The Gilded Age: A Romantic History

What is the chief end of man?—to get rich. In what way?—dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must. Who is God, the one only and true? Money is God. God and Greenbacks and Stock—father, son, and the ghost of same—three persons in one; these are the true and only God, mighty and supreme…

—Mark Twain, in “The Revised Catechism,” printed in the New York Tribune on September 27, 1871

Twain didn’t hold back, especially not when criticizing society’s ills. In fact, he is the one who coined the term the “Gilded Age” to describe a time of conspicuous consumption, wealth disparity, and pervasive corruption. Sound familiar? In fact, esteemed economists (here and here) claim that we are smack dab in the middle of a new Gilded Age: the era of the one percenters.

The robber barons of Twain’s time were innovators, though, not fund managers. They were builders, not firm-breakers. They were self-made men who harnessed the raw power of the industrial age: Carnegie casted the steel, Rockefeller drilled the oil, and Vanderbilt laid the railroad track. Though not of noble birth—far from it—they were still the new kings, and they lived like them.

I recently traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, where the Gilded Age rich of New York spent hundreds of millions of today’s dollars building “cottages” that they lived in for only 8-12 weeks in the summer. Let me say that again: the equivalent of $30-200 million on a house used two months out of the year! Yeah, that’s almost criminal.

These days, the houses of Newport’s Cliff Walk and Bellevue Avenue are open to the public. Crowds mill through The Breakers, but I actually prefer The Elms, which was built by coal tycoon Edward Julius Berwind. It seems more livable—or just more endearingly excessive.

Interestingly, the Berwinds were particularly fascinated with Asian art. While the Vanderbilts built Italian palazzos and French châteaux, the Berwinds were the ones who added mahjong and black lacquer wall panels to the mix.

Some of the Asian treasures found at The Elms: lacquer panels, carved boxes, a jade collection, and mahjong tiles. Mr. Berwind’s sister did actually play mahjong—or at least the tiles seemed used and she had a well-loved instruction book. She was also one of the few to live in Newport year round, so she needed something to do when the socialites went home. But with whom did she play?

An Asian touch was fitting since the Americans were not the only ones who lived large at the turn of the twentieth century. Prominent Filipino ilustrados had risen to the top by virtue of their education, their enterprise, and their mestizo connections, and they had their own gilded treasures, as the León Gallery’s recent exhibition in Manila shows.

The gallery was able to repatriate previously unknown artwork produced by Filipinos, often for European patrons, including pieces produced by Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo for the General Exposition of the Philippines Islands, Madrid, 1887. The gallery owners wanted to show us that the Philippine Gilded Age was just as progressive and cosmopolitan as that of their arriving American conquerors. Javier Altarejos would agree.

Photos of the Filipino Gilded Age exhibition by Inquirer and Spot.ph.

Since I am stuck in New England, I had to send my always-curious friend Suzette de Borja to investigate. (Thank you, Suzette!) The furniture was beautiful. Suzette’s daughter especially loved the Manila aparador made from kamagong wood (above left), with a price tag of only P25 million, or about US$500,000.

Photographs by the intrepid Suzette de Borja.

Suzette and I have more modest tastes. I liked the bahay kubo painted on a local oyster shell, and she liked the drawing of the man with his fighting cock because it reminded her of this line of Under the Sugar Sun: “A local wag once said that in case of fire a Filipino would rescue his rooster before his wife and children—and hadn’t Georgie witnessed that with her own eyes in Manila?” You can also see a casco in the background, which is the type of boat that Della Berget comes ashore in at the beginning of Hotel Oriente. It is strange that Filipino artists wanted to immortalize such average scenes of local life because we all can agree that it is—and was—good to be rich.

But I know what you’re saying: weren’t these robber barons or hacenderos bad people? Why are we so fascinated with them?

