The best Gilded Age books

6 authors have picked their favorite books about the Gilded Age and why they recommend each book.

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The Age of Innocence

By Edith Wharton,

Book cover of The Age of Innocence

Before there were Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer, there was the book that brought them together (in the movie): Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Wharton’s lush, sepia-toned tale of the New York haut ton of the 1870s. Gilded Age society at its best; it won the 1921 Pulitzer for fiction, making Wharton the first woman to win the prize. Read it first, then stream the movie. I loved its opulent portrayal of the well-heeled society of upper-class New York and its spot-on portrayal of moral hypocrisy. The battles that nineteenth-century women of all classes fought to live their lives with integrity and honesty seem to me to echo today in the ongoing injustices perpetrated against society’s powerless.

Who am I?

I write historical fiction based on the lives of my ancestors: Agnes Canon’s War is the story of my twice-great grandparents during the Civil War. An Irish Wife is based on their son. I write about the Gilded Age, which is only now drawing the attention of historical novelists and the wider public: the vast wealth of industrialists contrasted to the poverty of the lower classes, scandalous politics, environmental degradation, fear of and prejudices about immigrants. My ancestors lived through those days; I want to imagine how that tumultuous society affected them, how they managed, what they lost and gained, and to memorialize those stories as a way to honor them.


I wrote...

An Irish Wife

By Deborah Lincoln,

Book cover of An Irish Wife

What is my book about?

In the brilliant society of 1880s America, King Coal fuels fortunes and drives prosperity for the privileged—and destroys the dreams and the lives of the unfortunate. Harry Robinson is the hope of his family for the next generation, expected to ride Gilded-Age momentum to the American Dream. When Harry meets Niamh, an Irish Catholic wife of a miner, he begins to understand the extent of the prejudices that stalk local immigrants. As he undertakes the job of tutoring her younger brother, he finds himself falling in love for the first time. When Niamh shows up one day bloodied and bruised, Harry is determined to take her away, despite her religious scruples and the disapproval of his family. But Niamh and her brother disappear.  

Paradise Falls

By Don Robertson,

Book cover of Paradise Falls

Two volumes, nearly a thousand pages—but don’t let that put you off. This is the background story of the Gilded Age in small-town America, a microcosm of all that was best and worst in the era. Coal mines—a theme running through much Gilded Age tale-telling—and vast riches, sexual misadventures in a time when Victorian straitjackets were loosening, neighborly battles, far-reaching strikes, religious convulsions, political shenanigans. They’re all here. You’ll get lost in them.


Who am I?

I write historical fiction based on the lives of my ancestors: Agnes Canon’s War is the story of my twice-great grandparents during the Civil War. An Irish Wife is based on their son. I write about the Gilded Age, which is only now drawing the attention of historical novelists and the wider public: the vast wealth of industrialists contrasted to the poverty of the lower classes, scandalous politics, environmental degradation, fear of and prejudices about immigrants. My ancestors lived through those days; I want to imagine how that tumultuous society affected them, how they managed, what they lost and gained, and to memorialize those stories as a way to honor them.


I wrote...

An Irish Wife

By Deborah Lincoln,

Book cover of An Irish Wife

What is my book about?

In the brilliant society of 1880s America, King Coal fuels fortunes and drives prosperity for the privileged—and destroys the dreams and the lives of the unfortunate. Harry Robinson is the hope of his family for the next generation, expected to ride Gilded-Age momentum to the American Dream. When Harry meets Niamh, an Irish Catholic wife of a miner, he begins to understand the extent of the prejudices that stalk local immigrants. As he undertakes the job of tutoring her younger brother, he finds himself falling in love for the first time. When Niamh shows up one day bloodied and bruised, Harry is determined to take her away, despite her religious scruples and the disapproval of his family. But Niamh and her brother disappear.  

Murder at Marble House

By Alyssa Maxwell,

Book cover of Murder at Marble House

This series is actually set in Newport, Rhode Island but New York’s elite had to have somewhere to go when the summer heat settled on the city. Reporting on all the Newport society news is Emma Cross, second cousin to Cornelius Vanderbilt. I have to admit that I’m fascinated by the lives of these uber-wealthy characters. Their homes, wardrobes, and entertainments are almost shocking in their opulence. I love that many of the characters are real people. In this book, Alva Vanderbilt loses any hope of winning the Mother-of-the-Year award as she browbeats her daughter Consuelo into marrying heir to the Duke of Marlborough. If money can’t buy happiness, maybe a title will.


Who am I?

