Wealth And Social Classes During The Gilded Age

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The late nineteenth century in American history was an era known as the Gilded Age. During this period of explosive urban expansion, the economic divide between the rich and the poor widened, and pretentious demonstrations of wealth by the well-to-do, became popular. Among the upper class in New York City there was a battle to claim the top spot in the social hierarchy. Established old-money families which had largely inherited their wealth over generations, sought to maintain their position at the top of the social heap, warding off-new money families which had obtained their wealth more recently. This social battle between wealthy titans took the form of one upmanship, with the members of upper crust attempting to elevate their social status …show more content…

Specifically, the architecture and location of their houses served to advertise their extraordinary wealth. As the income gap between the rich and the poor widened during this time, New York City became more sectionalized with the wealthy living along Fifth Avenue and the poor living in the surrounding slums. The neighborhood in which the rich resided publicized membership in high society. Also, the upper crust sought to build enormous and elaborate palace-like buildings in an effort to outdo each other. For example, during their walk together down fashionable Fifth Avenue, Selden and Van Alstyne admired the extravagant residences built along the Avenue, notably the Greiner house. Van Alstyne commented, “That Greiner house, now – a typical rung in the social ladder” (Wharton, 159). This quote very directly shows how excessive residences were built by the rich in order to gain status in New York’s highest social circle. Wharton contrasted the homes of the elite such as Greiner, with the home of the indigent Gerty Farish who lived in a humble apartment. Since Farish’s lowbrow apartment was disparaged by the wealthy characters in the novel, it was clear that she could never be a member of their social circle. Thus, in NYC in the Gilded Age the location, size and costliness of one’s house could determines one’s social standing in high society. Just as the Grenier house on Fifth Avenue served as a symbol for wealth and power, the small flat of Gerty Farish served as a symbol for poverty and powerlessness. The homes on Fifth Avenue were daily reminders of the extreme wealth of the upper class, as people from every walk of life would regularly stroll by. Thus, Edith Wharton used the location and nature of personal residences as a sign of conspicuous consumption. These homes served as very visible and grand gestures to indicate

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