As public historians, all of us at the Center for Women’s History are eagerly following Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age. The HBO ensemble series combines some of our favorite topics: women’s and gender history, the history of racial and class inequality, and the history of New York City. While the show airs, our team will contextualize the show’s narrative with tidbits from our own expertise as a diverse group of researchers and with resources from New-York Historical’s collections, previous exhibitions, and prior blog posts. We’ve previously posted about the first two episodes, third and fourth episodes, and our theory about the historical inspiration behind the character Peggy Scott (Denée Benton). This week, we’re dissecting episodes five and six—from the appearance of real-figures Clara Barton and Ward McAllister to the show’s continuing mysteries, including who is to blame for the railway crash and what secrets may yet unfold from Peggy’s past.
*Potential spoilers to follow*
We have to talk about Clara Barton!
Allison Robinson (Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History): There are so many things to talk about, I don’t even know where to start. First and foremost, chronology: The newspaper for which that Peggy is working, the New York Globe, never covered Clara Barton or the founding of the American Red Cross for one simple reason—it hadn’t been founded yet! T. Thomas Fortune and his fellow editors founded the New York Freeman in 1884, but Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross three years earlier in 1881. But it was a convenient way to get Peggy up to Dansville, NY, for the purpose of the plot.
Second, there was a big missed opportunity in Barton’s exchange with Peggy. The real Clara Barton actually advocated for African American rights during and after the Civil War. She tended to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment after the 1883 attack on Fort Wagner and stayed for nine months following the smallpox outbreak among the formerly enslaved people sheltering there. During a speech tour after the war, Barton often discussed her work nursing Black soldiers and freedom seekers. She advocated for increasing resources for the Freedmen's Bureau, testifying to Congress that these newly emancipated citizens needed food, shelter, and access to education. She and Frederick Douglass even knew each other—he became a founding member of the American Red Cross! At a minimum, name dropping Frederick Douglass and his affiliation with the ARC would have been perfect.
I did appreciate that they incorporated Barton’s support of women's suffrage into the show, however! Ada, Agnes, and Marion mentioned her support of the movement over dinner after Marion returned from her trip.
Anna Danziger Halperin (Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History): I appreciated how much they focused on women’s charity work, not only as an end to itself, but as an avenue for women to build social status and mobility. Barton is actively flouting the social “rules” to seek out support from Mrs. Russell—and even using Marian to court Mrs. Chamberlain for her money! I loved how Mrs. Morris scoffed at this in episode six—yes, dear, some things really do come down to money if their explicit purpose is fundraising! I’m so curious as to how this will continue to unfold in the wake of the railway crash. Will the Red Cross provide cover for the PR disaster as the Russells had hoped, even now that it looks like Mr. Russell may be at blame? In other words, will their investment in the Red Cross pay off in the self-interested ways that they imagined?
Speaking of that crash and the ongoing mystery…let’s talk a little railroad history.
Karintha Lowe (Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History): It makes complete sense that the Russells’ “new money” comes from the railroad empire—the First Transcontinental Railroad of the United States was constructed between 1863 and 1869 by Leland Stanford. If that last name sounds familiar, it’s because the railroad made Stanford rich (his critics called him a “robber baron”), and he funneled his profits into Stanford University. He also used his funds to back a very successful political career….perhaps that’s in the cards for Mr. Russell?
Between 1869 and 1889, railroad track mileage more than tripled across the country—with the majority of the early work completed by Chinese migrants. And while historians often think of Chinese laborers as operating in the Western parts of the U.S., public history projects like the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project have revealed that Chinese labor was in fact instrumental to the construction of New York’s very own Long Island Railroad (LIRR).
The Gilded Age opens in 1882, the same year as the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The law severely limited the influx of Chinese immigrants into the United States (and it’s no coincidence that Congress enacted the law after most railroads had been completed!). So while I’m not surprised that the show isn’t addressing this particular dimension of railroad history, I keep thinking about how the Russell family’s wealth originated from the labor of Chinese migrants.
We also got a nice mention of the Panama Canal with Mr. Russell’s plot to lure Archie Baldwin away from Gladys.
AR: This was such a bold move! Bribing your daughter’s suitor to cut ties with her for money. But the Panama Canal project that Mr. Russell recommended doesn’t quite line up on the timeline. The first attempt at construction started in 1879, under Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had led the construction of the Suez Canal in Egypt. Workers faced mosquito-borne disease, like yellow fever and malaria, as well as natural disasters like floods and landslides. Approximately 20,000 died trying to build the canal and de Lesseps’s company went bankrupt in 10 years. J. & W. Seligman—who Mr. Russel refers to as “The Seligman brothers”—did not invest in a new attempt until the early 20th century, two decades after the show’s setting. This attempt was successful, but if Archie invested in 1882, he would have fallen into financial ruin. However, if he worked as a broker for J. & W. Seligman in the 1880s and invested in their Panama Canal project in the early 1900s, he would have become a very rich man indeed.
Speaking of rich men…Nathan Lane’s Ward McCallister made his debut in these episodes, but his scenes—and the preparations for his appearances–also were opportunities for showing how much labor is necessary for creating the opulence he expected.
AR: I was so excited to see Nathan Lane in episode five, I literally clapped when he appeared on screen! I like that the show stayed true to Ward McAllister’s facial hair stylings. And coming from Savannah, Georgia, he would have had that low-country southern accent.
Keren Ben-Horin (Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History): That luncheon scene at the Russells’ was fascinating and the conversations between the butlers about the English-style of setting the table was priceless! I wondered about how accurate this was? What would real-life McAllister would have thought about Bertha Russell if she did not serve in that style?