I’m the author of the Countess of Harleigh Mystery series. I’ve been fascinated by the Gilded Age/Victorian Era/Belle Epoque since reading my first Edith Wharton novel, The Buccaneers, which followed the lives of four American heiresses of the late 19th century, who crossed the Atlantic to marry British lords. Love and marriage almost never went together in Wharton’s world, but with all the loveless marriages, the social climbing, and the haves and have-nots, I find it makes an excellent setting for a mystery.


I wrote...

A Lady's Guide to Etiquette and Murder

By Dianne Freeman,

Book cover of A Lady's Guide to Etiquette and Murder

What is my book about?

This is the first book in the Countess of Harleigh mystery series, featuring amateur sleuth, Frances Wynn, Countess of Harleigh. Frances comes from Gilded Age New York and was one of the hundreds of American heiresses who crossed the Atlantic to marry a man who needed her fortune and had a title to trade. 

The series opens ten years after the wedding. Frances is now a widow and is eager to break with her in-laws, but the ghosts of the past follow her to her new home in Belgravia. Frances must unravel the truth about her husband’s death and unmask the killer in her midst before the season—and her life—comes to an unseemly end.

A Deadly Fortune

By Stacie Murphy,

Book cover of A Deadly Fortune

This novel embraces all the darkest elements of the Gilded Age—the occult, greed, cruelty, and the notorious asylum for the insane on Blackwell’s Island and I’m here for all of it! The sleuth is Amelia Matthews, a psychic who suffered a head injury that both expanded her psychic ability and landed her in Blackwell Asylum. She is not insane, but neither are many of the other women locked up with her—at least not when they first arrived. It’s chilling to know that this really happened to women who were betrayed by their nearest and dearest. Stacie Murphy made me feel like her characters were real, and I wanted justice for them! 


Who am I?

I’m the author of the Countess of Harleigh Mystery series. I’ve been fascinated by the Gilded Age/Victorian Era/Belle Epoque since reading my first Edith Wharton novel, The Buccaneers, which followed the lives of four American heiresses of the late 19th century, who crossed the Atlantic to marry British lords. Love and marriage almost never went together in Wharton’s world, but with all the loveless marriages, the social climbing, and the haves and have-nots, I find it makes an excellent setting for a mystery.


I wrote...

A Lady's Guide to Etiquette and Murder

By Dianne Freeman,

Book cover of A Lady's Guide to Etiquette and Murder

What is my book about?

This is the first book in the Countess of Harleigh mystery series, featuring amateur sleuth, Frances Wynn, Countess of Harleigh. Frances comes from Gilded Age New York and was one of the hundreds of American heiresses who crossed the Atlantic to marry a man who needed her fortune and had a title to trade. 

The series opens ten years after the wedding. Frances is now a widow and is eager to break with her in-laws, but the ghosts of the past follow her to her new home in Belgravia. Frances must unravel the truth about her husband’s death and unmask the killer in her midst before the season—and her life—comes to an unseemly end.

Manhattan Mafia Guide

By Eric Ferrara,

Book cover of Manhattan Mafia Guide: Hits, Homes & Headquarters

Author Ferrara takes you on a lively, and chilling, tour of the sites in Manhattan where Mafia dons and underlings brutally wiped out their competition—only to find themselves on the receiving end of the same treatment at some other joint up or downtown. Chinatown, Little Italy, the Lower East Side—these were the main haunts of New York’s most colorful and deadly criminals in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and it’s fun to actually visit the locations with this book as a guide.


Who am I?

I’d written modern true crime before—a book that helped solve a 40-year-old cold case—and wanted to try my hand at historical true crime. I live in Manhattan, home to the greatest crime stories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so I was able to see the actual locations where the grisliest murders, the biggest bank heists, and the crookedest con games took place. What really drew me in, though, were the many colorful, unforgettable characters, both good and bad, cops and robbers, who walked the bustling streets of Old New York during the fascinating era known as the Gilded Age. 


I wrote...

Rogues' Gallery: The Birth of Modern Policing and Organized Crime in Gilded Age New York

By John Oller,

Book cover of Rogues' Gallery: The Birth of Modern Policing and Organized Crime in Gilded Age New York

What is my book about?

Rogues’ Gallery is a sweeping, epic tale of two revolutions that played out on the streets of Old New York during the Gilded Age. For centuries, New York had been a haven for crime. A thief or murderer not caught in the act nearly always got away. But in the early 1870s, police developed new ways to catch criminals: Mug shots and daily lineups helped witnesses point out culprits; the famed rogues’ gallery allowed police to track repeat offenders; and the third-degree interrogation method induced recalcitrant crooks to confess. Yet as policing became ever more specialized and efficient, crime itself became bolder and more elaborate, murders grew more ruthless and macabre, and the street gangs of old transformed into organized crime, including the Mafia. 

