Monday, March 21, 2011

The people who owned New York

Monday, March 21, 2011
Loretta reports:

Looking for a little background to clarify some plot elements of Downton Abbey, I happened on the 1912 edition of McClure’s Magazine.  Burton J. Hendrick’s piece, “Permanent Owners of New York,” offered plenty of food for thought, starting with the photo of Vincent Astor.

The wealth of these U.S. families was phenomenal—a circumstance extremely helpful to British aristocrats obliged to sell their treasures—or themselves, as spouses— in order to repair, say, the ancestral roof.

The entire piece is well worth reading, for insights into how these fortunes were built, as well as some glimpses of the people themselves & their quirks.  Since the piece is far too long to reproduce here, we'll settle for Mr. Astor and John G. Wendel, whose photos and captions I particularly liked.

“The old Knickerbocker families of New York are to-day, precisely as were their predecessors in the early part of the nineteenth century, the owners of New York.  They invested their fortunes, not in railroads or in shipping or in manufactures, but in America’s most productive source of wealth—the soil of Manhattan Island.  They are the city’s landed aristocracy; they represent essentially the only American fortunes that endure from generation to generation; that maintain their own in the face of changing economic circumstances; and that steadily and surely increase from year to year."
"There is John D. Wendel, for example, a brother-in-law of the first John Jacob Astor, who made a fortune as a commission dealer in deerskins, and who invested it so thoughtfully in New York real estate that his grandson owns from $30,000,000 to $40,000,000 worth to-day."

McClure's magazine, Volume 39, 1912


Anonymous said...

Fascinating link. Thanks for sharing. Tells so much that most great European fortunes are based on land and royal favor, but American ones were founded on industry, ingenuity and luck.

Richard Foster said...

I envision 'Mr. Astor' and every other robber-baron with bushy white beards and brows. This one's a proper young whipper-snapper, isn't he?

LorettaChase said...

Anonymous, I think that many people don't realize how different the two worlds were/are. Sometimes it seems they're from different planets. Richard Foster, I was trying to guess his age from the photo. What's your guess? He looked about 18 to me.

Dana Shoulders said...

You know I had to go look :). Vincent Astor was 20 and a student at Harvard when he inherited $200 million when his father went down with the titanic. The info I found said his dad was a "slumlord" and that Vincent had a "highly developed social conscience". Evidently this resulted in a philanthropic bent once he was in charge and he sold off the slum housing over time.

Sylvan Lady said...

Wikipedia says Vincent Astor was born in 1891 which means he was 21 when his father died so tragically in 1912. Maybe this picture was earlier? He does look younger than 21.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Appropos of all this Titanic talk - apparently Julian Fellowes, the writer behind "Downton Abbey", is working on a new mini-series for ABC. Bet Jacob Astor will be in it (or is that on it?)

Anonymous said...

Vincent Astor certainly doesn't look like a dashing young hero. Actually, he looks as if he has adenoids. But I suppose with $200,000 it didn't matter.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of the fascinating story of Huguette Clark, the still living (at 104) daughter of William A. Clark, a robber baron and copper magnate, contemporary of the Astors.

Just read this story:

Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket