians today, adopted the view of the Progressive Era that the business leaders who built the modern American economy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were “robber barons.” These historians believed that industrialists were greedy, fought any government regulation, were corrupt monopolists who controlled politics, and mistreated workers while personally benefitting with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. On the other hand, other historians have described the business leaders as “captains of industry.” This view interprets the Gilded Age industrialists as builders of factories and large businesses in a capitalist society. Although there was economic and social dislocation as well as industrial strife, the industrialists created the largest economy in the world which benefitted Americans with prosperity, paid workers more, benefitted consumers with falling prices, and expanded global trade. Teachers can wrap up this section of the unit by explaining what “robber barons” and “captains of industry” were and comparing and contrasting them according to the following questions:

  • Based upon the evidence and what you have learned, to what extent could the business leaders of the Gilded Age be considered “robber barons” or “captains of industry?” Cite specific evidence for your belief.
  • Which is the better way to understand the challenges the industrialists faced and the solutions they proposed?
  • Do you have a more complex understanding of the changes in business and the role of business leaders after studying this section of the unit?

Have the students write 5-7 sentences on the new ideas they learned about the rise of big business after completing this section of the unit.

  1. Assign students into groups of three to complete the assignment in Handout E: Business and Philanthropy. Students will compare and contrast philanthropy and business in the Gilded Age and today.
  2. The debrief for this assignment should discuss the following questions:
    1. What responsibilities do business leaders today have in their communities?
    2. How can philanthropy contribute to a healthy civil society in the United States?

Student Handouts

Next Lesson

Workers in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

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