The Jungle

By Upton Sinclair,

Book cover of The Jungle

Theodore Roosevelt read this book in manuscript and didn’t much like it, but fully understood, as a good reader and adept politician, that it would cause trouble. The President thought Sinclair a ‘hysteric,’ and despised his socialism, still knowing the book would be a widely heralded bestseller about the meat packing industry in Chicago, and the melodramatic trials of the Lithuanian immigrants who worked there. We love the book because it makes compelling reading to this day. The furor of the public response to the sanitary conditions in the packing plants brought about the momentum that Roosevelt needed to get the Food and Drug Administration established. Sinclair joked, “I aimed for America’s heart, and hit its stomach.” Contemporary readers might be surprised to see a president shaping federal policy because of what some muckraker had written.


Who are we?

We live in the countryside of southwest Michigan in a farmhouse dating back to the 1830s on land once owned by James Fenimore Cooper. The land itself has stories to tell that intrigue us as readers and writers ourselves. Katherine’s passion for the writings of Jane Addams and Edith Wharton led her to Theodore Roosevelt, a kindred male voice in American literature at the turn of the twentieth century. Tom’s passion for environmental writers and activism led him to the books and essays of the 26th President, who believed that good writing sometimes leads to good laws! As professors and writing partners, we are delighted every time we can introduce readers to the literary Theodore Roosevelt.


We wrote...

Theodore Roosevelt: A Literary Life

By Thomas Bailey & Katherine Joslin,

Book cover of Theodore Roosevelt: A Literary Life

What is our book about?

We tell the story of Theodore Roosevelt as a writer and a reader, literary activities he pursued relentlessly from the time he could read and hold a pencil until the day before he died, when he wrote his last review for The New York Times. During his not very long but intensely lived life, he read untold thousands of books, wrote 47 of them, thousands and thousands of letters, scores of speeches, articles, and reviews. Some say he read a book and dozens of newspapers and magazines a day even while he was in the White House. We review and assess this life in language, painting a complex and somewhat demythologizing portrait of a fascinating, heralded, and often written about American man of the late 19th and early 20th century.

77 Shadow Street

By Dean Koontz,

Book cover of 77 Shadow Street

This book is all around haunting and instantly made me a huge fan of Dean Koontz. Set in an apartment complex with a long history of violence and hauntings, Koontz does a fantastic job of setting up expectations, and then subverting those expectations. Not everything here is as it seems. Throw in some disturbing creatures and an interesting twist and I was hooked!


Who am I?

I have always been fascinated by horror, particularly the dark and imagination-inciting creatures produced by it (even though I’m a big scaredy-cat, haha!). In a time when slasher films and haunted houses tend to dominate the horror genre, I set out to create a creature-feature similar to the 80s and early 90s classics I grew up with (Aliens, The Thing, Phantoms, Dawn of the Dead). I fell in love with creating truly nightmarish monstrosities and deep, vulnerable but strong characters to battle them. The books on this list are definitely huge inspirations in my own work, so I hope you enjoy the beasties in them as much as I have!


I wrote...

Pandora (The Organization)

By Joshua Grant,

Book cover of Pandora (The Organization)

What is my book about?

A cruise ship disappears without a trace, reemerging a week later and transmitting a single word: Pandora. Business tycoon and owner of the cruise line Patrick Carver sends a band of mercenaries to land on the ship and figure out what happened. For reasons beyond her, young doctor Aubrey Pittenger is chosen to go along for the ride. But all is not as it seems aboard the crumbling cruise liner, and evil comes in many forms. Now the ragtag team will have to band together in order to survive the night in this Aliens/The Thing homage horror thriller from the mind of bestselling author Joshua Grant!

Murder on Astor Place

By Victoria Thompson,

Book cover of Murder on Astor Place: A Gaslight Mystery

This book begins a long-running mystery series featuring another unusual protagonist—midwife Sarah Brandt. This is one of the first historical mysteries I read, and it made me come back for more! It also fascinated me with details about policing in that era. It was more business than service. If someone wants a crime solved, they are offered a reward—or bribe. Policemen themselves had to pay to work their way up the department ladder. I love the chemistry between Sarah and police sergeant, Frank Malloy. She often serves as his conscience while he keeps her safe. 


Who am I?

