Little-Known Gold From the Gilded Age

Recent Economic Changes

By David A. Wells (1889)

The dull title of "Recent Economic Changes" does no justice to David A. Wells's fascinating contemporary account of a deflationary miasma that settled over the world's advanced economies in the 1880s. His cheery conclusion: Prices were falling because technology was progressing. What had pushed the price of a bushel of wheat down to 67 cents in 1887 from $1.10 in 1882 was nothing more sinister than the opening up of new regions to cultivation (Australia, the Dakotas) and astounding improvements in agricultural machinery. In the U.S. between 1849 and 1884, population had risen by 141%, wheat production by 410%. Farmers howled about the price drops, but humanity gained. Luckily, there was no Federal Reserve (it came about in 1913) to find in these trends a deflationary crisis that required amelioration by the vast production of new dollar bills.

I Would Live It Again

By Julia B. Foraker (1932)

Julia Foraker, a political wife of the Gilded Age, was born in rural Ohio in 1847, when, as she puts it, the only careers available to a woman were "the home or invalidism." She has a wonderful way of putting things. In Foraker's telling, someone is "laconically murdered," a preacher works up a "pulpit sweat" and—slyly—"husbands know best; that is understood." Of course, much has changed in American politics since the time of Grover Cleveland, Thomas B. Reed, William Jennings Bryan and Foraker's husband, Joseph, a U.S. senator from Ohio. But much has remained the same. Of Mark Hanna (see below), the Republican kingmaker of the 1890s, the memoirist observes: "When his favorite failed to win . . . he could switch to the man who did get in, with a rapidity that made whole wards blink."


By Thomas Beer (1929)

This biography of the Ohio money man and political entrepreneur Mark Hanna is a shining example of what a biographer can accomplish without using footnotes. Thomas Beer, the son of a Hanna aide, makes no pretense to scholarly objectivity but rather tells the story as familiarly as he might a Beer family anecdote. Hanna was the prototype of the American industrialist who applies business methods to electoral politics. The bland and museless William McKinley, America's 25th president, was Hanna's political masterwork. It seemed not to matter to the voters that McKinley so often wavered, not least on the merits of a war of choice with Spain in 1898. They decided (with Hanna's help) that he was lovable. "Their bodies thickened," Beer relates of the movers and shakers of Wall Street in Hanna's time. "They died at ages of 52 and 53. They swooned on bright tables at meetings of directors and were lugged down to slick private cabs waiting on the slope beside Trinity Church." It might interest Beer to learn that the lobby of the old Bankers Trust building on 14 Wall Street today houses an Equinox health club.

From Steerage to Congress

By Richard Bartholdt (1930)

A 12-term congressman from Missouri, Richard Bartholdt (1855-1932) had arrived in this country from Germany at age 21. He became a newspaperman and a Republican: "The Republicans were the party of emancipation. I did not care for any other reason." Bartholdt loved liberty, and he didn't mind saying so. "America," the then-freshman congressman declaimed at a Fourth of July celebration in 1893, "where the only aristocracy is the royalty of heart, the only imperialism the natural cast of brain. This is why it is that, when others boast of national achievement, the American just points to the flag and bluntly says to all the world, 'Match this if you can, the peerless story of human freedom, of intellectual progress, of great-hearted, broad-minded development told in the mystic wedlock of the Stars and Stripes.' " And, mind you, 1893 was a depression year.

An Adventure in Constructive Finance

By Carter Glass (1927)

Carter Glass, a prickly Democratic congressman (later senator) from Virginia, thought that, in shepherding the Federal Reserve Act through the House of Representatives, he and his allies had finally resolved the great monetary debates of the late 19th century. Out was the "wretched" and "unscientific" banking system that had fostered the panics of 1893 and 1907; in was a modern gold standard "responsive at all times and to the fullest extent to every reasonable demand of legitimate business." The Fed was, to its legislative father, a very nearly perfect institution. To any who predicted that his grand experiment would end with paper, or "fiat," money, Glass scoffed: "There is not an element of 'fiatism' about a federal reserve note." If the Virginian could be brought back to life to view the paper-spinning 21st-century Fed, the shock might kill him all over again.

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