[I]n late nineteenth-century America the octopus seemed, metaphorically, to be everywhere. Of course, this octopus was not the sort you might snag while deep-sea fishing. It was decidedly a land creature, malevolent, imbued with rationality, purpose, and unbridled appetite. Why did this image resonate so deeply within the popular imagination of the era? It was due to the growing awareness of the extent to which large, centralized, interlocking networks of distribution, organization, and administration—from railroads, to power grids, to corporate hierarchies, to political machines—were shaping American life. Trapped in such systems, American sensed a lessening of control in nearly every sphere. For our purposes the specific local conditions to which these images refer are irrelevant. What matters is their interpretation of power and powerlessness.
National Humanities Center: “Taming the Octopus: power, The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912”