If you’re joining us for our 2023 Decades Reading Challenge, welcome! If you simply found your way to our website looking for books about the Gilded Age, you’ve still come to the right place! Below you’ll find a list of the best books set in the 1880s and 1890s.
What Kind of Books are Included On This List?
Our recommended reading list includes historical fiction books that examine social and economic issues, gilded age novels, and nonfiction books that provide insights into the late 1800s. We’ve also recommended a few popular books that were written during the era and that have stood the test of time.
Before we get to the booklist for the late 19th century, we always like to provide a bit of historical context and a timeline of major world events.
The Gilded Age
Mark Twain termed the late 19th century “the Gilded Age.” It was a period of time when things were glittering on the surface, but with shaky foundations and corruption underneath. Between 1880 and 1900, the United States experienced rapid growth – both in population and industry. There was an influx of millions of European immigrants, who were greeted upon arrival by the Statue of Liberty. There was also a great migration of people from rural parts of the US to cities during this period. This population growth drastically changed the face of US cities. Skyscrapers became commonplace, as did mass transit systems, such as trolleys, cable cars, and subways.
Despite rapidly increasing worker wages in the 1880s and 1890s, this period of American history gave rise to unhealthy and dangerous working conditions. This led to famous labor strikes as well as the formation of labor unions during the final decades of the 19th century.
The Wild West
The term “Wild West” refers to the period between 1865 and 1900 that was notorious for gunslingers, outlaws, and gritty lawmen. The newly completed transcontinental railroad continued to move both people and goods to previously sparsely populated areas. Train robberies became commonplace during the final decades of the 19th century, peaking in the mid-1890s.
Westward expansion by white settlers had devastating effects on Native American cultures. The settlers pushed Indian tribes off of the lands that they had occupied for many thousands of years, and resistance by the tribes often led to wars with the US military. Governmental assimilation tactics included kidnapping and enrolling Indian children in boarding schools, punishing the use of Native languages, and creating dependence on food rations.
Major Events of the 1880s and 1890s
James Garfield was elected president in 1880. Four months after his March 1881 inauguration, President Garfield was shot at a DC train station. He survived for 11 weeks before succumbing to his injuries. Following Garfield’s assassination, Vice President Chester A. Arthur succeeded him as President.
In December of 1880, Thomas A. Edison hung electric Christmas lights at his lab for the first time. In December of 1895, President Grover Cleveland arranged for the White House Christmas tree to be lit with Edison bulbs. Within decades, electric Christmas lights became commonplace in America.
The American Red Cross was incorporated by Clara Barton in May of 1881.
Outlaw Billy the Kid was shot and killed by a lawman in the New Mexico territory in July, 1881. Several months later, outlaw Doc Holliday and lawman Wyatt Earp were involved in a gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. In April of 1882, outlaw Jesse James was also shot and killed.
Ten thousand workers held a labor march in NYC on September 5, 1882, in what became the first commemoration of Labor Day. The US Congress officially designated the first Monday of September as a legal holiday, Labor Day, in 1894.
More than a decade after construction began, the Brooklyn Bridge opened on May 24, 1883.
In June of 1886, President Grover Cleveland wedded Frances Folson. He remains the only President to be married inside the White House. Cleveland lost his bid for reelection in 1888, but was then elected again in 1892. He is the only president to have served two non-consecutive terms.
The disassembled Statue of Liberty arrived in New York aboard a French freighter in June of 1885. The completed statue was dedicated in New York Harbor in October of 1886.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle debuted his literary detective, Sherlock Holmes, in 1887. Doyle went on to write four novels and 56 short stories about Sherlock Holmes. The stories are mostly set in the late 1880s and 1890s, a period of great change in England.
Jack the Ripper’s first victim was discovered in London in August of 1888. He murdered at least four more victims in the impoverished neighborhoods of London’s East End in the following months.
Star reporter Nellie Bly set out on a 72-day race around the world in November of 1889. She wanted to circumnavigate the globe in less than 80 days in order to beat the record of Phileas Fogg, the fictional protagonist of “Around the World in Eighty Days.” She succeeded, wrapping up her adventure with a cross-country train trip from San Francisco to NYC.
