UNL Commencement in the Gilded Age (1869-1900)

Project Editor:Timothy Auten, History 470: Digital History, Spring 2008

UNL Commencement in the Gilded Age (1869-1900)
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UNL Commencement in the Gilded Age (1869-1900)

The Gilded Age of America (1870-1900) was a time of both poverty and extreme wealth. The term itself was attached to the era by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, in their novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Borrowing a phrase from Shakespeare, they describe the extravagances of the upper class as 'gilding the lily.' The idea is that the lily itself is already beautiful, and any further adornment is simply wasteful, which many see as a good analogy for the activities of the rich at this time. It is also important to remember that this 'gilding' also serves to cover up the poverty and despair of the common, working man at this time.

This need to hide the distresses of the lower class was felt in Nebraska just as well as anywhere else, perhaps inspired to a greater extent by the hardships of prairie farm life. To make their state as attractive as possible, influential Nebraskans would push for the creation of buildings for entertainment and learning, and often succeed. With the Morrill Land Act of 1862 granting land to public universities, the creation of a university in Nebraska became a reality. The university was a symbol of progress, and for Nebraska to have one would prove that the new state was worthy of its statehood. Despite early criticism about its creation, the university quickly became a center for culture within Nebraska.

Although it had few graduates, UNL in its early years was seen as a symbol of what Nebraskans were capable of, teaching new students and researching new technologies and histories that were on the cutting edge of American knowledge. As the public education system at the elementary and high school levels formed, the number of students and graduates at the university increased rapidly. This growth, and the actions of alumni, proved the worth of the university as an institution that could educate the state's citizens. Unfortunately, the successes of a few at the university were used to hide the plight of many throughout the state, often by celebrating those few students of the university. Book club meetings, dinner parties, dances, and banquets all served to 'gild' the state, making it seem brighter and better than it might truly be.

UNL commencement, in its early years, served as just such a 'gilding' activity for the people of Nebraska in the late 1800s. Although perhaps more hopeful than some other events, thanks to the diverse background of graduates, the activities surrounding commencement were a definable marker of an upper class society. The links above lead to several different pages that attempt to use primary documents to tie UNL Commencement directly to aspects of high society, such as choices of fashion and food. It is important to remember, however, that even though the university might be tied to the hiding of the worker's plight, it also did serve very well to educate its students, many of whom would stay in Nebraska and work to further improve the state.