The Way We Spent Then: The Dawn of the City’s Riches

Marriages of mutual benefit made 42 American princesses, 17 duchesses and 136 countesses.

The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896 , by Sven Beckert. Cambridge University Press, 492 pages, $34.95.

The French banking scion Salomon Rothschild, visiting New York in 1860, predicted inaccurately but insightfully that within 20 years or so, the young Republic would transform itself into several countries ruled by kings and hereditary aristocrats. His reasoning was strictly Parisian: “Here, as everywhere else, there are two quite distinct classes, one that loves to see, the other that loves to be seen,” he wrote. “Right now, the first class can find only an occasional foreign prince or some Japanese ambassador to satisfy its fancy; the other class, to its great regret, has nothing to show.” (Meanwhile, Rothschild added, American politicians “offer to the people nothing but the sight of their careless dress and their untrimmed beards.”)

In a sense, the baron was quite correct. In the decades following his visit, the United States acquired exactly what he thought it desired and deserved: a class of people worthy of being seen. And their Paris then as now would be New York, a city that Rothschild on the eve of the Civil War had found a place of such squalor that it made a Moroccan slum look like “a waxed ballroom.” How this transformation occurred is the subject of Sven Beckert’s The Monied Metropolis, which begins in 1850 and ends in 1896 by which time the city resembled its current-day self far more than it did the rough-and-tumble port town of the mid-19th century.

Of course, New York has always had an upper class. But in the 1850’s, its leaders included men like Peter Cooper, a “self-made millionaire glue boiler” who kept only two servants and allegedly had to be coaxed into donning a dress suit when he co-hosted a reception for the visiting Prince of Wales. By the 1880’s, after Cooper’s death, his son-in-law would employ 14 servants and redecorate Cooper’s simple Fifth Avenue house by adding marble staircases, stuffed peacocks and a clock mounted on a bust of Napoleon.

According to Mr. Beckert, what changed in those years was that wealthy New Yorkers acquired a new sense of solidarity and self-confidence a sense, one might say, of their own class (for which he uses the insufficient and somewhat misleading term “bourgeoisie”). At the same time, of course, they were acquiring wealth itself on an unprecedented scale. But just as important, in Mr. Beckert’s analysis, is the fact that the previously disparate communities of merchants, bankers and manufacturers (who before the Civil War often regarded one another with suspicion) merged into a united front to protect their common interests from the city’s great unwashed.

Already in 1850, the New York Herald was rallying its genteel readers around quality-of-life issues that would resonate in Giuliani’s Manhattan: The “swearing, drinking, silly boors” of the Bowery, the newspaper complained, had “destroyed all enjoyment” of carriage-driving on the city’s streets. (Squeegees, anyone?) By the late 1860’s, upper-class New Yorkers, arguing that “it is not safe to place the execution of the laws into the hands of the classes against which they are principally to be enforced,” banded together in a failed effort to restrict voting rights based on property. In 1877, when railway workers went on strike, young socialites camped out at the Seventh Regiment Armory, bayonets at the ready fortifying themselves for class warfare with meals catered by Delmonico’s.

And by the end of the century, the Astors, Morgans and others could with a lack of irony that would have pleased Salomon Rothschild attend a costume ball at the Waldorf-Astoria at which celebrants dressed as Old World aristocrats. Caroline Astor wore a dress emblazoned with $250,000 in gems; lawyers and bankers appeared in pink satin and silk hose; no fewer than 50 of their wives came as Marie Antoinette. Meanwhile, Pinkerton detectives guarded the ballroom against “men of socialistic tendencies.” (In fact, wealthy female New Yorkers increasingly aspired to become not just costume-party aristocrats, but real ones: Thanks to marriages of mutual benefit, there would eventually be 42 American princesses, 17 duchesses and 136 countesses.)

As Mr. Beckert writes, “a class that once had shaped its identity and sense of self in opposition to the degenerated European aristocracy now defined itself increasingly by ‘blood.'” Before the Civil War, the banker August Belmont, a Jewish immigrant from Germany, reigned supreme over New York society and politics. By the 1890’s, Jews had been forced out of the Union Club and Jewish organizations barred from mention in the newly founded Social Register.

The Monied Metropolis began as Mr. Beckert’s Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia University. With its emphasis on class formation and the struggles of bourgeoisie versus proletariat, it almost feels like a product of the Columbia of half a century ago, when Richard Hofstadter and his disciples hunched over their typewriters, hell-bent on exposing the antidemocratic hypocrisies of the American elite. By and large Mr. Beckert, who now teaches history at Harvard University, proves that even in our own post-Marxist age, this approach to history can still bear fruit. But his old-fashioned analysis, with its emphasis on politics and economics and its slighting of culture, tells an incomplete story.

In particular, Mr. Beckert largely neglects New York’s all-important role as a crucible of consumerism. Its department stores and emporiums ushered in a culture of conspicuous display, in which people defined themselves by what they could afford to buy. Its newspapers and magazines fed the lumpen middle class a steady diet of Vanderbilt weddings and balls at the Waldorf, in breathless columns and full-page rotogravures. The continuing division of Americans into those who see and those who are seen predicted by Salomon Rothschild in 1860 began in 19th-century New York, but Mr. Beckert never frames this as clearly and elegantly as Rothschild did. (In fact, he doesn’t even include Rothschild’s remark in his book.)

And Mr. Beckert scarcely acknowledges that throughout the period he chronicles, there were authors and thinkers who were only too aware of the transformations happening around them, and of the strange fruit that sprouted when a home-grown aristocracy took root in democratic soil. But these voices go unheard, except for a couple of epigraphs from Henry James and Edith Wharton. Both those authors wrote books that might easily have had the same subtitle as Sven Beckert’s, and they reached some of the same conclusions without benefit of hindsight.

Adam Goodheart, a writer in Washington, D.C., is a member of the editorial board of The American Scholar. The Way We Spent Then: The Dawn of the City’s Riches