"What is the chief end of man?--to get rich. In what way?--dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must."
-- Mark Twain-1871
During the "Gilded Age," every man was a potential Andrew Carnegie, and Americans who achieved wealth celebrated it as never before. In New York, the opera, the theatre, and lavish parties consumed the ruling class' leisure hours. Sherry's Restaurant hosted formal horseback dinners for the New York Riding Club. Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish once threw a dinner party to honor her dog who arrived sporting a $15,000 diamond collar.
While the rich wore diamonds, many wore rags. In 1890, 11 million of the nation's 12 million families earned less than $1200 per year; of this group, the average annual income was $380, well below the poverty line. Rural Americans and new immigrants crowded into urban areas. Tenements spread across city landscapes, teeming with crime and filth. Americans had sewing machines, phonographs, skyscrapers, and even electric lights, yet most people labored in the shadow of poverty.
To those who worked in Carnegie's mills and in the nation's factories and sweatshops, the lives of the millionaires seemed immodest indeed. An economist in 1879 noted "a widespread feeling of unrest and brooding revolution." Violent strikes and riots wracked the nation through the turn of the century. The middle class whispered fearfully of "carnivals of revenge."
For immediate relief, the urban poor often turned to political machines. During the first years of the Gilded Age, Boss Tweed's Tammany Hall provided more services to the poor than any city government before it, although far more money went into Tweed's own pocket. Corruption extended to the highest levels of government. During Ulysses S. Grant's presidency, the president and his cabinet were implicated in the Credit Mobilier, the Gold Conspiracy, the Whiskey Ring, and the notorious Salary Grab.
Europeans were aghast. America may have had money and factories, they felt, but it lacked sophistication. When French prime minister Georges Clemenceau visited, he said the nation had gone from a stage of barbarism to one of decadence -- without achieving any civilization between the two.
Next: Carnivals of Revenge