For Richer or Poorer: The Gold Standard in America

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As of this writing, America is experiencing the highest inflation rate in 40 years. Inflation shot up from 1.7% in 2020 to about 7% in 2021 and 2022, with the highest rate in 2022 being 9.1% in June! In spite of the fact that we’re shelling out more money at the grocery store (a friend of mine recently reported she spent over $100 on baking supplies for the holidays), the 7% this year is peanuts compared to 1920, when the nation had almost 24% inflation, or after the American Revolution in 1778 when inflation was 30%.

But there is one way to fight inflation: create a gold standard. This is exactly what people in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era did, though the results weren’t favorable to all. The concept of the gold standard is very difficult to explain and for people to wrap their heads around, so bear with me while I try to outline what it is and why it failed.

In 1900, Congress passed the Gold Standard Act which meant the value of American money was tied to the value of gold. Until then, the currency exchange was based on bimetallism (gold and silver). That meant people were able to buy gold or silver coins with paper money, which was to their advantage because these precious metals were much more stable in their value over time, whereas the value of paper money was basically determined by what federal or state officials determined it to be worth. It was also not an international currency (just as today when we can’t use British pounds to do our Walmart shopping in Cleveland) and it wasn’t even always, at that time, transferable from state to state, since states had their own paper money. So if you moved from Vermont to California and tried to cash a $20 Vermont bill in a California bank, you weren’t guaranteed to get the full $20 value of that bill in exchange.

The gold standard also meant silver was no longer an accepted exchange for paper money. People could only buy gold coins. There were a few problems with this. First, gold coins were in limited supply. Second, since gold was valued at the time at about $22.00 an ounce, people needed to shell out $22 in paper money for one ounce of gold ($1 bought them about 25 grams worth of gold). 

Why did people even want to buy gold coins when they paid much more for them with paper money? Why didn’t they just keep the paper money? Because at that time, paper money was very unreliable in terms of value, as I explained above. Also, gold and silver were precious metals and scarce compared to paper money so they were worth more and their worth didn’t fluctuate as much.

The gold standard was such a hot-button issue that this campaign poster for the Republican party (with William McKinley as the presidential nominee and Theodore Roosevelt as the vice-presidential nominee) put the party’s support of the gold standard as the top political issue on their party’s agenda during the campaign.

Photo Credit: Headshots of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt against the American flag for a Republican party campaign poster during the 1900 elections, Library of Congress: Picryl/Public Domain

The gold standard became a major political issue in the Progressive Era because it was tied to class. The poor and working class were usually paid in paper money and used paper money to buy their goods, and since the value of paper money was now tied to the gold standard, they had to pay more for their purchases. For example, if something cost $2 gold coins, they would have to pay $44 in paper money for it. 

Hence, the Populist movement was born. This movement largely consisted of farmers and poor people who wanted to convince congress to go back to the bimetal standard (because silver was valued less than gold and they were able to secure silver coins more easily than gold.) In 1896, the Populists merged with the Democratic party, as the two shared several items on their political agenda such as limiting the number of terms a president could serve and advocating an eight-hour work day, as well as the call for bimetallism. This accumulated in Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan’s moving and rallying “Cross of Gold” speech.  

Bryan ran for president in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era with bimetallism as one of his main themes three times and lost three times. But then, so did the gold standard, eventually. It was withdrawn in the early 1930s by FDR in an effort to combat the Great Depression. From the post-World War II era to the 1970s, the gold standard did make a comeback, but in 1971 Nixon abolished it, both to combat the inflation at the time and to keep foreign governments from buying up American gold supply with their dollars. 

In my upcoming new release, The Mystery of the Golden Cat, the Gold Standard Act is in full force (the book takes place in 1904) and not everyone is happy about it. For one person, it leads indirectly to crime. Though the book comes out at the end of this month, it’s at a special preorder price now, so don’t wait to snag your copy!

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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Chaos and Commerce: The Gilded Age

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Big businesses controlled the government in the Gilded Age. In this cartoon, big business is represented by “the robber barons,” the name given to railroad tycoons (and the businesses that made them possible, such as steel), pictured as bloated bags of money, lording over the tiny mice of the senate. 