Major industries such as banking, railroads, shipping, steel, and oil were largely controlled by monopolies. This resulted in public outcry over price fixing. The Sherman Antitrust Act was passed in 1890 to give the federal government the power to break up monopolistic business practices and restore competition. Nonetheless, monopolies continued to play a major role in US industry for decades to come.
Expansion of the west occurred so rapidly at the end of the 19th century that in 1890 the US Census Bureau officially declared the “closing of the frontier.” This indicated that there appeared to be no remaining tracts of land without settlers.
The Wounded Knee Massacre took place in South Dakota in December of 1890 when U.S. Cavalry troopers fired on Lakota people who had gathered. They killed hundreds of unarmed men, women, and children. This massacre essentially marked the end of Native American resistance to white rule in the West.
Carnegie Hall opened in New York City in May of 1891.
Andrew Borden and his wife were murdered in Massachusetts in August of 1892. His daughter Lizzie Borden was accused of the gruesome crime but was later acquitted in June of 1893.
Chicago was selected to host the 1893 World’s Fair. The fair debuted the first Ferris Wheel, a 264-foot-tall engineering marvel.
A decline in the New York stock market triggered the Panic of 1893, which led to a major economic depression.
Pierre de Coubertin created the International Olympic Committee, leading to the first modern Olympic games in Athens, Greece, two years later.
Alfred Nobel died in 1896, and his will arranged for his estate to fund the Nobel Prize.
In July 1897, the Klondike Gold Rush began in Alaska.
The American battleship U.S.S. Maine exploded in the harbor at Havana, Cuba, in February of 1898. This mysterious event lead to the United States going to war with Spain. The Spanish American War lasted from April to August of 1898.
In July of 1899, the Newsboys in New York City went on strike for several weeks. This was a significant action related to child labor.
Books Set in the Late 1800s (1880-1899)
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by Graham Moore Setting: 1888, New York City & Pittsburg First published 2016
In 1888 New York, the streets were still lit by gas lamps, but the promise of the light bulb looms. However, the switch to electric light came with an additional complication - both George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison claimed to have invented the lightbulb.
A young lawyer, Paul Cravath, is thrust into the world of New York high society when he agrees to defend Westinghouse in a lawsuit brought by Thomas Edison. Edison has spies and vast resources, including the backing of J.P. Morgan. How can they fight against such a force?
When Paul meets Nikola Tesla, he may have found the secret to defeating Edison. But winning requires risks.
The Book Girls Say…The Last Days of Night is a Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction from 2016.
by Therese Anne Fowler Setting: 1883, New York City First published 2018
Alva Smith had a decent society name, but her family had lost all of their money. When she married into the newly rich, but socially scorned Vanderbilt family, she knew only half her problems were solved. She had more money than she could ever spend again, but her new last name was not respected in the city.
When the Academy of Music denied her a box, she founded The Met to prove she wouldn’t handle rejection quietly. But how much can she work around the strict rules of New York society? And will there be consequences for pushing the boundaries?
The Book Girls Say…If you enjoyed the HBO series, The Gilded Age, you might recognize aspects of the storyline as the show, and this book both draw from New York society history. For continued reading on the Vanderbilt family, consider the non-fiction title Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty.
by Fiona Davis Setting: 1884, New York City First published 2017
Sara was the head housekeeper at a posh London hotel in 1884. Based on her background, this is more than she ever expected and the highest station she could rise to in life. But then she meets American Theodore Camden. He is building the most luxurious residential building in New York, The Dakota, and invites her to come to manage the property. The job brings her to highs and lows she never could have expected.
Sara’s story is told in conjunction with a 1985 storyline of Bailey Camden, who is returning from rehab and gets the opportunity to start fresh with a job overseeing a renovation of an apartment in The Dakota.
by Maya Rodale Setting: 1887, New York City First published 2022
This historical mystery is based on the real life of journalist Nellie Bly. While she currently works for the ladies' pages, she has greater ambition. But the editors believe women are too emotional and delicate to be real journalists.
