There are various kinds of gold standards. The common use of the phrase refers to state-run gold standards, whereby governments themselves declare the standard. Generally, the gold standard, along with the silver standard, have been widely used throughout history to back the currencies of the world with a solid material to defend against inflation.
Many countries had only one exception for when their metallic standards would be used, which was during times of war. The United States had a freeze of their bi-metallic standard during the civil war and European powers stopped backing currency during the Napoleonic wars. In the United States the gold standard replaced a bi-metallic standard that used both gold and silver in 1900 with the Gold Standard Act. The United States Congress set a gold standard that had a requirement whereby the Federal Reserve must hold 40% of the value of all US dollars in the country in gold.
When the Great Depression hit, the US could not expand its monetary supply. The Federal Reserve therefore set a rate at which US dollars could be exchanged for gold by raising the interest rates of the US dollar. This move had the opposite effect; many people and organizations rushed to exchange their US dollars to gold, which caused a high risk of a gold shortage.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt later set the rate of gold at $59.06 per ounce. In 1933, FDR banned the private ownership of gold and had much of it confiscated, unofficially ending the gold standard in the United States. There are other interpretations of this ban, most of which center around the Fed's illegal issuance of paper dollars far beyond the congressionally mandated gold ration. Thus, Roosevelt may have confiscated gold to ensure that the public would not discover the flim-flammery.
It was only in 1969 that the ban was lifted on private ownership. In 1971, President Richard Nixon took the US off the gold standard. The price of gold began to rise and the dollar lost value and has been increasing in value, cyclically, ever since.
The United States has faced a massive amount of inflation since 1933. Among the causes of this is the removal of the gold standard. Supporters of the free market support the concepts of the gold standard, if for no other reason than simply because it removes the risks that inflatable fiat currency brings. The actions taken in 1933 also make many question whether the federal government acted beyond its bounds by forbidding the private ownership of anything, gold included.
With the economic crisis of the first decade of the 2000s, it is likely that some sort of gold standard will be re-imposed either by the market itself or voluntarily by countries. The dollar-reserve system is under tremendous pressure with all paper currencies regularly losing value. The situation likely cannot continue. The 21st century may see a renewed gold standard of some sort, privately engaged or imposed by governments.