Gilded TrivialitiesThere's a nice debate going on over at the H-Net SHGAPE discussion list (that's Society for the History of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era) about the usefulness of the term "Gilded Age" to describe the period after Reconstruction. I happen to like the term, but it seems I'm in a minority. One of the criticisms, especially from the astute historian Rebecca Edwards of Vassar, is that it's "limiting" and suggests only the excesses of the age while not reflecting the vast amount of reform going on.
This suggests two things. First, that other descriptive terms for periods are "expansive" and second, that reform movements aren't suggested in the term.
Since the term itself was coined by reformers (Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, to be exact) critical of the unscrupulous individualism and acquisitiveness of the time period, I'd suggest that reform is a concept at the root of the term. One does not talk about vast and systemic corruption approvingly unless one is in power, and then one tries to avoid the subject altogether. As for its limitations, I can only suggest that terms like the Progressive Era and the Cold War are just as limiting. Subjects of state-sponsored sterilization might take issue with the term "Progressive," for instance. And those dispossessed or killed in the proxy wars fought between the US and the USSR, might find the Cold War chilling, but not cold.
I like the "Gilded Age." It's pithy, descriptive, literary, vibrant, and invites discussion. It also invites constant comparison with our own times, which is more than one can say, sadly, about the term "Early Republic."