What to Do with All That Money: Gilded Age Philanthropy
Even casual students of the Gilded Age are aware that the period 1865-1913 in the US was one of tremendous industrial and territorial growth where a small number of individuals amassed unimaginable fortunes. The term Gilded Age was coined by Mark Twain and his co-author, Charles Dudley, in their 1873 novel, The Gilded Age: a Tale of Today. It was an era of great contrast between extreme wealth and abject poverty. Having a job in no way prevented the working poor from living and laboring in the most appalling conditions. While their employers dined on lobster and steak at Delmonico’s and danced the night away in the balls room of mansions, men, women, and children as young as five or six labored 12 hours a day, six days per week in dangerous conditions for barely life sustaining wages. At the highest echelons of society, Astors, Roosevelts, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, Rockefellers, and similarly situated folks floated above the rest of the world on a golden sea made possible in part by the political corruption and unregulated business practices of the era. It would be easy to accuse the robber barons and their families of being completely without conscience or heart. For some, this would be a fair assessment, but not for all.
In my agrarian home county in the state of Georgia, we would not have had a public library had it not been for the grant given the small county seat by Andrew Carnegie. Between 1883 and 1929, Carnegie grants built more than 2,509 public libraries worldwide. Of the 1,795 in the US, 1,687 were public and 108 were academic/university libraries. Andrew Carnegie is universally recognized as the “patron saint” of libraries, an accolade he richly deserved.
While Cornelius Vanderbilt and Andrew Carnegie founded universities, Vanderbilt in Nashville, TN and Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh, PA respectively, robber barons were not the only ones who used their fortunes to benefit society. Some of their wives collectively set the gold standard for Gilded Age philanthropy. My next few posts will examine the contributions these women of privilege made.
Andrew Carnegie, Gilded Age robber baron, steel magnate, and philanthropist, lived his entire life under the influence of two women: his mother, Margaret and his wife, Louise. Margaret lived with her son, and her influence was such that Andrew remained a bachelor throughout her lifetime. No woman was good enough for her boy, not even the very respectable young woman he eventually married. After his mother’s death in 1886, 51 year-old Andrew finally felt free to marry the 23 year-old girl he had been courting and secretly engaged to for some time, Louise Whitney. They wed in 1887.
Louise was born in the Chelsea section of New York on March 7, 1857. Her parents were descended from English ancestors that arrived in the New World in the 1600’s. During her early childhood, the family lived a comfortably modest lifestyle, but as her father’s textile business prospered, he was able to move them to the tonier Gramercy Park where one of Louise’s playmates was Teddy Roosevelt. Mr. Whitney’s fortunes continued to grow and he moved the family to their final home, a brownstone on 48th at 5th Avenue. By Louise’s young adult years, her father was moving in exalted financial circles. He was introduced to Andrew Carnegie by a mutual friend. The two men must have become good friends because Andrew became a fairly frequent guest in the Whitney home where he met the young Louise.
Despite the 23 year difference in their ages, Louise and Andrew found they had a lot in common. Louise had no desire to marry an already successful man, but rather wanted to marry a man she could help to become successful. Andrew declared that he had no intention of hanging onto his fortune. In fact, he hoped to give it all away. Their mutual love of horseback riding meant they spent considerable time together in Central Park where their friendship blossomed into romance. During their courtship, they became engaged then broke off the engagement when Margaret objected. Remaining friends, they corresponded for a year before renewing their engagement, this time in secret. It fairly boggles the mind that this titan of industry with a reputation for deadly ruthlessness in business was so bound to his mother that he let her dominate his personal life, but that was decidedly the case. It would be three years into the secret engagement before Margaret would go to her reward and the couple could wed.
They were married in a quiet ceremony in her father’s home in 1887. Louise signed a prenuptial agreement in which she received stocks and bonds guaranteeing an income of $20,000 per annum (about $350,000 today), and giving her no access to or use of his millions which he had earmarked for charitable donation. Another woman might have balked at such an arrangement, but Louise was Andrew’s greatest supporter and confidant. Of her he said, “I can’t imagine myself without her guardianship. “
After the wedding, the couple boarded SS Fulda for a honeymoon in the UK. They were not the only passengers of note aboard the Fulda. Walter Damrosch, conductor of both the Oratorio Society and the New York Symphony, traveled as well. There is a belief that Louise may have sung alto with the Oratorio Society under Damrosch’s direction. Whatever the case, they were close enough friends that the great conductor felt able to speak to Andrew about his dream of a concert hall that would house both organizations. During these conversations, the seed that would blossom into one of the world’s most famous concert halls was planted. The result was Carnegie Hall.
Andrew’s philosophy of giving was expressed in his essay “The Gospel of Wealth” in which he stated “[the rich have] a moral obligation to distribute [their money] in ways that promote the welfare and happiness of the common man…The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.”  He was a man of his word. During his lifetime, he gave away around $350,000,000 (billions in today’s dollar) and Louise was there by his side as his greatest cheerleader.
Upon Andrew’s death in 1919, Louise continued to be an important and influential board member of The Carnegie Corporation. She continued his charitable work until her own death in 1946.