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Setting the Stage

The Gilded Age refers to an era in the second half of the 19th century characterized by rapid industrial growth and enormous potential for economic gain. In this age before income tax and government regulation of business and industry, individuals such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt began to amass huge fortunes from business ventures including shipping, railroads, manufacturing, and banking. Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt, at one time the richest man in America, founded the Vanderbilt family dynasty, which came to influence business, culture, architecture, and society in ways that still affect us today. The family fortune began when the Commodore started a ferry service between Staten Island and Manhattan in New York. He accumulated further wealth in railroading, including establishing the New York Central Railroad, which ran along the Hudson River.

The Commodore's heirs, particularly his grandchildren, redefined what it meant to be rich in America. Tremendous wealth enabled many of them to live a lavish lifestyle similar to European royalty. They pursued hobbies such as yachting and horse breeding and spent exorbitant sums on elaborate East Coast mansions filled with beautiful European furniture and art treasures. Today, several homes built by the Vanderbilts are open to the public and serve as a window into the lifestyle of the privileged few during the Gilded Age. One such home is that of Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt in Hyde Park, New York. At the time of its completion in 1898, it was considered the most palatial of more than 200 mansions along the Hudson River between New York City and Albany.



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