Sunday, December 11, 2011

"The Proud Tower & The Buccaneers"

From Chicago Boyz:
There were a lot of other things going on in United States in the late 19th century – and one of my current projects is taking me there, which means that the vast amount of reading that I did to research my earlier projects is paying off yet again.

One of thise things was a veritable explosion in the number of American millionaires. In the post-Civil War years, enormous fortunes were being made in industry, from building railways, in steamship lines, in mining, in mercantile interests. The post-Civil War decades increasingly came to be dominated by ‘new money’ men, beside which the ‘old money’ families – with fortunes based on land, banking, the fur trade, sailing ships, or cotton and rooted in the earlier decades of the 19th century began to appear pale, and dull to everyone but each other. Mark Twain called the latter decades of that period ‘The Gilded Age’ – and he didn’t mean it particularly as a compliment, even if people have used the expression ever since as implying something rather fine. Twain meant it in the sense of something cheap, of a microscopically thin layer of gold overlaid on cheap metal, something flashy, over-ornamented, an object which would not wear very well, but caught the eye and impressed no end.

That era seemed strange and uncomfortable to someone who remembered an earlier day – for all it’s comforts, convenience, riches and plenty. Changes came thick and fast; the telegraph, the transcontinental railway, the ease of taking a steamship passage across the Atlantic and being there in a week or so, where once it had taken months. More Americans of the upper crust began traveling for pleasure and for education, rather than strictly business and in numbers, once the crossing became relatively pleasant and short. The United States had never, even before the Civil War, been particularly isolated, but post-war, the larger world the 19th century world became increasingly accessible. Mark Twain himself became a part of this trend, by participating in one of the first great American tourist excursions, the 1867 voyage of the “Quaker City” to the Holy Land and elsewhere, which was documented in one of the funniest travel books ever, The Innocents Abroad.

It was an interesting time, no two ways about it – and one of the interesting aspects is that there were so very many assorted experiences recorded in the years between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the new century – rich pickings for someone like me, doing research. One of those collisions that I became interested in exploring was the same collision that Twain wrote about so humorously: the Old World and the New. There were quite a lot of opportunities for them to collide, and nowhere more than among the very newest of the new money, or even the semi-new money of the New World and the aristocracy of the old.

One book I picked up at random was a joint biography of Alva and Consuelo Vanderbilt – of whom I was sort-of-aware, mostly because the Vanderbilts are one of those filthy-rich families that you can’t help not having heard of, and because Consuelo Vanderbilt was married off – mostly unhappily – to an English Duke....MORE