SUNSHINE AND SHADOW: INCREASING WEALTH AND POVERTY

At the other end of the economic spectrum, the era witnessed an unprecedented accumulation of wealth. Class divisions became more and more visible. In frontier days, all classes in San Francisco, for example, lived near the waterfront. In the late nineteenth century, upper-class families built mansions on Nob Hill and Van Ness Avenue (known as “millionaire’s row”). In eastern cities as well, the rich increasingly resided in their own exclusive neighborhoods and vacationed among members of their own class at exclusive resorts like Newport, Rhode Island. The growing urban middle class of professionals, office workers, and small businessmen moved to new urban and suburban neighborhoods linked to central business districts by streetcars and commuter railways. “Passion for money,” wrote the novelist Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth (1905) dominated society. Wharton’s book traced the difficulties of Lily Bart, a young woman of modest means pressured by her mother and New York high society to ‘barter” her beauty for marriage to a rich husband in a world where “to be poor... amounted to disgrace.”

By 1890, the richest 1 percent of Americans received the same total income as the bottom half of the population and owned more property than the remaining 99 percent. Many of the wealthiest Americans consciously pursued an aristocratic lifestyle, building palatial homes, attending exclusive social clubs, schools, and colleges, holding fancy-dress balls, and marrying into each other’s families. In 1899, the economist and social historian Thorstein Veblen published The Theory of the Leisure Class, a devastating critique of an upper-class culture focused on “conspicuous consumption”—that is, spending money not on needed or even desired goods, but simply to demonstrate the possession of wealth. One of the era’s most widely publicized spectacles was an elaborate costume ball organized in 1897 by Mrs. Bradley Martin, the daughter of a New York railroad financier. The theme was the royal court of prerevolutionary France.

The opening image in Matthew Smith’s book, Sunshine and Shadow in New York (1868), contrasts the living conditions of the city’s rich and poor.

Baxter Street Court, 1890, one of numerous photographs by Jacob Riis depicting living conditions in New York City’s slums.

The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was decorated to look like the palace of Versailles, the guests wore the dress of the French nobility, and the hostess bedecked herself with the actual jewels of Queen Marie Antoinette.

Not that far from the Waldorf, much of the working class lived in desperate conditions. Matthew Smith’s 1868 best-seller Sunshine and Shadow in New York opened with an engraving that contrasted department store magnate Alexander T. Stewart’s two-million-dollar mansion with housing in the city’s slums.

Two decades later, Jacob Riis, in How the Other Half Lives (1890), offered a shocking account of living conditions among the urban poor, complete with photographs of apartments in dark, airless, overcrowded tenement houses.

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