THE RICH, ARE THEY DIFFERENT
HOW DID THE POSSESSION OF WEALTH AFFECT HOMEOWNER SHIP DURING THE EARLY NINTEEN HUNDREDS IN NEW YORK
May 5, 2001
How did the rich of Hudson Valley and Harlem New York differ in behavior patterns and personal attitudes towards home ownership during 1920 to 1925? Even with the distinction of race between Hudson valley rich and Harlem rich are the two groups in anyway similar? The rich of Hudson Valley did not feel the need nor the obligation to be philanthropical towards their under class counterparts. They were desensitized towards the needs of the poor and unfortunates of society. Where as the Harlem rich felt a moral and spiritual obligation to help those less fortunate then themselves to become more prosperous so that they could aspire to the joys of home ownership. Only if they felt the individuals were worthy of their help.
What were the Hudson Valley rich like? They were made up of two classes of people the Robber Barons and the Mayflower rich. In "The Rich and The Super - Rich" Ferdinand Lundberg writes that the Robber Barons gained their wealth thought crime. He writes "Crime: The Highroad to Wealth. Either sound instinct or certain knowledge led Kefauver, Kennedy, Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan to link notorious under world figures with the business world. For crime is a historically established highroad to American fortune building. If earlier men came into the upper propertied class by means of violent crime, it would seem that later criminal practitioners might be heading toward the same dubious salvation. So assiduously and unscrupulously did the earlier fortune-builders work that one might suppose they believed that in attaining wealth they were attaining eternal life." The Mayflower rich considered themselves the true Americans since their families history could be traced all the way back the first Dutch settlers who settled in the Hudson Valley area. They did not accept the Robber Barons with open arms until their fortunes over powered the Mayflower rich in comparison. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different." When Fitzgerald wrote this passage he was referring to both the Robber Barons and Mayflower rich of Hudson Valley. Who had to preserve social distance from the poor at all times. The rich of Harlem would also keep their distance but would still use an invisible hand to be more generous and philanthropical by providing money for scholarships and giving money to churches so that individuals could become more educated. And there by gaining better employment. The Harlem rich were made up of professional (Doctors, Lawyers, Educators and Business owners) Blacks from the south and the West Indies. They were very well educated unlike the white counterparts and did not make their money thought crime. The blacks from the southern states of America where the equivalent of the Mayflower rich in black society the old money. The blacks from the West Indies where the equivalent of the Robber Barons they were the new money in black society.
The Hudson Valley and Harlem rich each had its own definition of philanthropy. During the 1920's philanthropy was not the same as it is today. During this time Philanthropic activity was only done to reduce income taxes. It was referred to as a non-commercial investment, i.e. philanthropy.
In 1924 the Rockefeller family's taxable income was $15,000,000 of which they paid only $6,279,669 in taxes upon that income. At the same time Wall Street authorities conceded that the Rockefellers total income was in excess of $300,000,000 of which they only paid 5% or less than one-third in income taxes. Ferdenand Lundberg wrote in his book "America's 60 Families" "The field of contemporary philanthropy, or noncommercial investment is a labyrinth of mirrors, flashing lights, fitful shadows, and pervasive ballyhoo. One can be sure of little in this maze, for everything superficially perceptible is an illusion multiplied to infinity." This was what philanthropy meant to the Hudson Valley Rich. Philanthropy for the Harlem rich had a totally different meaning. The Harlem rich had morals and values. They were taught to be benevolent not deceptive as the Hudson Valley rich. Also because of the color and the discrimination against blacks they did not have the luxury of the non-commercial investment. Also, the Harlem rich did not have as much access to the commercial investments in order to get a substantial tax write offs. And their gifts were actually usable to the poor. They also created and owned numerous banks, insurance companies, real estate agencies, funeral homes, barber shops, bars, groceries stores and numerous enterprises serving all of the black community. They also created civic institutions and hospitals that provided medical care which was denied by white institutions. They made sure that everyone had the same. There wasn't the French Revolution mentally of " Let Them Eat Cake" that the Hudson Valley rich possessed.
Most Americans during this time, citizens of the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world owned nothing more than their household goods and the clothes on their backs. Especially Black and Immigrant Americans living in the New York City area. They where not in any way shape or form materialistic. The rich of the Era however lived in a totally different world where more was better and the bigger the better. What unquestionably first strikes an observer about the personal lives of America's rich doing the early twentieth century 1900 to 1925 is the abundance of the their residential settings and the spectacular interiors of their homes and the furniture and accessories used to sustain their way of life.
