Finding Oz

Mage at asks if I have been working on my thesis.  The answer is yes and no.  I have a written a good draft of the paper, and will polish it off between May 3-10.  In the meantime, I continue to read about the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.

Cover of "American Populism: A Social His...

Cover via Amazon

When my daughter was younger, she worked at Farrells, a waitress at a “Gay Nineties” restaurant. All the servers were dressed in clothing of the period and looked cheerful and lively.

 Today, many folks still imagine the 1890s were really gay, and they might have been for some middle and upper class people.  However, the historian I am reading this week Robert McMath, American Populism: A Social History 1877-1898, says things were not gay for most people.  He says, authors of this period which saw two economic depressions, have asked the question: “Why were so many Americans desperately poor, while a few grew fabulously wealthy?”

I have discovered these “gilded” years were only gay in New York, and even then for only some people. If you have ever taken a course in American Literature of this period, you know this is the point when “Realism” takes over from Naturalism and Romanticism.  These days, we know some of that realistic fiction really was more fictional than not, nevertheless, for many people times were difficult in America, and these difficult times led to a Populist movement. 

Most people in America lived on farms in the South and West and even the Northeast had its farms in those days. Many of those living in New York were the fabulously wealthy.  The new immigrants and their children, and migrants from the South and West lived in much less affluent areas. Then as now, young people went to the city to improve their chances, and most lived in tenements and were employed in back-breaking work like running sewing machines or waiting on tables and counters all day.  In the evenings these young people would go out for an evening of cheap amusement, dancing, pubs, amusement parks like Coney Island in New York, etc. 

Mrs. Astor's New York in the Gilded Age

Mrs. Astor's New York in the Gilded Age (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, back in New York City, the wealthy lived apart from those who made them wealthy. You know their names, many of them, like Carnegie have foundations named for them today.  You have seen their lives depicted in films like Titanic and The Age of Innocence, and read about them in books by Edith Wharton and Henry James. 


Consuelo and Winston Churchill at Blenheim

Consuelo and Winston Churchill at Blenheim (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the last novel Wharton penned, The Buccaneers, she describes how  wealthy young American heiresses traveled to London seeking impoverished titled nobility as potential matrimonial partners.  Wharton’s book is fiction, but some say it is reminiscent of Consuelo Vanderbilt’s marriage to the Duke of Marlborough, Randolph Churchill.  Consuelo was Winston’s mother, of course. 

So, all that British history I read and the papers I wrote are linking up with American history. Of course, the two countries were never very separate, the long-staple cotton grown in the South before and after the Civil War was the favorite commodity of Liverpool Merchants and mill owners in Manchester England until the British managed to grow cotton in Egypt and other parts of their Empire.  After the Civil War, most of the proceeds from cotton grown in the American South ended up in the pockets of New York City millionaires. 

New York, the monied metropolis, became Oz in Frank Baum’s book of this period.  These days New York City it is known as Gotham and it is still inhabited by the fabulously wealthy who control much US and foreign wealth. 

I think the Scarecrow must represent the farmer, the lion the environment, and the tin man the worker. Dorothy wore silver shoes in the book in honor of the western silver miners who were part of the great Populist uprising of the 1890s. Ain’t history fun??



10 thoughts on “Finding Oz

  1. I think that, no matter how prosperous a period may be, there will always be the poverty stricken. In South Africa, there was plenty of prosperity…if you were white. But there was plenty of poverty too, amongst all races (being white was a help, but not a guarantee, for prosperity), but particularly amongst blacks. There was no welfare state, of course.

    During the period of prosperity in Britain prior to the recssion, we lived on welfare and, while not in poverty, we didn’t have it good like so many. We knew of people even worse off than us.

    The Bible says it best: the poor are always with us 🙂


  2. Historian Kathy Peiss wrote”Cheap Amusements” (1984) about the leisure life (dance halls, etc.) of working class women in turn of century NYC. While they worked very long hours, single immigrant women found time for entertainment. Many attended night school to learn English and improve their chances of moving into the middle class.


  3. Yes it is very interesting, especially as you relate it.

    I lived in Newport, R.I. on two different occasions (Navy). There you can behold all the opulence you refer to in one place known as Millionaires Row. One palatial mansion after another overlooking the ocean. They actually competed with each other in the building.


    • All I know about the Korean experience is what I have read in Michener’s Hawaii. During the late nineteenth century, Sinophobia (fear of the Chinese) raged on the West Coast in California. Terrible story.


  4. Oh yes, there was a middle class composed of the new professionals: merchant middle-men, doctors, lawyers and managers in the new corporations. Even railroad engineers like my great-great grandfather made it into the middle class, so some were blue collar. This middle class was small compared to the lower classes, however.

    Some of the poor, like those who manufacured some “In-demand” items like male contraceptives (Goodyear rubbers, for example), became quite wealthy.


  5. There’s another novel you should read, “The Shuttle”. I actually have two copies. It’s a fascinating study.

    Yes, there was a large lower class, but I think the middle class was larger than you indicate. One great grandfather farmer from Red Wing MN put four girls through college. Another side of the family sent everyone to college including my mother who became an engineer. Tho the three in my generation all have college degrees, we begin to fall back into lower class at this point with only 8 of 12 with degrees. Education is the key, and I find it fascinating to watch the ebb and flow of the generations.


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