Photo Credit: The Bosses of the Senate cartoon, Joseph Ferdinand Keppler. First published in Puck, 23 January 1889, lithograph, colored: P. S. Burton/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100 1923)

I’ve been fascinated by the Gilded Age since 2009 when I went back to school for a short time, intending to get a Master’s degree in history, and took a course on the Gilded Age. For some reason, the Gilded Age got buried in the annals of American history in favor of other eras. Most notable were the 1920s, which made a comeback ten years or so ago when the film The Great Gatsby was released, and World War II, which still dominates the bestseller lists in the historical fiction genre.

There is some dispute as to the time frame we know of as the Gilded Age. Most historians and scholars don’t dispute it began in the 1870s. But some consider the mid-1890’s the end of the era while others push the end to 1900. For my purposes, because the new century brought about the Progressive Era, I consider 1900 as the stopping point.

The publication of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today in 1873 coined the term. Ironically, the title wasn’t meant as a label for the era but as a tongue-in-cheek dig against it that turned out to be wildly accurate. When we think of the word “gilded” we think of something that is bright and shining but also fake and misleading. With a sharp eye and sardonic humor, Twain and Warner observed what was going on around them and used it as fodder for their fiction. The book, which is actually my favorite of all Twain’s work, depicts various scoundrels, fools, and charlatans who seek success and prosperity by taking advantage of the era’s propensity for “wheeling and dealing” — and getting away with it because the American public was too naive or ignorant or both to see through them (this would be rectified in the Progressive Era). 

What was happening in America was, in the context of the time, understandable. When Twain and Dudley Warner published their book in 1873, America was going through a recession that ended with the Panic of 1873. People were determined to bounce back financially and politically to show the world the United States was anything but finished. Since finance and politics are, let’s face it, inherently dirty, many used dirty methods to do it. Stories of graft, greed, and corruption permeated every corner of American life. Money and commercial interests ruled. In an effort to encourage the kind of economic growth that could rival European markets, America became, as the saying goes, too big for its britches.

This painting represents the kind of gaudy extravagance common with the very rich during the Gilded Age, especially when they entertained.

Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Hofball in Wien. Aquarell, Wilhelm Gause, 1900, Historisches Museum de Stadt Wien: Andrew0921/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old)

As many of us know, when Americans have money, they aren’t shy about spending it. All this wheeling and dealing created a new class of aristocrats. Novelists such as Edith Wharton and Henry James wrote about the nouveau riche (people who had recently become wealthy through business rather than inheritance) infiltrating the established societies of big cities like New York and San Francisco where “old money” families dictated what was and wasn’t socially acceptable. The recently launched series The Gilded Age is all about a young woman trying to break into the heavily guarded New York upper class.

The Gilded Age became notorious for the gaudy displays of the socially privileged. The very rich became very extravagant, sometimes ridiculously so, displaying their money and social power even in the face of the growing poverty and working-class resentments that would explode into the unions and reforms of The Progressive Era.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Twain and Warner’s book did not do well when it was published. An important critic of the day, author William Dean Howells, thought it degenerative and disgusting. In the 21st century, the book gives us a new way of looking at social, economic, and political life with an eye toward not repeating the same mistakes (we hope!).

If you’re interested in the Gilded Age, you’ll want to check out my Waxwood Series, a family saga set in the last decade of the 19th century. It’s a great time to do that because I’ve just updated and revised Book 1, The Specter, to make it even better! And you can get it for FREE on all book vendors. For more details, go here.

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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Income Taxes: A Progressive Era Phenomenon

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April 15 is traditionally the income tax deadline in America (though this year, the IRS gave us a grace period until April 18). There is no task that spells adulting more than doing your taxes. We all hate it. We all grumble about it. We all stress about it. It’s on our minds at this time of year. Even in my peer support group recently, the conversation fell on taxes when we were all supposed to be talking about our issues. 

In fact, I’m betting when tax time comes around, most of us feel like The Beatles in their 1966 song “Mr. Taxman”. Ironically, the Beatles wrote the song when Britain was imposing higher taxes on the wealthy. The Beatles, by this stage in their careers, fell into that category, so they weren’t too happy about this.

Got questions? The cartoon above shows the Secretary of the Treasury, William G. McAdoo, being bombarded with questions about taxes over the phone on his “busy days”. If y’all think taxes are complicated in the 21st century, imagine how confused Americans were in the early days of income taxes!

