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Posts Tagged ‘Gilded Age

“Social rank has always been one of the pricier commodities sold in the great American department store”*…

 

Gilded Age Ball

As the Gilded Age began, a new social format was being created that would give shape and structure to the fashionable world for the next few decades — and launch those daughters of the newly rich, the real-life ‘buccaneers’, across the Atlantic. At the heart of the stratagem designed to create what would become known variously as ‘Society’ and the ‘Four Hun­dred’ was one man, a Southerner named Ward McAllister. … Even in an age of social striving, he was known as a snob.

Connected by birth to some of the old New York families, in 1852 he had married an heiress and a few years later had settled in Newport, where his style of entertaining soon began to be copied. … He had … travelled extensively in Europe, where he soaked up everything he could about court and aristocratic customs. On his return to America he determined to become the self-appointed arbiter of its society and the customs it should follow.

He had already been successful in shaping the society of New­port. Now, he decided, it was time to tackle the one city in America pre-eminent in wealth, drawing power, sophistication and general glitter: New York. A man might have made a fortune by planting a Midwest prairie with wheat — but it was to New York that his wife, avid to spend this new wealth, now insisted they move.

“McAllister’s cleverness lay in realising that the newly rich were there to stay; more and more millionaires appeared each year and the relentless tide of wealth would soon flood the passive Knickerbockers completely — unless something were done about it (not for nothing were these newcomers known as ‘the Bounc­ers’). He also recognised that any society had to have a leader, whom everyone would accept without question — if not, it would degenerate into a formless mass riven by bitter internal struggles.

There was only one person fit for this position and she, al­though beleaguered by the strivings of ‘Bouncer money’, as parvenu wealth was called, already occupied it. Caroline Astor would continue to be the queen.

He decided to use the most desirable members of both old and new as the foundation stones of the new order. To select these, he formed a small committee (‘there is one rule in life I invariably carry out — never to rely wholly on my own judgment’); a little band that met every day for a month or two at McAllister’s house, making lists, adding, whittling down, forming judgements.

Eventually, twenty-five men, all wealthy, some from old fam­ilies, some from the new rich but all considered to be men of integrity, were chosen and invited to become ‘Patriarchs’, as they would in future be known. They would give two and sometimes three balls a season, as exquisite as possible, with each Patri­arch in return for his subscription of $125 having the right to invite to each ball four ladies and five gentlemen, this number to include himself and his family; all distinguished strangers (up to the number of fifty) would also be asked, their names to be run past McAllister. Everyone asked to be a Patriarch accepted immediately.

As McAllister had rightly foreseen, the exclusiveness of these balls was what gave them their magnetic power. ‘We knew … that the whole secret of the success of these Patriarch Balls lay in making them select … in making it extremely difficult to obtain an invitation to them, and to make such invitations of great value [so that] one might be sure that anyone repeatedly invited to them had a secure social position.’

“The first of the balls was given in the winter of 1872. With them, McAllister achieved absolute social power.

Applications to be made a Patriarch poured in, the great ma­jority turned down but often with the door left tantalizingly ajar.

The invention of the “Four Hundred,” the preeminent members of New York society in the Gilded Age: via Delanceyplace.com, an excerpt from Anne de Courcy’s The Husband Hunters.

[image above: source]

* “Social rank has always been one of the pricier commodities sold in the great American department store, and the ceaseless revision of what constitutes society gives rise to the great American comedy that has been playing continuous performances since the beginning of the Republic. As one generation of parvenu rich acquires the means to buy the patents of nobility, it looks down upon the next generation of arrivistes as clubfooted upstarts.” — Lewis Lapham

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As we recall that there have been lots of ways to “come out” over the years, we might spare a thought for three women whose public introduction to society was about as horrific as can be imagined: it was on this date in 1692 that  Sarah GoodSarah Osborne, and Tituba are brought before local magistrates in Salem Village, Massachusetts, beginning what would become known as the Salem witch trials.

 source

 

Written by LW

March 1, 2019 at 1:01 am

“These days, the bigger the company, the less you can figure out what it does”*…

 

Late 19th-century Americans loved railroads, which seemed to eradicate time and space, moving goods and people more cheaply and more conveniently than ever before. And they feared railroads because in most of the country it was impossible to do business without them.

Businesses, and the republic itself, seemed to be at the mercy of the monopoly power of railroad corporations. American farmers, businessmen and consumers thought of competition as a way to ensure fairness in the marketplace. But with no real competitors over many routes, railroads could charge different rates to different customers. This power to decide economic winners and losers threatened not only individual businesses but also the conditions that sustained the republic.

That may sound familiar. As a historian of that first Gilded Age, I see parallels between the power of the railroads and today’s internet giants like Verizon and Comcast. The current regulators – the Federal Communications Commission’s Republican majority – and many of its critics both embrace a solution that 19th-century Americans tried and dismissed: market competition…

The current controversy about the monopolistic power of internet service providers echoes those concerns from the first Gilded Age. As anti-monopolists did in the 19th century, advocates of an open internet argue that regulation will advance competition by creating a level playing field for all comers, big and small, resulting in more innovation and better products. (There was even a radical, if short-lived, proposal to nationalize high-speed wireless service.)

However, no proposed regulations for an open internet address the existing power of either the service providers or the “Big Five” internet giants: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft. Like Standard Oil, they have the power to wring enormous advantages from the internet service providers, to the detriment of smaller competitors.

The most important element of the debate – both then and now – is not the particular regulations that are or are not enacted. What’s crucial is the wider concerns about the effects on society. The Gilded Age’s anti-monopolists had political and moral concerns, not economic ones. They believed, as many in the U.S. still do, that a democracy’s economy should be judged not only – nor even primarily – by its financial output. Rather, success is how well it sustains the ideals, values and engaged citizenship on which free societies depend.

When monopoly threatens something as fundamental as the free circulation of information and the equal access of citizens to technologies central to their daily life, the issues are no longer economic.

Stanford historian Richard White unpacks an important historical analogue; read it in full at “For tech giants, a cautionary tale from 19th century railroads on the limits of competition.”

[Image above: source]

* Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things

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As we wonder if The Invisible Hand is giving us the finger, we might recall that it was on this date in 1852 that Henry Wells and William G. Fargo joined with several other investors to launch their eponymously-named cross-country freight business.  The California gold rush had created an explosive new need, which Wells, Fargo and other “pony express” and stage lines leapt to meet.  It was after the Civil War, in 1866, when Wells, Fargo acquired many of their competitors, that it became the dominant supplier.  (Ever flexible, they adapted again three years later, when the transcontinental railroad was finished.)

From it’s earliest days, it also functioned as a bank, factoring the shipments of gold that it carried.  Indeed, when Wells, Fargo exited the freight business as a result of government nationalization of freight during World War I, the bank (which merged with Nevada National in the first of a series of “transformative transactions”) continued to operate as “Wells, Fargo,” as indeed it does (albeit under unrecognizably evolved ownership) today.

 source

 

Written by LW

March 18, 2018 at 1:01 am

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