Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Four Hundred: Rockefeller, Carnegie,Vanderbilt

Following the Civil War, Americans entered the era of robber barons, steel and railroad magnates, merchant princes, and Napoleons of finance. Along came John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. In 1866, Scientific American reported that the number of men in New York whose annual income reached $100,000 exceeded the number of men whose entire possessions amounted to as much just 25 years before. Indeed, a new nobility was created, putting to shame the old English “parchment nobility” in terms of wealth and extravagance. Newspapers and magazines of the period dubbed the most prominent leaders of this new nobility “the Four Hundred.”
These new plutocrats—some coming from the humblest beginnings—destroyed the old simplicities of American society. The suddenly rich burst upon the social scene with absurdities of conspicuous consumption and, in the process, re-created the American social scene. Some observers viewed this development with alarm. Author and critic E. L. Godkin wrote in 1896, “We are about to renew on this soil, at the end of the nineteenth century, the extravagances and follies of the later Roman Empire and of the age of Louis XIV.”
Another observer lamented that “the sham aristocracy indulge in mushroom manners.” (Mushrooms are showy but of little consequence.)
Of course, the masses could not match the gyrations of the Four Hundred but did follow their activities avidly, mostly through the “society” columns of the newspapers. The desire to learn “the rules” that governed the gatherings of these almost mythical figures became, perhaps, more widespread than ever. Magazines, particularly women’s magazines, devoted space to “deportment departments.” Newspapers began running etiquette columns, and advice to the lovelorn columns also often included advice on proper, or at least acceptable, behavior.

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