John Hancock and George Washington were among the wealthiest few people in colonial America. The gulf between Washington’s fortune and that of, say, John Adams, would be equal to the difference between Romney and Obama. And Obama is well off by any normal standard.
In the 19th Century, when John Jacob Astor became the country’s first millionaire, a worker might earn a dollar a day. A hundred years later, when the social set were throwing around hundred dollar bills in speakeasies, half the families in America were living on less than $1500/year.
When people talk about the rise of the super wealthy, they choose a supposedly arbitrary baseline of the period after WWII. That’s not arbitrary. It’s chosen deliberately because the ratios between CEOs’ pay and their workers’ pay were at their lowest. The 50s are not the normal that we can compare ourselves against: they were the most aberrant decade of the century in many ways.
There’s a fascinating social theory called the J curve of rising expectations. In simplest form it states that the absolute difference in quality of life - money, freedom, job security, whatever you name - doesn’t lead to revolution, with revolution defined in the broadest sense as a call for major social change. It’s only when people see real hope of change, when their expectations rise but are not fulfilled, that the serious grumbling and agitating starts. The curve that shows low expectations over a long period of time with a sudden upturn at the end looks something like a backward J. (In climate science a similar uprising is called the hockey stick model.) The civil rights era started in the 50s when blacks were objectively better off than they had been, but saw a chance for true equality for the first time.
Although we’ve had zillions of movements - from the populists to the socialists, from the progressives to the communists, from the hippies to the teapartiers - agitate over the years, they’ve all come in relatively good times, but times when other people seemed to be doing so much better that they felt they could never get ahead in the way that others seemed to. The Depression had some of this but much less than any radical prognosticator would have predicted. Most people didn’t see hope of change and just endured.
The super rich have always been miles above the average worker. They always will be. People only care and comment when it seems that their own lives are not increasing at the expected rate. We’re in such a period today. To a good first approximation the rich make money the same way - creating a wildly successful business; spend wildly the same way - homes and yachts and planes and private islands; give it to charity in the same way - huge amounts to trusts and foundations as well as donations; and create rich, pampered, parasitic children in the same way. None of that has ever changed in our history.