Eventually, she gets her big break. Rumors about the conditions and circumstances inside Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for Women are terrifying. But, no one can get inside. The New York World publication had an idea…what if a woman feigns insanity to get committed and find out the truth?
What Nellie finds is more horrible than she expected. The investigation could make her career and make a difference to the women of Blackwell’s Island. But can she get out to tell her story before rival reporters scoop it up?
The Book Girls Say…If you’ve read The Address by Fiona Davis, you may recognize Nellie's name.
by Eowyn Ivey Setting: 1885, Alaska First published 2016
Newly married Colonel Allen Forrester has received the commission of a lifetime. He is being sent to lead a small group of men to navigate Alaska’s Wolverine River. Finding a way to pass the river is the key to opening Alaska to the outside world, but previous attempts have been fatal.
Sophie is pregnant and not excited about being relegated to a year in the military barracks away from her husband while he attempts the impossible. She’s worried about her pregnancy and what will happen while apart from Allen.
The Book Girls Say…Melissa loved this author’s descriptions of Alaska in The Snow Child, so she can't wait to pick up this 2016 Goodreads Nominee for Best Historical Fiction. Like The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey weaves a thread of magical realism throughout this epistolary novel.
by Tracey Enerson Wood Setting: 1864-1884 New York City First published 2020
Emily was determined to make change and was an active participant in the women's suffrage movement. But when her husband, Washington Roebling, was injured on the job as the Chief Engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, Emily puts her own work on hold to take over for her husband. As the bridge rises, Emily wonders if she's building her own legacy, or that of her husband.
This novel is based on the true story of how Emily Roebling transformed this project of monumental scale. Her work took her into the bowels of the East River, to suffragette riots, into the halls of Manhattan's elite, and the temptations of PT Barnum.
The Book Girls Say... Although this novel spans multiple decades, the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1884 was a noteworthy event of the end of the 1800s, making this story a must for inclusion on our book list.
by Adriana Herrera Setting: 1889, Paris First published 2022
Merchants from around the world are arriving in Paris for the Exposition Universelle. Luz arrives from Santo Domingo with 300 casks of family rum and her two best friends. Her only rule is not to fall in love while she’s gone.
While her Caña Brava rum is good, buyers and shippers don’t want to do business with a woman. Especially a woman of color. A Scottish Earl steps in to assist, but why is this charming man so eager to help?
The Book Girls Say…This historical romance is the first in the Las Léonas series. Book #2 is about a different island visitor to the 1889 Exposition Universelle and is scheduled for release in May 2023.
by Jenny Tinghui Zhang Setting: 1882 & following years, China, San Fransisco, Idaho First published 2022
Daiyu was named after a tragic heroine in Chinese folklore and hoped to avoid being cursed like her namesake. However, she’s kidnapped in China at the young age of 11 to be sent to an American brothel.
While she’s able to escape the brothel, she can’t hide from the white me who are following the Chinese population as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 fuels anti-Asian sentiment. She’s lucky to find a safe home with Chinese shopkeepers in Idaho, but life is anything but easy in a country that hates you.
The Book Girls Say…The author wrote this beautiful work of literary historical fiction after her father found a historical marker in Idaho and asked her to share the story with the world. Be sure to read the author's notes at the end of the book for more information on the true events that inspired the story.
by Genevieve Graham Setting: 1897, Yukon Territory First published 2019
The Peterson family, including Lisa, have a store in Vancouver, but an opportunity to make a fortune if they move to Dawson City, the only established town in the Yukon. Constable Ben Turner, a new recruit for the North-West Mounted Police, is also headed to Dawson City, but instead of looking for riches, he is looking to bring integrity to a town overrun with guns, liquor, prostitutes, and thieves.
The journey over icy mountains and whitewater rapids is more treacherous than Liza or Ben imagined. When a tragedy strikes near the mountain's peak, Lisa must continue without her family. Ben is wracked with guilt over the accident and looking for an opportunity to make things right.
