From Josiah Flynt, Tramping With Tramps (New York: Century Co, 1899)
by Ginny Jones
Economic inequality was
nothing new in post-Civil War America. Since colonial times the vast
majority of property and saved wealth (as opposed to earned income)
had belonged to a relatively small elite. Industrialization in
early 19th century seems to have intensified the concentration of
wealth, and after the Civil War concentrations of extreme wealth and
dire poverty came to
be widely noted, debated, and deplored.
part this occurred because
new forms of wealth (stocks, bonds, and commodity futures, for example,
than land and human slaves) made wealth visible in new forms. In
America became more urban, and city poverty was not "picturesque," as
observers often found it in the countryside. Rich and poor
rubbed shoulders on filthy streets, and while desperate immigrants
poured into the
growing slums, the most flamboyant members of a new millionaire class
built sumptious mansions, threw lavish balls, cruised in their yachts,
and traveled to Europe to shop for artistic masterpieces or the latest
Worth gowns. Meanwhile, the
rise of social science enabled researchers to measure wealth and
poverty in new and dramatic ways. In their 1892 Omaha Platform,
the People’s Party deplored the tendency of capitalism and government
economic policies to "breed the two great classes, tramps and millionaires."
THE LUCKY RICH
Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the "Gibson Girl," fondly satirized the American rich, depicting elegant young men and women in courtship and warning of the perils of unhappiness in marriages based on monetary concerns. All the Gibson images reprinted in "Tramps and Millionaires" appeared in US magazines between 1893 and 1898--in the midst of a severe global economic depression--and are taken from The Gibson Book (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons/R. H. Russell, 1907).
The documents here capture some of Americans' contradictory and
conflicting views about money, wealth, and poverty in the decades after the Civil War.
Questions for Discussion are posted at right.
Economy of Time and Expenses, an excerpt from The American Woman’s Home by Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869), captures Victorian ideas about thrift, household economy, and proper moral values. The dual role of women as household managers--responsible carefully managing every cent of income, yet prime targets of advertisers and merchandisers in their roles as consumers--attracted considerable commentary in the decades after the Civil War.
An introductory passage from Progress and Poverty
by Henry George (1879) provides brilliant insights into the ways economic development increased extremes of wealth and poverty.
George's provocative book was a bestseller from the time of its publication well
into the twentieth century. His proposed solution, a single tax
levied on the value of land, was never widely popular, but his analysis
of the dilemmas of capitalist development captured the imagination of
Wealth, by Andrew Carnegie, appeared in North American Review in
June 1889. In it the famous (and notorious) Pittsburgh steel magnate
justified extremes of wealth and poverty as an inevitable sign
of human evolutionary progress. He instructed the rich, however,
that they had a
responsibility to use their wealth for the public good. Readers today
may be surprised to find that Carnegie advocated a fifty percent
inheritance tax on large fortunes that had not, by the time of their
owners' deaths, been donated for philanthropic purposes.
In "The Relation of Wealth to Morals," from The World’s Work (January 1901), the Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, Right Reverend William Lawrence, offers a conventional and widely expressed defense of wealth and property. Yet more than Carnegie's "Wealth," Lawrence's essay points toward the regulation of trusts and large corporations as a necessary component of reform, in addition to individual benevolence and charity.
An excerpt from The Concentration of Wealth, by William
G. Sumner in The Independent
(1902) is a classic statement of "Social Darwinism" by a Yale sociologist, one of the leading American disciples of
English thinker Herbert Spencer. Sumner's harsh vision was widely
influential but also controversial, with opponents like Frank Lester
Ward, a fellow sociologist, arguing that in order to follow Sumner's advice,
Americans would have to abolish all law and government, disaster
relief, and any other institutions that might help humans
survive. Critics like Ward argued that humans evolved through
cooperation rather than competition.
Concentration of Wealth, by George K. Holmes in Political Science Quarterly
(December 1893), shows how one economist interpreted new data on wealth
that had been gathered by US
census-takers in 1890. Holmes, who like many prosperous Americans
assumed that economic progress was widely distributed, expressed shock
over the extremes of wealth found in the census--though such dramatic
inequality was not really new, as Holmes assumed, but newly measured.
An excerpt from A
Traveler from Altruria (1894)
by William Dean Howells shows how a leading novelist,
who began in the 1880s and 1890s to sympathize with radical critiques
of the American social and economic order,
criticized the complacency of comfortable Americans. In his story
a visitor named Mr. Homos, materializing from a faraway place called Altruria, startles New
England summer vacationers by offering glimpses of a society and set
of moral values very different from their own.
young adventurer and novelist Jack London recounted his experiences
travelling with the homeless unemployed by foot and rail during the
of the 1890s and marching with Coxey's Army in 1894. While London, full of machismo and literary flair, probably exaggerated some details, he gives us a rare
window into the world of the homeless and destitute during the severe
Hoboes that Pass in the Night...
Two Thousand Stiffs
Right, Prudential trade card, 1887. Such images--along with Prudential's famous "Rock"--addressed the widespread anxiety of Americans about economic risk and insecurity in a volatile economy, filled with both opportunities and potential catastrophes. Not surprisingly, life insurance proved to be an immensely popular product for Americans who could afford it; working-class breadwinners and farmers also created "mutual benefit associations" to help one another in time of need. Image courtesy the Victorian Scrapbook at The Trade Card Place.
© 2010 Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press