Photo Credit: Secretary McAdoo’s Busy Days, illustrated cartoon, by Clifford Barryman, from Washington Evening Star, 3 November 1913: Nara & Dvids Public Domain Archive/No known copyright restrictions

We can thank the good-intentioned people of the Progressive Era for income taxes. But the story of income taxes in America actually begins about forty years earlier. The government imposed a tax on personal income in 1861 to help fund the Civil War at that time but stopped this in the 1870s. Then, Congress passed a flat-rate income tax during the Gilded Age, but it was ruled unconstitutional because it didn’t take into account the incomes in different states (think: a farmer living in Kentucky isn’t going to be able to pay the same tax rate as a stockbroker living in New York City because his income is way lower). 

The 16th Amendment, passed in 1909 and ratified in 1913, finally put the income tax into place, though the actual tax deadline (April 15) wasn’t set until the 1950s. When you look at the evolution of early 20th-century society and politics, you can understand why this would be a progressive era phenomenon. At the turn of the 20th century, people in America were trying to fix the damage the Gilded Agers had done, and they wanted the government to help them. The hands-off government of the 19th century wasn’t working anymore. In order for the government to intervene and help, they needed funds. So they had to get those funds from the people. Hence, taxes. 

I know this is tough to remember when you’re slogging through your Form 8829 trying to figure out whether the IRS will come after you for declaring that 30% of your internet bill you used for your work because maybe it was more like 15% (as my CPA says, “don’t poke the bear”). But maybe when you’re trying to scrape together the dollars to pay Mr. Taxman this year, it will help to remember the original intention of the 16th Amendment. 

Although the protagonist of the Adele Gossling Mysteries isn’t dealing with taxes yet (Book 1 takes place in 1903, before the 16th Amendment), she does deal with other Progressive Era political issues. And who knows? Maybe when the series reaches the 1910s, there will be a book about Adele investigating the murder of a local taxman!

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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All Decked Out: Easter in the Gilded Age

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Photo Credit: Let all rejoice sweet Easter Day, 1881, stock card, published by Geo M. Hayes, Boston Public Library, Print Department: Boston Public Library/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

It’s officially Easter and, if you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I love to dive into the way things were during the holidays. The Gilded Age made of Easter what it made of many other holidays — an opportunity for opulence and excess. But, then, Gilded Agers knew how to enjoy life.

Easter in America didn’t become a spectacle until after the Civil War. In the first half of the 19th century, it was an important holiday for Christians and Catholics, but some religious groups were apt to ignore it. Others made Easter Sunday a day of mourning the fallen soldiers of the war. 

But things began to change around the 1870s (which coincides, not coincidentally, I think, with the birth of the Gilded Age). Easter was still, of course, a religious holiday and honored as such, but the Gilded Age mentality began to slip in. Gilded Agers saw it as a time to celebrate spring in the best way they knew how — by showing off.

Now, here’s a cartoon that is a sign of the times: An elderly Victorian lady dressed to the nines points toward a lavish Easter bonnet on a maypole while other equally garish women gather around to worship this sign of Gilded Age opulence. But the New Woman isn’t buying it and, in her sensible and comfortable suit, gives her a look like, “Seriously?”

Photo Credit: She won’t bow to the hat, C. J. Taylor, 1896, Library of Congress, Chromolithographs: Picryl/No known restrictions

The tradition of new Easter clothes took off during this period. Easter was the perfect time to jump into spring with bright, pastel shades and adornments. As with other holidays, such as Christmas, consumerism ruled, and it suddenly became a necessity rather than desirable for women and men to get new clothes for the holiday. Advertisements for men’s clothes urged them not to wait to order their new Easter suits, and buying a new hat for the holiday was the order of the day for most women (thus was born the “Easter bonnet”). As you can see from the photos on this page, not a ribbon or a frill was spared on these elaborate headgear. 

Where did Gilded Agers take themselves to display their new Easter garb? To church, obviously. In fact, there were those who weren’t regular churchgoers but would make an exception for Easter Sunday so their fellow worshipers could admire their new spring clothes. Another place Gilded Agers went to see and be seen in their new Easter garb was restaurants and hotels. Just as with Thanksgiving, hotel dining rooms had special menus for Easter that might have included lamb and asparagus (a vegetable just coming into vogue in Victorian cuisine). And the height of showing off in the Gilded Age was the Easter parade. In fact, the idea of the parade was conceived when aristocratic Victorian ladies flocked down Fifth Avenue dressed in their finest after church. In 1948, the musical Easter Parade, starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire epitomized this Easter tradition, especially in this song where Garland tackles all the cliches of Easter in one tune.

Want to read about one Nob Hill family and their rise and fall in the Gilded Age? My entire Waxwood Series is now available!

