|The American Museum of Natural History, 77th and Central Park West|
I have been reading Sven Beckert’s excellent book, The Monied Metropolis, recently. It presents an account of how the economic elite of New York city consolidated into a coherent and powerful social class during the second half of the 19th century. A deeply thought-provoking study, I encourage everyone who has not done so to read it.
My own interest in Becker’s research stems from the fact that one way Bourgeoise New Yorkers performed their social distinction was by visibly patronizing elite cultural institutions. The most obvious examples are the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Philharmonic. In both cases, the idea was to distinguish oneself by displaying your highbrow tastes. Thus, a crucial function for institutions like the Metropolitan Museum was to demarcate fine or legitimate art from popular, lowbrow entertainment.
The interesting thing for me is that these people also patronized the American Museum of Natural History, which is located on the West side of Central Park, directly facing the Metropolitan Museum on the East. What did the Natural History Museum distinguish or demarcate itself from? The answer, I think, are the popular museums located further downtown. The most famous of these is PT Barnum’s American museum. But there were many more “dime museums” all over the city, probably over a dozen in all.
If the Natural History Museum exhibited genuine and secure scientific knowledge, dime museums catered to people’s taste for the strange, exotic and wonderful. The claim, then, is that whereas the Metropolitan Museum sought to canonize fine art, the Natural History Museum demarcated science from humbug.
I’ll leave the rest of that argument to my dissertation. What I wanted to share with everyone here is a curious and highly topical connection between Beckert’s work and contemporary debates about government spending, fiscal policy, and the federal budget.
Beckert traces the origins of New York’s monied elite back to the early decades of the 19th century, but they did not begin to coalesce into a coherent social class until after the Civil War. The most defining moment in the process, he argues, was the financial crisis of 1873. It constituted the most severe economic depression the United States had experienced up to that point, and it came about when a speculative bubble in the railroad industry burst. Once it became clear that investments in railroads had been overvalued, many banks fell apart. Coal mining and other industries tied to the railroads — such as steel and iron manufacturing — also went into decline, with ripples spreading throughout the nation’s entire economy.
New York’s Bourgeoisie responded to the crisis by closing ranks. This trend became especially pronounced as workers’ wages and conditions declined, leading to labor unrest.
In addition to these economic changes, Beckert reminds us there was also an important and well-known intellectual movement gaining traction at the time: Social Darwinism. In the United States, Spencer’s articulation of the idea that evolutionary progress requires a struggle for survival in human society as well as the natural world met an especially receptive audience among the New York’s financial and industrial elite.
Hence, whereas an older generation of wealthy New Yorkers had emphasized the importance of public munificence and civic stewardship, the new generation argued that many of the city’s working poor bore a personal responsibility for the conditions in which they now found themselves. Rather than a misfortune of circumstance, poverty was cast as the result of moral failings.
What really struck me about Beckert’s story is that Bourgeoise New Yorkers responded to the panic of 1873 with what he calls “fiscal retrenchment.” Their own considerable finances under serious threat for the first time in living memory, wealthy New Yorkers argued forcefully that the city would be wrong to spend their tax dollars on extravagant relief efforts and public works projects to alleviate public suffering. For example, Beckert quotes Samuel Tilden, a railroad lawyer and governor of New York State from 1875 to 1877, who cut taxes and reduced public spending, leaving it up “to the people to work out their own prosperity and happiness.” Even more compelling is a quote from the city’s mayor, William F. Havemeyer, who told the Times in 1873 that he “could not see why the property of those who, by thrift and industry, had built up their houses, should be confiscated [by] men who had … by strikes or the like, contributed to the present state of things themselves.”
Rather than invest tax dollars in public works project and social programs, the Bourgeoisie preferred to set up their own, private charity operations. The reason, Beckert argues, is that in so doing they could attempt to distinguish between the city’s “deserving” and its “undeserving” poor. While it made sense to offer relief to the poor, nothing good could come out of encouraging pauperism! As the NY State Board of Charity put it in its 1877 Annual Report, most of the impoverished classes “reached that condition by idleness, improvidence, drunkenness” or some other “form of vicious indulgence.”