There have been many books and articles written and many photographs taken of the lavish residences of the rich during the early twentieth century. After reading some of the articles and books and looking at the photographs there seems to be four patterns of residence they followed. 1. The compound containing many large residences for different members of the extended family. 2. The cluster or territorial grouping of separate estates of an extended family. 3. Scattered estates up to fifty or more of the different branches of an extended family. 4. The single country estate of a nuclear family which was the mark of a family new to wealth. These compounds or estates today are considered small villages. In addition, can be visited as historical sites. The Hudson valley of New York State is one of the most well known areas of early twentieth century rich. It should also be understood that the estate or compound was only the family center or the nucleus where the family came together for private family business such as a death or a scandal. Wealthy Americans during this time also owned town houses, estates in non-urban parts of the country and foreign estates in Europe, Latin America, and northern Africa. This was the life style of the Hudson Valley rich. The Harlem rich homes were not as lavish and the interiors of their homes where not as grand. The Hudson Valley new rich used millions of dollars and hundreds of white slave laborers to construct their homes. These rich were the Robber Borons. The Vanderbilt's home for example was a multi-million dollar project which cost in excess of $10M to construct. This did not include the interior of the home. In addition to spend great sums of money on their home they also spending large sums of money on their personal possessions. Lulu Vanderbilt spend over $38,600 on her wardrobe for one season and $20,000 to run her household for one month. The Harlem rich would not and could not spend any where near this amount on their everyday living expenses.
One function of the estate or compound was to preserve social distance from the poor. It would be socially awkward for the rich and poor to closely mingle. In "The Rich and The Super-Rich" by Ferdinand Lundberg a rich individual made the following comment about social distance "One cannot invite everybody into the plantation and remain rich for long. The visitors will literally eat one out of house and home, like invading locusts. We are not ungenerous, but merely prudent. Privacy is a cult for the rich."
A prime example of the compound or multiple-dwelling estate is the Rockefeller estate on 4,180 acres in the Pocantico Hills of New York State east of Tarrytown. The estate has many buildings, which include homes for each of the family members (the sons), housing for the staff and a $1 million playhouse (this was the price when it was built) that holds bowling alleys, a tennis court, a swimming pool and a squash court.
Currently the Rockefeller estate/compound is bisected by a public road that lets visitors view dense forests and open fenced fields on either side of the road for many miles. The road is Route 117, which connects North Tarry town with Pleasantville, New York. Years ago the entire estate was open to the public now only part is open for hiking, horseback riding and hunting. The Rockefellers still live on the estate and the family homes are remote from the outside world. Almost like a military base with top secrets within. Security is tight and maintained by high stone walls, massive iron gates, police dogs, and miles of barbed wire fences.
The interiors of most of these houses are more spectacular than the exteriors. The exteriors are mostly impressive because of their size. Unlike the poor, the rich believed in investing. The poor believed in saving money in the banks in addition, not investing money in homeowner ship. The rich would invest in art they would decorate their homes with the most wonderful and controvercial works of art. Knowing that someday the artist would be famous and the work of art would provide a profit which far out weighted the amount of money paid for the work.
The period between the 1920 - 1925 was known as the Flapper age which seems to be equable to the 1980's and 1990's. During the early 1920's the Hudson Valley rich and even the Harlem rich where enjoying their prosperity which they gained thought the Stock Market. Money was in abundance and the people spent freely and did not want to share with the poor. It gave them a sense of power over the common man. And if also desensitized the children of the Robber Boron's who worked so hard at making their fortunes and their off spring where spending the money and not realizing any gains. This is the time when American (rich) society wanted to be equated to the Europe's old nobility. This is also the time that what is known as the JET SET was started. In the spring of each year the Hudson Valley and Harlem rich would leave the city and retreat to their lavish estates. Their attitudes where if you where not part of the right family you where not worth their time. Their lives consisted of attending the right parties and marrying into the right families.
With the crash of the Stock Market in the late 1920's the Flapper Era came to an end. This is the time when the U.S. government started to make the rich accountable for their fortunes and share their wealth with the rest of the nation.
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