Well, this is romance, so we romanticize them, of course. I romanticized Hacienda Altarejos, and I knew it while I was doing it. The true history of sugar in the Philippines is a story of great injustice. If you did not know that, there is a new documentary out there to guide you through that reality called Pureza: The Story of Negros Sugar. The Gilded Age was fraught with labor disputes on the other side of the Pacific, as well—the Pullman Strike, the Haymarket Riots, the Coal Strike of 1902, just to name a few. This was the other reason Twain used the term Gilded Age, because all that glitters is not gold.

But historical romance has always been fascinated with the obscenely rich because wouldn’t we love to live that lifestyle? I mean we were raised on fairy tales of Cinderellas and Prince Charmings—and we hardly spared a thought about the peasants of the kingdom. I teach my students about the horrible injustices of the early industrial age, but you better believe that John Thornton of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South gets my engine going! (And, yes, it helps that he is played by Richard Armitage in the BBC version. Don’t worry, it’s on Netflix.) Gaskell wrote her novel in 1855—smack dab in the worst excesses of this period—and she still made a factory owner swoon-worthy.

BBC classics in my stable: North and South and Pride and Prejudice.

What about our Regency bookshelf? We don’t ask where Fitzwilliam Darcy got his ten thousand (pounds) a year—which, in present value, could be close to $6 million, or, in prestige value, maybe as much as $18 million. Yes, he earned interest on government bonds, but where did he get his principal wealth? From the sweat on the brows of farmers on “his” estate, of course. And, according to Joanna Trollope, Pemberly was built on the proceeds of coal mines. As a granddaughter of a coal miner, I can tell you that line of work not only sucks, but it will also kill you.

And it gets worse: men like Darcy were probably invested in another lucrative crop, one grown across the Atlantic in the West Indies. You guessed it. Sugar again! This was the “dark underbelly” of the British peerage, according to Trollope. And the sugar industry in the Caribbean and South America was the worst in the world: the average life of a slave there was five years. Hacienda Altarejos is practically a hippie commune, in comparison.

So, if we squint hard, we won’t see the nasty side of our historical romances, leaving us free to imagine the great parties, the family sagas, and the romantic intrigue. This is, after all, entertainment.

A great thing about Gilded Age tycoons—whether American or Filipino—in comparison to our Regency heroes is that at least they had to do something to earn their money. This was the era of manliness, after all. You were supposed to roll up your shirtsleeves and get your hands dirty:

Javier placed the shovel in line with the stones, put his foot on the top of the blade, and pushed it deep. It slid into the soil. Georgie watched Javier reach down and grip the handle low, a position that gave him more control. He lifted the earth and placed it carefully to the side. When he raised his foot again to the top of the blade, the tight line of his trousers revealed a strong thigh and backside. Color rose to her cheeks. She felt a whole different kind of dirty watching him.

If you want more Gilded Age romance, Joanna Shupe’s Knickerbocker Club series has a very delicious hero, Emmett Cavanaugh, whose rags-to-riches story was the embodiment of everyone’s hopes and dreams in the period.

Emmett is rough, yet gentle. Arrogant, but thoughtful. He’s that classic Type A hero we love so much, but instead of spending his excess energy whoring or hunting as a peer would do, he’s actually got shit to do. (He does box, though. Yum.)

Another recent release with a Gilded Age merchant-on-the-rise is Marrying Winterborne by Lisa Kleypas. Rhys Winterborne is a Welsh department store owner, a terrific choice of occupation since these diverse enterprises, selling all types of ready-made goods to the blossoming middle class, were an industrial age phenomenon—a true “retail revolution.”

Do not forget that all of these men would have been snubbed by the vaunted ton of London. John Thornton, Emmett Cavanaugh, Rhys Winterborne, and Javier Altarejos—none would have received an invitation to Almack’s. But, as Kleypas herself said: “There’s something invigorating about a hero who has created his own success.”

The Gilded Age can offer you something no other historical romances can: a self-made Prince Charming—what else could you want? Just relax and enjoy the fairy tale.

Published by

Jennifer Hallock

Jennifer Hallock spends her days teaching history and her nights writing historical happily-ever-afters. She has lived and worked in the Philippines, but she currently writes at her little brick house on a New England homestead—kept company by her husband, a growing flock of chickens, and a geriatric border collie mutt.