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In Pursuit of PrivilegeA History of New York City's Upper Class and the Making of a Metropolis$
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Clifton Hood

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780231172165

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231172165.001.0001

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The 1820S And Beyond

(p.79) 3 Wealth
In Pursuit of Privilege

Clifton Hood

Columbia University Press

Between 1820 and 1860, New York City experienced phenomenal economic growth that enlarged and enriched the urban upper class. Rapid growth brought in newcomers like John Jacob Astor, introduced new sources of merit, and put enormous weight on the pursuit of business success and on the accumulation of wealth. Merchants became distinct and self-conscious group who were now on top of the urban status hierarchy. The increased emphasis on wealth and enterprise weakened much of the old opposition to materialism, but anti-materialism did not so much disappear as become reactive to business dominance, with members of the existing upper class reacting to nouveau riches by stressing their own refinement, learning, family history, and so forth. Two key characteristics of the New York City upper class surfaced in this period. One was internal complexity. As the upper class became larger and wealthier, multiple and partially competing ways of belonging to it arose, and by the 1850s it had split into different economic and social factions. The second was a permanent malleability. The dynamic urban economy would cause the upper class to experience recurring social and cultural changes and meant that from now on the relationship that the upper class had with the city and with other social groups would repeatedly shift.

Keywords:   John Jacob Astor, Wealth, Gentlemen, urban growth, elite neighborhoods, servants, militias

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