This historical fiction is a mix of romance and adventure as two brave people try to survive extreme terrain and let go of their past.
by Melanie Benjamin Setting: 1888, Dakota Territory First published 2021
Based on an actual event and oral history from the survivors, The Children's Blizzard takes us to the 1888 Great Plains. Just before school was let out for the day, an unexpected and extreme blizzard overtook the Dakota Territory. That morning, it had been warm enough that most went to school without their coats.
Schoolteachers, often as young as 16, had the children's lives in their hands and were forced to make life-altering decisions. Two of the teachers, sisters, Raina and Gerda, came out of the storm with very different outcomes. One was a hero, and one was ostracized. The book tells their stories, along with the story of a young servant girl and her miraculous survival.
by Kayte Nunn Setting: 1886 & Present Day, Australia, England, & Chile First published 2018
This is the tale of two female botanists, each racing to discover a life-saving flower.
In 1880s England, Elizabeth takes over her late father’s search for a rare and miraculous plant. Her quest leads her on a perilous voyage across the sea that will endanger not just her, but her whole family.
In present-day Australia, Ann comes across a box filled with miscellaneous items, including a sketchbook of watercolors, a photograph with “Spring 1886” noted on it, and a small bag of seeds. This jumpstarts her own botanical odyssey.
The Book Girls Say… Readers say that the descriptions of this book are so vivid that you’ll be able to smell the flowers as you read about the adventures of these two women across three continents and two centuries.
by Candice Millard Setting: 1881, Washington DC First published 2011
Less than four months after taking office, US President Garfield was shot twice in a train station in Washington DC by a disgruntled man with political aspirations. Doctors tried to save his life, but life-saving attempts led to infections as his surgeon, Dr. Bliss, didn’t believe in sanitizing hands or equipment.
A bullet remained lodged in his body, but it needed to be removed for the best chance of survival. Inventor Alexander Graham Bell thought he could develop new technology to locate the bullet, but it was a race against time and against a doctor who didn’t embrace evolving medical practices.
The Book Girls Say…Melissa’s husband read this book and rated it 5 stars. He said rather than reading like standard non-fiction, it reads like a movie or modern thriller as you see multiple storylines of Garfield, his assassin, his doctor, and Alexander Graham Bell as he raced to save the President.
by Chanel Cleeton Setting: 1896, Cuba & New York City First published 2021
When Grace gets a job at William Randolph Hearst’s NYC newspaper in 1896, she’s caught in a feud between Hearst and another newspaper tycoon, Joseph Pulitzer. She knows landing the right scoop could make her career.
In Cuba, 18-year-old Evangelina Cisneros dreams of a Cuba free from Spanish oppression. When she’s unjustly imprisoned in a notorious Havana women’s jail, Hearst puts her on the front page and calls her “The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba,” which becomes a rallying cry for American intervention in Cuba’s battle for independence.
Hearst’s staff, including Grace and a courier named Marina, who is secretly working for Cuban revolutionaries, attempt to free Evangelia. But the story becomes much more significant with the explosion of the USS Maine sends the US and Spain closer to war.
The Book Girls Say… The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba reads as a stand-alone book, but is book 4 in the Perez Family series. The novel is based on the true story of Evangelina Cisneros, who changed the course of history.
by Matthew Goodman Setting: 1889, around the world First published 2013
After making a name for herself as a crusading young reporter for Joseph Pulitzer's World newspaper, Nellie Bly set out to break the record for the fastest trip around the world. She set out on November 14, 1889, on a steamship from New York.
But she had competition - also setting out from NY that day was a young journalist from Cosmopolitan magazine named Elizabeth Bisland. However, she was on a train heading west instead of ship heading east.
This wasn't the only way the two women were total opposites. Nelly was a scrappy reporter raised in the Pennsylvania coal country who used her work to expose social injustice. Elizabeth, on the other hand, was a genteel young woman from an aristocratic Southern family.
This non-fiction account of the journeys of these two trailblazing women reads like a great adventure novel.
