Tag Archives: History

The Gilded Age: In My Period Drama Era

cover image for HBO's the gilded age

Lately the only thing I’ve been wanting to watch during my downtime is period dramas. Something about the coziness of low-stakes drama fits with the coziness of the holiday season. I burned through Hotel Portofino on PBS Masterpiece; I dipped my toe into Apple TV’s (largely silly and CW-like) adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers. But the one that has really captured my attention is HBO’s The Gilded Age, whose second season is now airing.  

Created by the same guy that did Downton Abbey, The Gilded Age follows a similar upstairs-downstairs approach but moves the focus across the pond to 1880s New York. The drama follows Old New York society—big money, bigger dresses—as they are infiltrated by the audacious new money Russell family (based on the real-life Vanderbilts). Mrs. Russell is a scheming queen whose only goal is to secure a spot at the coveted Academy of Music opera house (and to marry her daughter off to the richest, most impressive man she can find). Mr. Russell is a robber baron, a ruthless railroad tycoon who will extort anyone and everyone in order to support his wife’s ambitions. Truly, they are the power couple to end all power couples. The drama, in comparison to other shows, is very low stakes and ridiculous (one of the climaxes concerns a character walking dramatically across the street), which is appropriate for a show whose namesake, coined by satirist Mark Twain, denotes a “period of gross materialism and blatant political corruption.” Edith Wharton’s famous Gilded Age-era novel The Age of Innocence is full of contempt for the Old New York families and their highly rigid, Anglophilic society (“gilded”, of course, refers to the thin sheet of gold that hides less glamorous material). Still, it makes for engrossing television! 

The show’s second season delves into more serious subject matter by tackling the plight of railway workers and their long fight towards unionization. After years of being subjected to horrendous (and dangerous) working conditions, the railway men take up the chant “Eight! Eight! Eight!” as they demand an eight-hour workday, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours of recreational time. It’s fascinating to watch the structure of our own modern lives be wrestled into shape by the hands of these working class men—a structure that has somewhat broken down in our technological age (how many of us take work home, or stay in the office past the allotted eight hours?), but one that we have been lucky to benefit from. (Jenny Odell’s insightful How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy discusses the formation of 19th century unions as an early form of protection against soul (and body) crushing capitalism). These workers placed themselves in the literal line of fire to advocate for change.  

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Way Back When: Discovering 1923 in 2023

Well, it’s 2023, which feels like a strange and unwieldy number for a year to be after the neat symmetry of 2022. I thought for today’s post it would be interesting to look at different events that occurred exactly 100 years ago, and feature various books, movies, and resources for you to explore corresponding to those events. For one thing, ‘those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’, and for another…this makes learning history fun! (For me, at the very least, but hopefully for you too). Without further ado, let’s jump right in.

cover of Red Star Over Russie by David King

January | The USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) aka the Soviet Union is established after a period of revolution. Red Star Over Russia by David King has a self-explanatory subtitle; it’s a Visual History of the Soviet Union From the Revolution to the Death of Stalin: Posters, Photographs and Graphics From the David King Collection. I’m a visual learner myself, and this graphic book is eye-catching and eye-opening, and reminds readers of the intersection of art and politics as a revolutionary incentive, as propaganda, and as an art movement in and of itself.

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Food of the Gods

Chocolate by Kay Frydenborg

In 1947, children across Canada went on a chocolate bar strike to protest the 60% overnight rise of the price of candy bars from 5 cents to 8 cents, which, kudos to them for banding together and trying to affect change*, but it does make you wonder: how does pushing down the price of a commodity such as chocolate work out for everyone along the supply chain? If it’s anything like coffee, I’m going to hazard a guess that the answer is: not well.

For all that chocolate is ubiquitous and beloved**, to the point that children back in ’47 expected it not to be a luxury good but an affordable treat that should be readily available and affordable, what it comes from, where it comes from, how it’s processed – all of this and more are fairly removed from the final product. I don’t think I knew until very recently that anything other than the cacao seeds were edible from the pod, that the stuff encasing the cacao seeds isn’t a useless byproduct but a refreshing treat in its own right (and possibly the reason that the cacao fruit was picked up by people in the first place, since the seeds are bitter and wouldn’t have been immediately appealing, in theory). And if you were to ask me where cacao was grown, I’d probably have known to say Ghana, but not Côte d’Ivoire, nor immediately think of South America despite that being the provenance of chocolate (Ecuador and Brazil being the big contributors as far as cacao farming goes; I think the idea that we have the Mayans or the Aztecs to thank for chocolate is fairly widespread^*), though I’d probably have said India (thanks only to this spice company). If you’re thinking that maybe I just know a bit less than the average person about chocolate (or geography, or history), that’s probably fair – my knowledge of geography and history in general is abysmal – but which of the following would you wager is more strongly associated with chocolate? Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, Brazil and Ecuador, or Belgium and Switzerland (as in Belgian and Swiss chocolate)?

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