ADH: There was so much drama and stress about setting the table properly. In general, I appreciated how in each of these two episodes, we had more of a window into the “downstairs” life of our two main houses.
KBH: Creator Julian Fellowes is really so good at giving audiences the feel for how “upstairs” culture contrasts with life “downstairs.” I loved the depictions of less glamorous parts of the city. A few episodes ago, we saw the magic lantern show: another example of how class and race truly played a major role in how differently people experienced the city space. That said, the show scene was an example of the expansion of leisure culture even for working class people in the late 19th century. During the period, parlor games and entertainment were popular for upper and middle class people—like we saw in the Newport scenes in the first episode. People of lesser means, who didn’t have the space or were lodgers or servants in other people’s houses, could venture out and experiment with new forms of leisure in a more public way, including magic shows, strolling in public parks, eating ice cream and candy on the street, and even window shopping!
ADH: Yes, and also on those contrasts between upstairs and downstairs life, I found the tangents about Agnes’s lady’s maid, Armstrong, interesting. In episode five, she uses her day off not to “spoil” herself, as she tells the other downstairs staff, but to visit and take care of her impoverished, ungrateful mother in crowded, unsanitary tenement housing. They even mentioned that her mother’s boarder has to fetch water as part of his rental agreement since the dwelling otherwise had no running water. On one hand, narratively, it seems like this was a throwaway story—there are so many characters between the two households that it’s just too busy—but also, I really like that they’re bringing in nuances like this to help us understand the complicated relationships among the various characters. Mrs. Armstrong is so snooty to Peggy—we see that she thinks she’s superior to her because of race, and Agnes of all people chides her for this in episode six—but also, Peggy’s home life and upbringing is clearly very different. The story seemed more like character development than extraneous machinations—although perhaps more will come from this, given that Armstrong gets back into Agnes’ good graces by reporting that she saw Oscar in cahoots with Mrs. Russell’s maid.
Keren, you must also have thoughts about the fashion in these episodes!
KBH: While sometimes the clothing seems very accurate, other times it’s really off or extremely exaggerated. I have noticed that Marian is often dressed in pale blue which would have been a fashionable color for a woman her age. But in several scenes she was wearing a golden dress with a very bold blue lace insert that just doesn’t seem like something from the period. Not to mention Bertha Russell, whose clothes are becoming more and more exaggerated with each passing episode. I have decided to think of the costume design in the show as a 19th century version of Emily in Paris—in other words, unrealistic but so pleasing to look at!
Valerie Paley (Sue Ann Weinberg Director of the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library): Even if the elaborate, over-the-top designs may be accurate, I find the shimmery lamé-type textile in some of Peggy’s dresses somewhat startling.
KBH: My favorite scene in episode six was when Agnes rushes across the street when she finds out that her butler is serving the Russells and their guests. What a contrast between her dignified demeanor and dress to the dusty unpaved Manhattan street. I loved how the train of her dress dragged on the ground, and I am sure many people in the audience asked themselves how women were able to go out in these clothes and keep them clean. Well, women during that time had a little secret, called the “hem-saver.” It started being used in the 1840s when skirts became increasingly long and dragged on the floor. It was a stiff braid of wool and horsehair that was sewn into the inside of skirts to protect it from dirt and wear, then when it got dirty or torn it was taken out, cleaned, mended and sewn back in.
We still don’t know what Peggy—arguably our favorite character—is doing with Mr. Raikes! What has she been asking the lawyer about? It’s so mysterious!
KBH: I am so curious!
AR: In episode five, she mentions that her parents separated her from a boy named Elias Finn. But Peggy never explicitly talked about what happened in their relationship. Maybe they had a child together and her parents sent her to Philadelphia during her pregnancy? If so, is the child still in Philadelphia? Is Peggy trying to reconnect? Mrs. Scott mentioned to Marian that parents do what they need to to protect their children in this episode. Whatever happened—Peggy is not happy to be back in NYC!
ADH: I wondered whether there is a secret child as well! In that same episode, Peggy mentioned to Marian when she was warning her about kissing Raikes in the hotel hallway—so scandalous!—that she had once been just as “reckless” too. And given that she says that Finn was a “stockboy” in her dad’s pharmacy, her parents must have thought him to be an unsuitable match. Maybe they sent her away just to separate them, or, as you guessed, Allison, maybe to hide a pregnancy?
Marian and Peggy’s relationship is so interesting and fraught, as well. I was really struck by the dialogue around how Marian has never known a woman like Peggy—not just that she’s never been close to a Black woman, but comparing her to Clara Barton as she saw both as examples of “women who make their own path.” How much of Peggy’s path really is her own, given the racial and gender barriers that limit her possibilities, as well as the class expectations of her parents?
KBH: Such a great point. It reminded me of the scene when Marian was rushing into the department store and dragged a reluctant Peggy after her. This was a nice introduction to contemporary viewers of what it meant to be a Black, even “respectable,” woman in public spaces during that time period and how Black and white people experienced it so differently. But it also made me wonder how likely it would be in reality for a young woman such Marian, even if she was from out of town, could have been so ignorant about these racial dynamics.
ADH: I totally agree, and the moment in episode six where they are trying to hail a taxi also served this purpose–Marian is so clueless as to why the carriages won’t stop for Peggy! But here, her naivete must seem somewhat obvious to viewers since this is such a persistent form of racism. Remember when Danny Glover sued that taxi commission? We’ve discussed before how the depiction of late 19th century Black life in NYC is one of the show’s real strengths—especially its portrayal of middle-class life which is so rarely captured in pop culture. It’s interesting to see that they are also drawing attention to this continuity over time.
Stay tuned to Women at the Center for our thoughts on future episodes!
The conversation has been edited and condensed by Anna Danziger Halperin, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History