The Book Girls Say... If you've read Fiona Davis' The Address (also on this list), then you'll remember the fictionalized account of Nellie Bly from that novel. She's the journalist who went undercover at the Blackwell's Island Insane Asylum.
by Connie Hertzberg Mayo Setting: 1889, Boston First published 2015
Life in late nineteenth-century Boston is tough, and Aiden and Charles struggle each day to earn enough money to feed themselves (and in Aiden's case, also his mother and sister). The two adolescent boys survive the wicked Boston streets by forming an alliance. Together, they rob drunken sailors in the brothel district, but things go wrong one night. They accidentally kill their target.
To avoid arrest, the boys flee the city and con their way into the Boston Farm School. In 1889, this school only accepted boys with squeaky-clean pasts (certainly not those with criminal records), which made it the perfect hiding place for Aiden and Charles. But soon, they struggle to keep their stories straight. The pressure damages their friendship and puts their futures at risk.
by Erik Larson Setting: 1893, Chicago First published 2003
This book alternates stories of two men connected to the 1893 Chicago World’s fair. Daniel H. Burnham is the architect of the fair, responsible for constructing the famous “White City,” which attracted appearances by Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison.
Dr. Holmes erected the World’s Fair Hotel near the fairgrounds, which had a gas chamber and crematorium. He lured both guests and victims to his hotel with his charismatic personality.
The Book Girls Say…While Erik Larson's books are told in a narrative style, they are still classified as non-fiction. This one is more true crime/horror than some of his other works, as a serial killer is involved. While it still has high reviews overall, many are frustrated that it feels like two different books combined into one, with the history of the fair and the sinister Dr. Holmes sections feeling disconnected despite being told in alternating chapters.
by John Larison Setting: 1885, Western US First published 2018
If you’re looking for a western with a twist, Whiskey When We’re Dry fits the bill! Main character Jessilyn is an orphaned 17-year-old girl trying to survive alone on her family’s homestead. In order to get food and stay safe from predatory neighbors, she disguises herself as a boy and sets off on her horse to find her outlaw brother in the mountains.
However, the governor’s militia is also trying to find Noah, dead or alive.
The Book Girls Say…Readers say this book is both literary and descriptively violent at times, so keep that in mind before selecting it.
by Tea Cooper Setting: 1880 and 1910, Australia First published 2020
Evie Ludgrove’s father was obsessed with famous Australian explorer, Dr. Ludwig Leichhardt. From her father, Evie adopted a love of charting the landscape. When a magazine offered a large reward for proof of what happened to Dr. Leichhardt when he disappeared, she sets out to use her father’s papers to discover the secret. But in the course of trying to prove her theory, Evie disappears without a trace.
Thirty years later, Letitia Rawlings visits her great aunt Olivia, and discovers Evie’s beautifully hand-illustrated map, she sets out to discover the truth about her missing aunt Evie. This historical fiction, which features one of Australia’s great mysteries, is recommended for fans of Kate Morton.
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Setting: most stories set in the 1880s and 1890s, England First published 1892
This collection contains all four novels and all 56 short stories that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about master detective Sherlock Holmes.
These stories are easy to read in any order. If you'd like to read a full novel, we recommend The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is set in 1889. If you'd rather just read a few short stories, consider The Adventure of the Speckled Band, set in 1886, or The Red-Headed League, set in 1890.
No matter what you choose, the sleuthing adventures of Detective Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Dr. Watson will transport you to the Victorian era in England.
by Stacy Lee Setting: 1890s, Atlanta First published 2019
Set in the American South of the 1890s, this YA social drama tells the story of 17-year-old Jo Kaun. By day, she works as a lady’s maid for the cruel daughter of one of the richest men in Atlanta, Georgia, but by night she is the author of a newspaper advice column for genteel Southern ladies.
