Occupy Wall Street & Reaction to The Gilded Age

Saint Bradley-Martin
In February of 1897, rich New York socialites, Bradley and Cornilia Martin, hosted an over-the-top costume ball at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. What's the significance behind this? For starters, the United States had been suffering through a major economic depression (later referred to as The Long Depression) that had begun in 1873 and included two bank panics (1873 and 1893). Contrasted against the country's current condition, the Bradley-Martin Ball was more than just ill-timed; it was a slap in the face to the American populace which had been bearing the brunt of economic hardships for what would eventually span over two decades.

It's interesting to note that the Long Depression wasn't just endemic to the United States, but was in fact, a major global economic crisis plaguing all of Europe and Russia as well. (It's likely that the rest of the globe was affected, but financial record keeping in these regions was sketchy to non-existent.)

How did that whole mess get started? Funny you should ask. I'll skip the finer details, but basically it boiled down to inflationary investing in Germany following the Franco-Prussian War while here in the United States, the cause stemmed from over-building by the railroad companies as well as rampant corporate and congressional fraud, best personified by the the Crédit Mobilier of America scandal in 1872 (congressmen were taking bribes from the Crédit Mobilier of America Construction company.)

Starting to sound familiar? Oh, but wait, it gets better!

Following sharp declines in the construction, railroad, and manufacturing industries, the situation started to unravel pretty quickly. In one year, foreign investors sold off tens of millions worth of American securities in anticipation of us dropping the gold standard. 11 major New York banks and over 100 state banks collapsed, defaulting on over 32 million dollars in debt. Unemployment soared to 7.5% nationally, and over 13% in the Northeast where the United States's industrial base was located. And even when the Long Depression was technically "over," conditions didn't exactly get better as the country still experienced economic uncertainty off and on again for a period totaling nine and a half years! Awesome!

So, with this as the backdrop, Mrs. Bradley-Martin, as the story goes, got up one morning and commented over breakfast that, "Gee golly, things kinda seem a bit down out there. Maybe we should have a concert or something to raise a little money--ooo wait! Better idea--costume ball! That will get the economy going! Now, where's the butler with my eggs Benedict?"

I paraphrased that somewhat, but her line errant logic wasn't an exaggeration. Bradley-Martin, god's honest truth, reasoned that with all the costumes, decorations, food, etc. needed for her ball, paying for all that stuff should be enough to get people back to work and recharge the railroads, the steel factories, and the banks. Today, Mrs. Bradley-Martin would deemed the Patron Saint of Job Creators by FOX News with Ann Coulter kneeling to kiss her holiness's feet.

"You sure do gotta pretty set a tights!"
And how did the residents of New York, 25% of whom were unemployed, react to Saint Bradly-Martin's noble offer? A fairly angry crowd tried to burn down the Waldorf a few days prior to the event. I'm sure Bradley-Martin and other members of the "New York 400" were quite miffed on the night of the ball as they dodged the ungrateful crowd that the Assistant Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Bully!) and his lads were trying to keep under control outside of the hotel.

In spite of the rabble's ingratitude, poor Mrs. Bradley-Martin had done the best she could to get America back on its feet by spending $400,000 ($9.4 million today) of her own hard-earned cash, plus another $100,000 ($2.5 mill) on the diamonds wore with her blinged-out Martha Washington get up. Incidentally, these figures don't include what the guests spent on their costumes. New York Congressman Oliver Belmont, for example, showed up in a full suite of gold-inlaid armor that he could barley walk in worth over $250,000 in today's currency. Sweeeet!

John Jacob Astor as Henry IV
According to the news media of the day, the party was a smashing success, but then again, when has the popular "news" media ever really gotten it right? Smashing success though it might have been by socialite standards,the real world didn't see it as such. The backlash over the gawdy display was severe enough that the Bradley-Martins took off to their other home in England where they stayed for quite a long, long time. Oh, right, and the New York Tax Authority doubled the Bradley-Martin's (and a few other attendees) property tax almost immediately after the festivities. Huh, well, whaddaya know. It is said, that Mrs. Bradley-Martin was sincerely baffled by the negative reactions. Her little party, though, marked the end of The Gilded Age, a term coined by Mart Twain as a satirical reference to gilding an object with a thin layer of superficial gold. Spot on, Mr. Twain.

What does this have to do with today? My first thought would be a lot, considering that from 2007 to 2009 Wall Street profits were up 720% while unemployment also rose 102% and home equities dropped 35%, or that the median net worth of an American family is around $120,000 while the median net worth of a member of Congress in $912,000 (citation). So, then, should it be surprising that crowds of average citizens are coordinating to Occupy Wall Street and other cities? Frankly, I'm surprised it hasn't happened sooner.

People are angry and frustrated, and I'm one of them. We live in a period beset with greed, excess, and plain silliness enabled by an impotent government that's further convoluted by corporate self-interest. And it will stay that way if we let it. Am I advocating that we "burn down the Waldorf?" Well, not literally, but I have to admit, if the Kardashian throw another wedding, I swear, I might just walk into a SEARS and torch their entire gilded clothing line.

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