Philadelphia society, robber barons, & social services

The City of Brotherly Love was one of the most snobbish in the country.  Yet, the city’s old families were not foolish enough to turn their backs on the new wealth that was being created by the Pennsylvania Railroad and the nearby coalfields.  Instead, an informal deal was struck with the corporate parvenues:  they could enter “society” so long as they were willing to shoulder their social obligations.  This transformation of red-blooded capitalists into proper Philadelphians involved buying a house in Rittenhouse Square, playing golf at the Merion Cricket Club, perhaps even fox-hunting at the Whitemarsh Valley Hunt Club, and certainly handing their daughters (and their dowries) to the sons of the more gentrified families.  Above all, it involved civic involvement—organizing charities, serving on the boards of the symphony, the art museum, and the University of Pennsylvania.  Charles Curtis Harrison, one of the city’s great businessmen, became president of the University of Pennsylvania.  Wharton Business School was set up by Joseph Wharton, founder of the Bethlehem Iron Company.

This concentration of power was hardly democratic.  Philadelphia’s elite thought nothing of deciding the fate of the city in their oak-paneled clubs.  Yet,  by co-opting big business into the city’s future, the old elite plainly brought much good to their city.  And it was repeated across the entire country.  The wealth that the new companies of the 1880s and 1890s generated was not just wasted competing to get invited to Mrs. Astor’s parties or forcing robber barons into the Social Register (first issued in 1888), though both these things certainly happened.  It also helped to establish social services where none existed.  It built museums and art galleries in a country that was prone to philistinism.  And it bound the classes together in a society where the income gap was widening.

—from The Company (Micklethwait & Wooldridge) p.76-77

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