The Gilded Age True Story: What Brooklyn Was Really Like In The 1880s

Warning: SPOILERS for The Gilded Age Episode 4, "A Long Ladder"

With most of The Gilded Age taking place in Manhattan so far, viewers finally got to see a little slice of Brooklyn in the 1880s and whether or not the show maintained historical accuracy in its portrayal. The show’s latest episode featured some of the most engaging storylines, like George Russell (Morgan Spector) denying Turner (Kelley Curran), Bertha’s lady’s maid, and the racial tensions felt when Peggy Scott (DeneĆ© Benton) and Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) visit Bloomingdale’s together, but it was refreshing to get away from the extravagance of Manhattan for a bit to see how New York City’s future second-largest borough was faring during this time. Today, Brooklyn is a place of start-ups and gentrification, but in the nineteenth-century, the place was up-and-coming in its own right.

The Gilded Age is primarily set in the upper-east side of Manhattan, an incredibly affluent area where old money rules and people of new money like the Russells are trying to infiltrate the exclusive societal club. There is plenty to explore in Manhattan, but it’s easy to wonder how the other future boroughs of New York City are doing throughout this time as well. Shortly after Peggy meets real editor T. Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones) of the New York Globe and is asked to write more for them, the young writer goes to Brooklyn to see her family, celebrate her mother’s birthday, and share the good news of how she is achieving her dreams. Some fleeting images are seen outside of the Scott household in Brooklyn when Marian comes to visit them, but not much is seen of the area besides this. Peggy’s family has clearly done well here, and it makes sense given what Brooklyn was like during the 1880s.

Related: The Gilded Age Has Already Fixed A Downton Abbey Problem

Brooklyn saw enormous growth throughout the nineteenth-century, having only about 100 houses, and then growing in population to over a million by the beginning of the twentieth-century. Food harvested on Long Island was typically transported to Manhattan by way of Brooklyn, and the manufacturing industry was on the rise here as well. While the real life Gilded Age’s old vs. new money feud raged in Manhattan, Brooklyn saw a huge increase in Black residents and immigrants from Europe. For these reasons, Brooklyn became a somewhat safer haven for marginalized people and not some insignificant place like Agnes van Rhijn seems to think it is.

In 1863, the New York City draft riots forced thousands of Black people to find a place away from the violence they were experiencing in Manhattan, and many of those people landed in Brooklyn. From the quick glimpse that is seen outside of the Scott’s house, it appears that the family lives in a primarily Black neighborhood. Like in many instances so far, The Gilded Age gets the real history right here. This idea that people of similar backgrounds congregated together in neighborhoods is still something seen today, and New York City is no exception to that. With shared experiences, these people trust each other, and with Arthur Scott (John Douglas Thompson) being the successful pharmacist that he is, clearly his customers in Brooklyn trust him.

Whether or not people like Agnes want to admit it, the fact that the Brooklyn Bridge will be completed in about a year from when The Gilded Age is currently taking place is going to make New York feel just a little bit smaller. Manhattan will be connected to Brooklyn in a way it never has been before, opening up a floodgate of opportunities for the people that live there. The Statue of Liberty, The Gilded Age’s episode 3’s featured modern marvel, the hand of which was seen in Madison Square, will also soon be constructed in 1886, will welcome more immigrants to the ever-growing city.

More: Why The Gilded Age Is So Obsessed With Money (When Downton Wasn’t)

The Gilded Age airs Mondays at 9pm on HBO and streams on HBO Max.



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