Writing under the pseudonym “Dear Miss Sweetie,” she uses her popular column to address some of society’s ills. But when she dares to challenge ideas of race and gender, she is unprepared for the backlash she faces. Jo Kaun struggles to keep her identity a secret, while also searching out the truth about her own past and the parents who abandoned her as a baby.
by David Nasaw Setting: Late 19th Century and Early 20th Century, New York City First published 1985
Those of us who grew up on Disney's Newsies, or who have seen the Broadway musical version, know a bit about the 1899 newsboy strike and the child labor struggles at the end of the 19th century. With that in mind, we went in search of a book that would shed more light on these events and came across this non-fiction book.
In addition to a chapter on the Newsies, this book also takes a broader look at the social history of the era from the perspective of the children who would grow up to become "the Greatest Generation."
The Book Girls Say... In writing this account of the times, the author drew upon hundreds of memoirs, autobiographies, oral histories, and other primary sources in order to transport us to the daily lives of these children and their families.
While most reviewers found this book to paint a moving portrait of the difficulties of the time, some feel that takes a bit too much of a "golden era" stance.
by Edith Wharton Setting: Late 1880s New York First published 1920
At the end of the 19th century, Newland Archer is preparing to marry the beautiful and conventional May Welland. But when Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York, fresh out of a disastrous marriage, Archer falls madly in love with her. He is torn between expectations and passion as he struggles to make a decision. The consequences of his choice could either define his life, or destroy it.
This book won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for its vivid portrait of the Golden Age of Old New York. The wealthy families also summer in Newport, Rhode Island, giving us a glimpse of Gilded Age life outside of the city.
The Book Girls Say… One of our readers recently noted that this book, like many classics, is slow going at times, but that the end wraps the story up nicely in a way that makes everything clear.
This edition is available with Kindle Unlimited (including audio) as of 11/21/22.
by Lauren Willig Setting: 1896 and 1898, USA, Greece, Turkey, Cuba Expected publication 2023
This book is set for publication on March 21, 2023. We opted to include it on this month's list in case you'd like to preorder it or add it to your TBR to read later in the year.
In September of 1896, Betsy is an aspiring archaeologist. The Smith College graduate travels to Athens in hopes of breaking into the male-dominated field of excavation. When war breaks out between Greece and Turkey, however, Betsy enters the conflict as a nurse. This decision causes a painful rift with her oldest friend, Ava.
Two years later, Betsy has sworn off war nursing. But when she receives word that Ava is heading to Cuba to help Clara Barton and the Red Cross to care for the wounded in the Spanish-American War, Betsy is determined to stop Ava, and the only way she can do it is by taking Ava's place. She follows Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders straight to the heart of the battle.
You are welcome to choose any book that you’d like to read for the challenge, but we hope that this list of books has given you a good starting point.
Members of our email list and Facebook group, Read with the Book Girls can log ratings for their monthly challenge reads. The logs provide us with data for the “BGG Reader Ratings” that are added to descriptions for future years. We’d love you to contribute your rating after you’ve finished your read this month.
Can you send me a printable list with the book titles but not descriptions?
This was a big request last year that we weren’t able to add to our plates in 2022. New for 2023, readers who support Book Girls Guide through our Buy Me a Coffee membership site will receive special monthly printable journal pages as a thank you bonus. The voluntary members (we call them our BFFs) help cover the cost of running the challenges so we can keep them free for everyone.
We’re so excited to be able to offer this fun perk this year!
The new pages will be pre-filled with every book title for the month, and include space for you to mark your interest level, make notes about whether you’ve requested the book from the library (or any other notes you’d like), and then fill in your rating. We’ll also include blank lines in case you have other books on your TBR (to be read) list that meet the prompt.
That said, you’ll always find the most updated version of our recommendations with descriptions each month at no cost on our website. We do update the list and descriptions regularly based on reader feedback. But, we know some of you wanted to print the list to take to the library or bookstore, and we hope this helps.
Decades Reading Challenge - Book Girls' Guide
Monday 20th of February 2023
[…] past the overview of each challenge, you’ll find links to all the book lists.We did get January’s list finished early, so you have plenty of time to pick your first book before the holidays. […]
Friday 30th of December 2022
All of these books sound so amazing. I don’t know how to pick just one to get started on reading.