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A Brief History of American Wealth Culture

Being rich in America was once a much simpler affair. Early Americans thoroughly endorsed the pursuit of wealth; their Protestant faith blessed the profits that came with hard work and from simply being good. “It is hard for an empty sack to stand upright!” was one of Ben Franklin’s pithy lines in his Poor Richard’s Almanac, not just a warning of the immorality of poverty but a tip of the three-cornered hat to those who (like Franklin) had fully filled their sacks. In her novels, Louisa May Alcott rewarded most of her good-but-poor heroines by marrying them off to the rich man next door, which also reflected the positive view of the wealthy in colonial and antebellum America. “Society” had been around in some form or another even before the nation’s founding, with New England Puritans, Southern plantation owners, and New Yorkers of both Dutch and English descent all awarding the “best” families special social status.

Alexis de Tocqueville weighed in on the American wealthy of the 1830s, of course, suggesting that it was better for a democracy like ours to have a few very rich than a lot of semi-rich. (The former could do great things with their money, he argued, while the latter were typically content indulging their consumer appetites. ) Also not lost on de Tocqueville was Americans’ passion for making and spending money, something that the Frenchman believed was unique to the new nation. He wrote, “I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men,” an idea that seems even truer today than it did almost two centuries ago. “The love of wealth is. . . at the bottom of all that the Americans do,” de Tocqueville concluded, our experiment in democracy custom-made for some, perhaps any, white male to get rich.

Thoroughly woven into the tapestry of the American rich has been the mythology or cult of the millionaire, a term that originated in France with Disraeli in 1826 but was rarely used in the United States until the late nineteenth century. The word was first used in America in a newspaper obituary for Pierre Lorillard I, founder of the tobacco empire. “Mr. Lorillard was a ‘millionaire,’” the obit read, a result of selling something people could “chew that which they could not swallow. ” There were only three millionaires in 1861, but that was about to change very quickly. For centuries, even millennia, being rich depended on one thing: owning land. In the nineteenth century, however, industry emerged as a prime way to get rich; the turning of raw materials into products now became a path to fabulous wealth. By the end of the Civil War—an event that relied heavily on the fruits of industry—the first real leisure class in America had been born. These few hundred families took their cue from England’s upper class, which exemplified extravagance during the Edwardian era. In New York, Boston, and the resorts of Saratoga, Newport, and Bar Harbor, “the best people,” as they immodestly called themselves, turned turn-of-the-century America into their own personal playpen. Stories of unabashed excesses among these new millionaires—Pierre Lorillard V’s creation of Tuxedo Park in 1886; E. Berry Wall’s forty-time change of outfits in Saratoga Springs to become the indisputable “King of the Dudes” in 1888; San Francisco attorney Francis J. Carolan’s stable party, in which some guests dressed (and raced) as horses; Mrs. Lowell Gardner’s Fenway Court house-showing party in 1903 (with John Singer Sargent’s daring portrait of the hostess on full display); and James Hazen Hyde’s 1905 “$200,000 party,” which turned Sherry’s in New York into eighteenth-century Versailles—became legend, part of American folklore.

Should there be any doubt that they were America’s royalty, the richest of the rich did everything they could to prove it to themselves and to others. Failure to have all of one’s servants imported from across the pond was a major faux pas; the cream of the crop stocked their palaces with English footmen complete with white wigs and maroon (Vanderbilt) or blue (Astor) livery. With their wartime fortunes, the robber barons built European-style mansions in Newport and on Fifth Avenue, in the process raising the bar of what was considered ostentatious in America. In an early version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, turn-of-the-century newspaper and magazine writers noted (or invented) the price of the latest purchase of one of the super-rich; knowing readers relished hearing about Jay Gould’s “$500,000 yacht,” J. P. Morgan’s “$100,000 car,” or Cornelius Vanderbilt’s “$2 million home. ”

