Gilded Ages: Then and Now
Money and American Culture
In his novel Looking Backward, reformer Edward Bellamy imagined a utopian Boston in the year 2000, where, among other miracles, advertising had disappeared. Waking up again in 1887, Bellamy’s hero was shocked by the ads that plastered the city. “The walls of the buildings, the windows, the broadsides of the newspapers in every hand, the very pavements, everything in fact in sight, except the sky, were covered with the appeals.”
Bellamy had notable limitations as a prophet, but he was a keen observer of his own era. Looking Backward suggests that Americans of Bellamy’s day were plagued with some strikingly modern problems. Advertising—in his words, a “system of brazen beggary"--was one of the most visible. The cartoon above, published in the humor magazine Puck on April Fool’s Day 1885, proposed a fundraising plan for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The statue itself was a gift from French citizens; Americans’ fundraising efforts to construct the base lagged embarrassingly. Here, cartoonist Frederick Opper suggests that if the “advertising agents take charge” then “the money will be raised without delay.”
Edward Bellamy might be saddened to find how much today’s headlines echo the ones he reported from 1887: “The epidemic of fraud unchecked. . . . Revelations of shocking corruption among Chicago officials. . . . Systematic bribery. . . Business crisis. . . . A man shoots himself in Worcester because he could not get work. . . . Destitution among the women wage-workers in the great cities. . . .”
Such decidedly modern problems suggest that the so-called “Gilded Age” was neither distant nor quaint. In ways both good and bad, the late nineteenth-century helped shape the world we inhabit today.
Excerpts from “New Spirits”
NEW SPIRITS CREDITS
Co-authors of this site include Vassar College graduates Sarah DeFeo (1896: The Presidential Campaign), Diana Hebron (The Making of Yellowstone) David Greenstein (Tramps and Millionaires and the state buildings of the Chicago World’s Fair), and Rosemary Guiltinan (Timelines). Special thanks to Steve Taylor for his help with The Dream City, and to Ken Bolton and Ginny Jones for assistance with the site. The Vassar College Media Cloisters provided invaluable support. Originally published at http://alfred.vassar.edu:8180/newspirits All site content © 2010 Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press. Site Design John Schmitz NY DesignLab.