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America 1900 | Article

The Idle Rich

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November, 1900: The upper echelons of New York society are all in a stir over the upcoming social event of the season, perhaps the year. The wedding of Louisa Pierpont Morgan to Captain Herbert Satterlee was expected to dwarf all previous such ceremonies in terms of extravagance and elegance. Invitations were sent to 1,500 individuals deemed worthy of attending the festivities. Louisa was the daughter of John Pierpont Morgan, the most powerful figure in American finance and industry. J.P. Morgan arranged for a 75-foot extension, 50 feet wide and 2 stories tall to be added to the conservatory of his family's Madison Avenue mansion solely for the one-day occasion. Among the wedding gifts bestowed among the happy couple were $1 million worth of diamond jewels, oriental rugs and paintings, gold plates and tableware. Throngs of onlookers braved an early blast of winter weather to catch a glimpse of the excess they could only dream of. 

The day before the Morgan-Satterlee nuptials commenced, William Lawrence, an Episcopalian Bishop from Massachusetts, delivered a rousing sermon in defense of riches. "In the long run it is only to the man of morality that wealth comes," the Bishop intoned. "Godliness," he concluded, "is in league with riches." With or without God's blessing, the rich had been lauding their privilege all through 1900. There existed, particularly in New York City, an entire class of individuals for whom the existence of coachmen, cooks, nurses, and chambermaids was simply taken for granted. An individual's degree of status was apparent in their style of dress and manner of comportment. In 1850, the US was home to 19 millionaires. But the years following the Civil War had seen a considerable increase in membership of that exclusive club. By the end of the 1890's the number of millionaires in the US had swelled to more than 4,000. 

The construction and ornamentation of ostentatious palaces, rivaling the chateaux, villas, and palazzos of Europe, along New York's Fifth Avenue was undertaken with great zeal. One observer of New York society surmised that being a millionaire had become a distinct profession. In one of many displays of garish acquisition in 1900, William K. Vanderbilt, presented his wife with an enormous diamond rose, complete with a diamond center. Mrs. Vanderbilt, apparently, had been much taken by a similar jewel worn by an Austrian duchess. In trying to define the rationale behind pointedly striving to acquire more than one could ever possibly need, economist Thorsten Veblen, had in 1899, coined the term "conspicuous consumption."

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