Even these families who we now think of as being quintessential members of society were considered nouveau riche, as they tried to gate-crash their way into the ranks of the elite. The Astors, Whitneys, and Vanderbilts did just that around 1880, not impressing those wealthy families that had been around for a couple of centuries (Augustus Van Horne Stuyvesant always called them “the new ones”). Many of those who had made fortunes during the Civil War desperately wanted to be part of society, so much so they literally looked to Europe as a way to shortcut the process. Consuelo Vanderbilt’s marriage to the Duke of Marlborough and Anna Gould’s to Count Boni de Castellane were just a couple of quite a few swappings of fortunes for titles, as nothing said “society” to Americans like a real tiara. Seeing a truly golden opportunity, English lords and earls who had fallen on hard times made sure they were part of the social scene on the Continent, shopping around for a marriageable, American, and, above all, filthy rich young woman in what was popularly called “the Millionaire Market. Typen der science-fiction-literaturbald entstand science fiction unterschiedlicher ausprägung fantasy fiction hausarbeiten schreiben lassen kosten malt eine phantasiewelt in ferner zukunft aus, die vollkommen losgelöst ist vom leben in der gegenwart. ”

Until relatively recently, the nearly desperate attempts by New Money to be perceived as Old served as a constant and reliable tension among the American rich, analogous perhaps to that which existed between the superpowers during the Cold War. In his 1960 book Who Killed Society?, for example, Cleveland Amory noted, “People have complained about Society not being what it was for some 350 years,” a reminder of how integral this dynamic was to the American wealthy elite. And in her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton wrote about the conviction among the New York upper crust of the 1870s that the New Money that had oozed out of the War Between the States and from the new oil fields out West was ruining society.

More than just being seen as arriviste, liveried English footmen and all, the Vanderbilts, Astors, Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Morgans were universally despised, even among their own. In their day and for decades after, the robber barons of the Gilded Age were viewed as a much different kind of American rich than earlier generations, perceived as lacking the Calvinist principles of those in colonial and antebellum times. Not only were they not “the best people,” but many thought they were quite possibly the worst. Only two voices of a loud chorus condemning the wily ways of the new rich, Edith Wharton denounced their “monstrous vulgarity,” and Senator Robert LaFollette considered John D. Rockefeller nothing less than “the greatest criminal of the age. ” Even the rest of society didn’t approve of how these men had made and were spending their money, with only nine of the ninety richest people in America in the 1890s invited to be part of Mrs. Astor’s ballroom-sized list of “Four Hundred. ”

The belief that they had upset the applecart of the nation’s collective wealth was part and parcel of the turn-of-the-century loathing for the rich. As far back as 1869, and probably even earlier, social critics were disturbed by the growing inequality of wealth and rising number of millionaires. Despite what others were saying about them and their incredible wealth, robber barons like William B. Astor believed their good fortune was divinely ordained and that they answered only to a much higher power. “God gave me my money,” John D. Rockefeller once said, the perfect retort to those suggesting that no man, in America at least, should be that rich.

No matter who had given him his money, the public was getting awfully tired of the excess displayed by Rockefeller and his partners in crime. The backlash climaxed in 1896 when a New York Society couple, Mr. and Mrs. Bradley Martin, threw a ball at the Waldorf-Astoria costing a reported $400,000. Many of those hearing about the party (again with a Versailles theme) judged it to be in bad taste and its expense absurd, forcing the host and hostess to flee to England, never to return. With the publication of Thorsten Veblen’s popular The Theory of the Leisure Class three years later, public disfavor of the super-rich turned into pure outrage; the concept of “conspicuous consumption” was deemed unpalatable and contrary to the Puritan ethic of restrained and responsible wealth. “The attitude of the public towards great wealth, originally one of respect and admiration, changed to suspicion, antagonism, and hatred,” wrote Arthur Train for Forum & Century in 1924. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the (relatively few) American rich were looked up to (an “emblem of the nation’s greatness—a living proof that it was the land of opportunity,” according to Train), but this changed by 1900 as “he became anathema—a symbol of a people’s bondage. ” Up against the wall, as John Berendi explained in a 1990 article for Esquire called “The Quiet Rich,” twentieth-century plutocrats adopted a new collective persona, what we now recognize as the dignified restraint of Old Money. Wearing clothing just slightly tattered, driving older cars, and contributing to deserving charities became the modus operandi of the wealthy elite, topped off by a repugnance of conversation that mentioned money. If only to preserve their dynasties, New Money morphed into Old Money, choosing to avoid the limelight and wear the camouflage of anonymity.

Copyright © 2009 Larry Samuel. Published by AMACOM Books , a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Used with permission. All rights reserved.


One can really be holy and wealthy at the same time!

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