Saturday, June 30, 2007

Manhattan #25, Architecture #17, Dead Presidents #22

Fashionable society was composed of two classes. There were, first, the people of good family,—those whose forefathers at some time had played their parts manfully in the world, and who claimed some shadowy superiority on the strength of this memory of the past, unbacked by any proof of merit in the present. Secondly, there were those who had just made money,—the father having usually merely the money-getting faculty, the presence of which does not necessarily imply the existence of any other worthy quality whatever, the rest of the family possessing only the absorbing desire to spend what the father had earned. In the summer they all went to Saratoga or to Europe; in winter they came back to New York. Fifth Avenue was becoming the fashionable street, and on it they built their brownstone-front houses, all alike outside, and all furnished in the same style within,—heavy furniture, gilding, mirrors, glittering chandeliers. If a man was very rich he had a few feet more frontage, and more gilding, more mirrors, and more chandeliers. There was one incessant round of gaiety, but it possessed no variety whatever, and little interest.

Of course there were plenty of exceptions to all these rules. There were many charming houses, there was much pleasant social life, just as there were plenty of honest politicians; and there were multitudes of men and women well fitted to perform the grave duties and enjoy the great rewards of American life. But taken as a whole, the fashionable and political life of New York in the decade before the Civil War offers an instructive rather than an attractive spectacle.

Theodore Roosevelt, New York (1906)