From Josiah Flynt, Tramping With Tramps (New York: Century Co, 1899)

Tramps & Millionaires

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 the 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.

In part this occurred because new forms of wealth (stocks, bonds, and commodity futures, for example, rather than land and human slaves) made wealth visible in new forms. In particular 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."

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).

Documents on Wealth and Poverty in the Gilded Age

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 millions.

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.

The 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.

Aspiring young adventurer and novelist Jack London recounted his experiences travelling with the homeless unemployed by foot and rail during the depression 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 economic depression.


Bulls Confession...
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.

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for Discussion

© 2010 Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press

New Spirits
Tramps & Millionaires
Perceptions and Realities: The Victorian Age Inventions of the era Tramps and Millionaires Yellowstone Park Journals of the era White City/1893 Worlds Fair The Civil War President McKinley