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Resort Life in the 19th Century

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Photo Credit: The Beach and The Sea, Blankenberghe, Belgium, from “Views of Architecture and Other Sites in Belgium” catalogue, 1905, Detroit Publishing Company: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD old 100)    

“Get a thousand people crowded into one hotel … and let ’em buzz around—that seems to be the present notion of enjoyment.” (Warner, location 22)

If you’ve subscribed to my newsletter or have been reading my blog, you know Waxwood, the setting for the Waxwood Series, is a small seaside town that morphs into an exclusive resort town as the 19th century comes to a close (to read about the real town that inspired Waxwood, go here). Starting in Book 2, False Fathers, the Alderdices become one of the many wealthy Gilded Agers who make staying at a resort for the summer season part of their yearly agenda. 

My original conception of the series included the idea of the Alderdices spending their summers in a small resort town. But I didn’t realize that there was a thing such as resort life until I read Charles Dudley Warner’s book Their Pilgrimage. Warner was a contemporary of Mark Twain and, in fact, cowrote with Twain the book that coined the term “the Gilded Age” (which you can read more about here). Published in 1884, Warner’s book takes place at the height of this age and focuses on the rocky romance between a young man born to “old money” and a young woman of the “new money” class. The romance happens against a backdrop of resort town life, where King and his artist friend and the Bensons wander around from one hotel to another along the East Coast.

Resort life for the wealthy, as Warner depicts it, was relaxing, exciting, and, many times, boring. Some traveled for their health to places such as Palm Springs in California. Others traveled in the winter to get away from harsh weather in their home town. And many did it because it was “the thing to do” among the wealthy. 

The idea of seeing and being seen was prevalent throughout the Gilded Age, and resort life offered just the platform for this. As one guest remarks to King, “‘So few women know how to listen; most women appear to be thinking of themselves and the effect they are producing’” (Warner, location 146). What people do or what they see seems less important than who they see and who they know. At the same time, the anonymity of resort life gave the tightly-laced Gilded Age blue bloods a freedom to be themselves that they didn’t have at home. King himself observes, “[It] is precisely in hotels and to entire strangers that some people are apt to talk with less reserve than to intimate friends” (Warner, location 164). Away from the resorts, wealthy Gilded Agers had to watch what they said and did so as not to be shunned by their neighbors or get their names in the papers. But at a hotel, no one knew them, and they could loosen their grip a little bit.

Resort life was predominantly for women, though there were men and children as well. The hard-working, aggressively competitive Gilded Age man couldn’t take time off for vacations in the Gilded Age. Ironically, women found a level of release and independence in the resort hotels that they couldn’t have at home, with the rigid boundaries of the separate spheres:

“There was a preponderance of women, as is apt to be the case in such resorts… American men are too busy to take this sort of relaxation, and that the care of an establishment, with the demands of society and the worry of servants, so draw upon the nervous energy of women that they are glad to escape occasionally to the irresponsibility of hotel life. (Warner, location 68)

There were some who traveled year round, going to summer resorts in the winter and to winter resorts in the summer. Resort life was so popular that these hotels were often crowded to capacity during the season. Warner makes a keen observation about the atmosphere at these resort towns and hotels at the beginning and end of the season:

“The first man of the season is in such a different position from the last. He is like the King of Bavaria alone in his royal theatre… It is a very cheerful desolation, for it has a future, and everything quivers with the expectation of life and gayety… Nothing is so melancholy as the shabbiness of a watering-place at the end of the season, where is left only the echo of past gayety…” (Warner, location 276-281)

The resort towns, then, were aimed at offering luxury and leisure to their wealthy guests but became like ghost towns when those guests left.

The Alderdice family aren’t exactly the kind of Gilded Age traveler Warner’s novel depicts. They come to Waxwood for summers, but their lives are firmly rooted in San Francisco. But, like their blue blood companions, they take full advantage of the extravagances offered once they do arrive and, in more ways than one, they become different people immersed in resort life for even just that short a time.

You can read about the Alderdices’ experience of resort life in Book 2 of my series, False Fathers. Book 3, Pathfinding Women, coming out this summer, also gives you a sense of resort life in the last year of the 19th century. If you want to find out more about the Waxwood Series, you can check out this page.               

Want more fascinating information about history? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

Works Cited:

Warner, Charles Dudley. Their Pilgrimage. 1884. A pubic domain book. Kindle digital file.

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