I recently read a blog post by one of my favorite bloggers Kitty Calash in which she mentioned a conversation discussing if the rich folks living Providence, RI in the late 18th Century could afford curtains. I won’t wade in to that conversation, but it brought up a discussion I had last year with a roleplayer that I was training about the vagaries of defining a historical person as "rich". I had to explain that although the Goodwins might have been a little rich they really were not super rich. Today we can talk about the super-rich, the 1%, those that drive a Lexus versus a Toyota, versus a Honda, versus a Lamborghini. When we have conversations about those living a long time ago, subtleties like exactly how rich someone is can be lost.
Here on the grounds of Strawbery Banke we have a house we call the Governor’s Mansion. It is actually a very modest house. The family that lived there had five kids, two of which lived in the house as adults. So in the year 1870 there were three generations in the house: Mr. and Mrs. Goodwin, two grown daughters, at least two grandchildren (maybe three), plus four servants. By my count there are 4 small bedrooms on the second floor; the servants and children would be stuck in the third floor attic space. On days when everyone was home it would have been a very crowded house! So that means they must not have been very rich.
And yet … They took vacations and expensive train trips every summer. Mr. Goodwin’s investments did well enough that he could fund a campaign for Governor, and had enough clout to get all his banking friends to fund the first New Hampshire troops sent off to fight the Civil War. The females got their wardrobes from the dress makers in Boston and New York. They had four servants. So they were rich.
But of those servants, only one was male, and he was the coachman. They did not have a butler. Their servants were all younger (the oldest being 25) and mostly immigrants, so they were not the expensive class of servants. Mr. Goodwin did not own hotels, plantations, or factories (other folks in town did,) but he did own shares in railroads and bridges. So not that rich.
I ended up explaining it to my trainee this way: if the Goodwins lived today, they could not afford their own private jet, but would fly first class. Yes they had money, but they were not part of the 1%. See there were gradations back then too.
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