I’m the author of the Countess of Harleigh Mystery series. I’ve been fascinated by the Gilded Age/Victorian Era/Belle Epoque since reading my first Edith Wharton novel, The Buccaneers, which followed the lives of four American heiresses of the late 19th century, who crossed the Atlantic to marry British lords. Love and marriage almost never went together in Wharton’s world, but with all the loveless marriages, the social climbing, and the haves and have-nots, I find it makes an excellent setting for a mystery.


I wrote...

A Lady's Guide to Etiquette and Murder

By Dianne Freeman,

Book cover of A Lady's Guide to Etiquette and Murder

What is my book about?

This is the first book in the Countess of Harleigh mystery series, featuring amateur sleuth, Frances Wynn, Countess of Harleigh. Frances comes from Gilded Age New York and was one of the hundreds of American heiresses who crossed the Atlantic to marry a man who needed her fortune and had a title to trade. 

The series opens ten years after the wedding. Frances is now a widow and is eager to break with her in-laws, but the ghosts of the past follow her to her new home in Belgravia. Frances must unravel the truth about her husband’s death and unmask the killer in her midst before the season—and her life—comes to an unseemly end.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910

By Esther Crain,

Book cover of The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910

A lavishly illustrated and engagingly written history of New York during the Gilded Age that covers not just crime, sin, and policing but also such topics as rich vs. poor, the immigrant wave, the early women’s movement, and theater and entertainment. You’ll be entranced by the many beautiful photographs and illustrations alone; I know I was!


Who am I?

I’d written modern true crime before—a book that helped solve a 40-year-old cold case—and wanted to try my hand at historical true crime. I live in Manhattan, home to the greatest crime stories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so I was able to see the actual locations where the grisliest murders, the biggest bank heists, and the crookedest con games took place. What really drew me in, though, were the many colorful, unforgettable characters, both good and bad, cops and robbers, who walked the bustling streets of Old New York during the fascinating era known as the Gilded Age. 


I wrote...

Rogues' Gallery: The Birth of Modern Policing and Organized Crime in Gilded Age New York

By John Oller,

Book cover of Rogues' Gallery: The Birth of Modern Policing and Organized Crime in Gilded Age New York

What is my book about?

Rogues’ Gallery is a sweeping, epic tale of two revolutions that played out on the streets of Old New York during the Gilded Age. For centuries, New York had been a haven for crime. A thief or murderer not caught in the act nearly always got away. But in the early 1870s, police developed new ways to catch criminals: Mug shots and daily lineups helped witnesses point out culprits; the famed rogues’ gallery allowed police to track repeat offenders; and the third-degree interrogation method induced recalcitrant crooks to confess. Yet as policing became ever more specialized and efficient, crime itself became bolder and more elaborate, murders grew more ruthless and macabre, and the street gangs of old transformed into organized crime, including the Mafia. 

Amusing the Million

By John F. Kasson,

Book cover of Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century

This short book, filled with delightful illustrations, is so much fun that you don’t immediately notice that it’s a powerful history of how urbanization and industrialization led to a new mass culture. The particular focus is on the rise of the amusement park, and the controversies that arose over how people “should” spend their leisure time and discretionary income. When the Russian revolutionary Maxim Gory toured Coney Island in 1907, he concluded that in America, amusement (rather than religion) had become the opiate of the masses. This book, a classic, remains relevant, inspiring thoughtful analysis concerning the ongoing power of the leisure industry and its impact on how people think, live, and spend their money. 


Who am I?

I study the Gilded Age and Progressive Era because it has so many practical applications for the present.  As we face our own Gilded Age of enormous technological achievements paired with ongoing problems stemming from what Bob La Follette called “the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many,” why reinvent the wheel?  What worked for progressive reformers in their struggles to create a more equitable and just society?  What didn’t work, and why? To help answer those questions I wrote Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer and Belle La Follette: Progressive Era Reformer, and co-edited A Companion to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.


I wrote...

Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer

By Nancy C. Unger,

Book cover of Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer

What is my book about?

The endlessly fascinating Robert La Follette (1855-1925) represented Wisconsin in the House of Representatives, as governor, and, for twenty-one years, in the U.S. Senate.  As the nation rapidly transformed into an urban-industrial giant, he tackled some of its biggest problems, including political corruption, environmental devastation, and worker exploitation.  “The supreme issue, involving all the others,” he declared, “is the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many.” La Follette was a leader in the fight to more equitably redistribute the nation’s wealth and power.

La Follette’s wife, Belle Case La Follette, was a leader in the fight for women’s suffrage and racial equality as well as world peace. Together they created a remarkably close family, generating a political dynasty.

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