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Gilded Age in portraits

“What is the chief end of man?–to get rich. In what way?–dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must.”
— Mark Twain-1871

Two weeks ago I took a trip to Washington, DC. Among many of the Smithsonian museums, the Library of Congress (I have my own card now!), and the best pizza in DC, I stumbled upon the National Portrait Gallery. Why stumbled? Because if I hadn’t had to wait for a table at Matchbox (best pizza in DC) I wouldn’t have walked up the street, saw the sign and said, hey, let’s go in!

It’s an entire wing called American Origins 1600-1900 opposite the Presidential portrait¬†wing. Technically the Gilded Age is 1873-1900, named social satire by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. I’m not 100% sure of the time of these paintings but they’re well done. Lots of winged angels and ethereal women. Check out the site, but even better, if you get the chance to go to DC, definitely check out the National Portrait Gallery. It’s worth it!

From PBS:

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.

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2 Comments

  1. Barbarism to decadence… Great post, Isabel! Seems the term ‘gilded age’ only applied to the rich. Another time period I wouldn’t have wanted to live in, unless I was one of those fortunate rich people. LOL.

    Beautiful portraits!

  2. It’s a part of our history that ‘they’ shove under the carpet, isn’t it. Very interesting. The one thing I learned when we went through the gilded Ringling Mansion in Florida a couple of months ago – yes, they had lots of ‘gild’ but when they fell, they hit the pavement with a loud thud. I was shocked to learn how poverty eventually hit a lot of the people with money and prestige.

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