America Learns to Play: A History of Popular Recreation, 1607-1940

By Foster Rhea Dulles | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIV
WORLD OF FASHION

THE WAYS IN WHICH SOCIETY MAY AMUSE ITSELF AFFORD, IN any country and at any time, an exceptional opportunity for the display of wealth and the assertion of social importance. Thorstein Veblen has graphically demonstrated this conscious or unconscious motivation in many forms of recreation. It is clearly evident throughout American social history. The worthy citizens of eighteenth-century Philadelphia vied with each other in the magnificence of their banquets, loading their tables with massive silver plate and serving such a choice selection of imported wines that the visiting John Adams stood amazed at the "sinful feasts." The planters of Virginia rode to hounds in close imitation of the English country squires whose social status they sought to emulate in every possible way. Merchants of New York and Boston were already aspiring to yachts in the 1850's, their sons to membership in the exclusive boating clubs, while all the fashionable world sought out Saratoga or Newport as a step upward on the social ladder.

It was in the latter half of the past century, however, the Gilded Age of American civilization, that society most flagrantly bent its pleasures to display. The newly rich born of industry's great advance since the Civil War-owners of railways, copper- mines, textile-mills, steel-plants, packing-houses, and cattle ranches -- sought to establish social leadership through their extravagance in entertainments and amusements. A little band of idle rich held the final redoubt in the fashionable world of the 1880's and 1890's, and the families of the new plutocracy felt it essential to prove beyond shadow of doubt that they too were

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