The Gilded Age was so called because of a Mark Twain novel but, as a later writer noted, it merited the name. “There was gold everywhere,” the society hostess Elizabeth Wharton Drexel remembered in 1935. “Gold was the most desirable thing to have because it cost money, and money was the outward and visible sign of success.”
Cornelius Vanderbilt II had The Breakers, a 70-room mansion, built as his summer home in the 1890s. Here was the billiards room with its walls of Italian marble; the library with its walls of hand-tooled Spanish leather and its 16th-century fireplace taken from a French chateau; the dining room with its vast chandeliers that could be lit by both gas and electricity, so that if one of these light sources failed the 34 diners seated below could still locate their hock and lobster thermidor. The style overall was described as Italian Renaissance, but the persistent feature was gold – gold glistening from the coffered ceilings, the walls and the furniture.
His grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, had been the richest man in America; his father, William Henry Vanderbilt, was known as the richest man in the world. And yet at the beginning of the 19th century, the Vanderbilt family owned nothing more than a ferry that crossed New York harbour under sail. An early investment in steamboats and a later, and much larger, financial interest in railways paid off.
After the American civil war, the US came into its own as an industrial power, with an economy that grew faster than at any other time in its history. In the 30-odd years to 1900, everything multiplied – railway track mileage by five times, pig iron production by eight, coal extraction by eight. Everything, in fact, except income tax, which remained stubbornly at zero – the prospect of even a 2% rate was described in Congress as “socialism, communism, devilism”.
The consequent fortunes turned the people who made them into household names: Vanderbilt (railways), Rockefeller (oil), Carnegie (steel), Astor (real estate), as well as dozens of lesser-known millionaires with steam yachts and a penchant for sailing who settled for a few weeks every year into their palatial “cottages” – as they chose to think of these houses.
Between 1860 and 1900, the richest 2% of American households owned more than a third of the country’s wealth, while the richest 1% received a fifth of the country’s income – a figure that again holds good today. Populism, then as now, was a consequence. In the 1890s the mainly agrarian People’s party deployed arguments and rhetoric that became familiar again last year in both Britain and the US. As the historian Richard Hofstadter writes, there came “a great revulsion against the outside world … Everyone remote and alien was distrusted and hated … the old agrarian conception of the city as the home of moral corruption reached a new pitch. Chicago was bad; New York, which housed the Wall Street bankers, was farther away and worse; London was still farther away and still worse.” Jews were mentioned. Immigrants, welcomed by factory owners as cheap and eager labour, had made cities disgusting and “more foreign than American”. The power of money concentrated in the hands of people like Cornelius Vanderbilt – the “robber barons” – had caused these social ills and it was against “money power” alone that the populists directed their crusade.
The disenchanted and neglected portions of the populations of the US and Britain don’t have the rich in their sights, no matter how much they have disfigured politics or avoided tax, much less capitalism as a system. The perception of California law professor Joan C Williams is that the white working class resents the professional class but admires the rich. Salaried professionals – managers, professors, judges – have replaced the super-rich in the popular imagination as “enemies of the people”