Social Class Attitudes Prior to FDR

Actually I was too young to be aware of such things personally, but each summer after I stopped working as a camp counselor, I would look for interesting things to do summers. These included everything from construction of houses to writing during my junior year summer for Time Inc. publications. I did short stories of enterprise for Fortune, letters editing for Sports Illustrated, a week with Time, etc. The boredom of churning out articles at which I was pretty good, turned me off journalism as a career — too many of my colleagues were also bored to death with half finished novels in their bottom drawers.

The one experience, however, that turned out to be a shocker was working as driver and assistant to a retired Yale academic who promised to work with me on Shakespear. I took along a good supply of books to read, too. To my chagrin, however I discovered that this ‘teacher’ was way over the hill. His notion of my studying Shakespear was for me to go through the texts to collect specific words used by Shakespear — never specified by him. So ended that summer tutorial.

What was particularly interesting was that he was married without children and he and his wife treated their Irish cook/house manager and me as less than human beings — some echo of the class attitudes of the previous generation. My first day at work I was supposed to clean the walls of their bedroom. Mrs. X arrived wearing white gloves with which she checked my cleaning and scolded me for some dust she discovered. Another day in the middle of a hurricane they sent me off to get their mail which I could not do — the office windows of the post office had blown out and it was closed.

Peggy, their imported Irish helper, was treated less well than their pet dog. She was terribly underpaid and supposed to work 12 hours a day with one half day off on Sunday for which she had nevertheless prepared a cold dinner for the Xs. This particular community consisted of many Yale retirees including a president — all treated their servants as underpaid slaves.

One day Mrs. X’s pet dog grabbed the hand of the wife of the former Yale president and refused to let go. Mrs. X was going to have the dog put away, but I offered to train it and so rescued her beloved ‘baby’. There were some amusing moments. The Xs would have large many course dinners that Peggy would have to prepare. I finally suggested that she deserved a raise which they did give her grudgingly. Peggy hated the scorn with which she was treated. To retaliate, she would spit in the soup just before she brought it in from the kitchen. All the Irish workers hated their employees who treated all of them worse than their pets.

Frankly, I was stunned to see what America had been prior to FDR when we started treating helpers as humans — not animals. Such was what brought on our great Depression — the combination of greed by our ruling classes and their scorn towards the rest of us.

I hope we are not seeing an echo of such stuff once again with our vast gap again between great wealth and the struggle to make it in an expensive world.

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent [blind copies]

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