When I was in high school I had a history teacher who was very passionate about the Gilded Age – but as I was a callow and feckless youth, I thought it was all boring tycoons and railroads and stuff. Well, it turns out that there’s more to the Gilded Age than trains and big mustaches, and a lot of it is pretty darn interesting. So with belated apologies to my tenth grade history teacher (but I was only fifteen, so cut me some slack), I present a list of not-boring Gilded Age books.
The Floor of Heaven: a True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush, by Howard Blum – If you ever manage to pull off a spectacular gold heist, don’t try to melt down your ill-gotten gains in a frying pan over your campfire, or you’ll just end up with a gold-plated frying pan – that’s what I learned from this book. There are more prospectors and ruffians than tycoons in these pages, so save this one for when you get tired of bankers and millionaires.
The Murder of the Century: the Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars, by Paul Collins – Oh, there’s a lot of fun stuff here – bloody ducks (yes, you read that right), a distinctively patterned oilcloth, an army of reporters on bicycles, and best of all – a headless, legless torso with some very unusual identifying marks that couldn’t be discussed in polite company. Ladies, it’ll give you the vapors.
Topsy: the Startling Story of the Crooked-tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison, by Michael Daly – Turns out that this one’s a great history of elephants in the United States and of the early days of circuses. Thomas Edison appears mainly as the evil villain (NOTE: the link is a spoiler and is NOT for the faint of heart), though to be fair, everyone was pretty evil to animals in those days. Bonus: Topsy and Edison are also the subjects of an excellent episode of Bob’s Burgers.
Conquering Gotham: a Gilded Age Epic: the Construction of Penn Station and its Tunnels, by Jill Jonnes – The Pennsylvania Railroad was miffed that it couldn’t get its trains into Manhattan like its chief rival, the New York Central Railroad. So with typical Gilded Age bravado they said, “Screw this!” and built a tunnel under the Hudson River. It was very muddy, squishy work. This is a neat book about finance, architecture, engineering, working conditions, and getting the bends.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson – An architect, a serial killer, a world’s fair, an oddly suspenseful low-speed pursuit – good times! If you’re only going to read one book from this list, make it this one. But it’s such a good book that you’ve probably read it already. (Suzy has, and she even mentioned it in an earlier post, which led me to state that “I am pretty sure that every librarian is required to write about The Devil in the White City at least once in their career”).
The Johnstown Flood, by David McCullough – The moral of this story? Rich people make lousy neighbors. A classic combination of history and disaster, with strong local ties. Since the book was originally published in 1968, it’s somehow more tasteful than modern disaster nonfiction, if that makes any sense – as if one can be tasteful about people burning to death in huge piles of flood wreckage. Still, good stuff.
AC/DC: the Savage Tale of the First Standards War, by Tom McNichol – For those of you who’d like a little science with your tycoons and mustaches, we present Thomas Edison vs. local favorite George Westinghouse (with a little assistance from the nerd’s nerd, Nikola Tesla) in an electrical battle for the ages. Somehow we manage to go from electrocuting dogs (lots of dogs, reader beware) to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (re: The Devil in the White City) in slightly less than two hundred pages. It’s probably the shortest book on this list but it’s well worth the effort.
Passing Strange: a Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, by Martha A. Sandweiss – Fancypants white geologist Clarence King (one of the most blond-haired, blue-eyed people ever) was able to live a second, secret life with his black wife and their mixed-race children simply by creating a second identity and telling people that he was black. Apparently, that (and some clever scheduling) was all it took. Rather heavy on details from King’s point of view, as his wife (Ada Copeland) wasn’t in a position to leave a mark on history, to put it gently.
In the Kingdom of Ice: the Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the U.S.S. Jeannette, by Hampton Sides – Any book that has people freezing to death in it is all right by me. This super fun book relates the chilly seafaring tale of an arctic expedition funded by eccentric (like, pees-in-your-piano eccentric) publishing tycoon Gordon Bennet. Things start out well – they spend lots and lots of money on supplies and a ship, pick up a whole mess of sled dogs (and give them amusing names), and head north. But then their newfangled Edison arc lights don’t work, the ship is crushed by the arctic ice pack, someone has a raging syphilis infection, people are forced to eat their pants, and it’s all downhill from there.
Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership that Transformed America, by Les Standiford – More local heroes. I’m gonna be honest here and tell you that I read this one a while ago, and I can’t remember any particularly fun anecdotes other than maybe “Alexander Berkman is a lousy assassin.” But there’s a really good overview of the Homestead Strike, for those of you who (like me) zoned out for this particular chapter in our local history. Gunfights on barges would liven up any history lesson, right?
The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age, by Janet Wallach – Hetty Green was the daughter of a New England Quaker family, the original People Who Don’t Take Anyone’s Crap. And Hetty spent the rest of her life refusing to take anyone’s crap – and amassed a spectacular fortune in the process. Just read it.
A Disposition to Be Rich: How a Small-Town Pastor’s Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash, and Made Himself the Best-Hated Man in the United States, by Geoffrey C. Ward – Ferdinand Ward was, by all accounts, a smooth operator and a complete jerk – but to be fair, his parents were pretty jerky, too. Things start out slowly, as there’s a lot of religious and family history to wade through, but it really picks up when our little Ferd moves to the big city. This account was penned by his great-grandson, most widely known for his work on the PBS documentary series The Civil War (and apparently not a jerk).
These last few books are not quite Gilded Age; they’re early 1900s. But they’re pretty darn close, they have a lot of Gilded Age influences, and they’re super fun (“super fun” being a relative term).
Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul, by Karen Abbott – A romp through the seamier side of Chicago that focuses on the high-class Everleigh club and the sisters who ran it. You’ll learn the origin of that “drinking champagne from a shoe” thing and some inappropriate things to do with gold coins. This book ties in nicely with The Devil in the White City and is nearly as awesome, though not nearly as murdery.
Empty Mansions: the Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, by Bill Dedman – Huguette Clark, the daughter of a wealthy senator, lived in her own little world and never wanted things to change. It’s the story of a lonely woman who was never really independent, who never learned the value of a dollar, and who was severely taken advantage of by her caretakers before her death. Part sentimental, part pathetic, and entirely fascinating (if you need more convincing, Eric wrote an excellent post about this book last year).
American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl, and the Crime of the Century, by Paula Uruburu – Another one with a local connection! Somewhat batty Harry Kendall Thaw, son of a Pittsburgh coal baron, marries turn-of-the-century hottie Evelyn Nesbit. He learns of her past affair with fancypants architect (and somewhat pervy) Stanford White, and shoots him in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Trials and scandals and secrets and madness abound.
– Amy, who didn’t have access to interesting nonfiction when she was in high school