From Overalls and Shovels to Fedoras and Cuban Cigars: The Gilded Age Inspiration for Salisbury House

There were three distinct aristocracies in Washington. One of these, (nick-named the Antiques,) consisted of cultivated, high-bred old families who looked back with pride upon an ancestry that had been always great in the nation’s councils and its wars from the birth of the republic downward. Into this select circle it was difficult to gain admission. No. 2 was the aristocracy of the middle ground . . . No. 3 lay beyond; of it we will say a word here. We will call it the Aristocracy of the Parvenus—as, indeed, the general public did. Official position, no matter how obtained, entitled a man to a place in it, and carried his family with him, no matter whence they sprang. Great wealth gave a man a still higher and nobler place in it than did official position. If this wealth had been acquired by conspicuous ingenuity, with just a pleasant little spice of illegality about it, all the better. This aristocracy was “fast,” and not averse to ostentation.

The aristocracy of the Antiques ignored the aristocracy of the Parvenus; the Parvenus laughed at the Antiques, (and secretly envied them.)

-From Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today

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Carl and Edith Weeks, c. 1930

Before Armand – before Salisbury House – few would have assumed Carl Weeks to be any more extraordinary than any other Midwestern businessman of his era. In fact, when roaming the halls of Salisbury House, one tends to forget his humble and, at times, impoverished origins. Born the fourth child of a hog farmer and his wife on a farm near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1876, Carl’s prospects were quite modest. When his father’s swine herd was wiped out by cholera around 1880, the Weekses were forced into selling their farm. They set off for Kansas in search of a new start. His father, however, still had trouble finding work and was often away from home. Carl helped out by picking up bison chips for use as fuel in their little sod house and once recalled how his mother had had to trade one of their bedsteads for a bag of flour. Eventually, his mother’s brothers, Lowell and Davis Chamberlain, brought them back to Iowa and settled them in Des Moines. Carl left public schooling at the age of 13 and it was only with his uncles’ financial assistance that he was able to attend Highland Park College of Pharmacy to obtain his pharmacist certification in 1892.

Little of Carl’s early life foreshadows the great success he would eventually achieve when he established what would become an international cosmetics empire in 1915. But he was born into an unusual era. One where American society had one foot planted deep in the agrarian soils of its hard-working, ancestral pioneers just as it was stepping into a quickly industrializing, burgeoning urban culture obsessed with leisure, pleasure and wealth. It was an era as rampant with corruption and materialism as it was entrepreneurial optimism where every man had the potential to become the next Carnegie or Rockefeller. This time period, known as the Gilded Age and sometimes referred to as the American Renaissance, spanned the years following the Civil War to the early 1900s with some historians extending it as far as the stock market crash of 1929. The term was lifted from Mark Twain’s 1873 satirical novel, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, that depicts the greed and corruption endemic in American politics and society in the late 1860s and early 1870s. This era, however, also laid the foundations of our modern, secular culture and shaped the minds of many Americans, including Carl Weeks.

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Cover of Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, 1873.

After the Civil War, industrialization and mechanization increased at a rapid rate in the United States. It centralized the economy in urban centers and concentrated wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer men. Immigrants and formerly-rural Americans descended upon the cities in search of new opportunities. Mass-produced goods, department stores and mail order catalogues brought the modern idea of shopping to the masses. The extension of the railroads connected the East and West coasts of the United States and new refrigerated boxcars allowed for fresh produce out of season, exotic fruits, Midwestern-raised beef, and beer to be transported to retailers all across the nation. Telephones and transatlantic cables knitted the world closer together through faster methods of communication. Amusement parks, dance halls, theaters, libraries and opera houses flourished, providing entertainment, education, and, at times, opportunities for vice to the burgeoning urban population.

Entrepreneurs were the driving force behind this explosion of modernity. A lucky few, however, through hard work, shrewd business decisions, and more than a little back-room subterfuge, succeeded in building business empires that reached far beyond their own little corners of the world. Many of these men, such as Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D. Rockefeller, arose from humble means to become industrial tycoons with massive fortunes. They were household names and served as role models for the businessmen of Carl’s generation. Several biographies of these infamous American entrepreneurs grace the shelves of the Library at Salisbury House and probably had a great impact on Carl as he made his way in the business world.

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The Rouge Room at the Armand Factory in Des Moines, Iowa, c. 1920.

Though these nouveau riche Americans of the Gilded Age had the world at their fingertips and, at times, groveling on its knees before them, there was one thing money could not buy: pedigree. For much of recorded human history, wealth was concentrated in land and passed down through strict and often complicated inheritance laws and customs formulated to keep everything within one family line. But the world had been turned upside down by the Industrial Revolution. With advances in manufacturing technology in the late 18th century, hand production methods of textiles and other goods fell by the wayside as factories sprung up in urban centers and produced goods more cheaply and efficiently than ever before. People, once tied to the land and rarely traveling more than 50 miles from their places of birth, descended upon the cities in search of work. The European aristocracy and the “old money” families of the United States, whose income traditionally depended upon the productivity of the people who lived on their lands, saw their economic power shrink as an ever greater share of the world’s wealth flowed into the hands of the savvy factory owners and businessmen of the middle class.

Two things the European aristocracy and American “old money” retained, however, was their social position and status as the arbiters of good taste. An air of self-consciousness pervaded the newly wealthy and powerful as they sought to emulate the nobility in a subconscious effort to prove both to themselves and their “social betters” that they were worthy of their newfound elite status. Instead of seeking new forms of architecture, they copied styles long used by the European aristocracy. At first, Classical styles were mimicked as wealthy Americans embraced the notion of the United States as heir to the cultural traditions of ancient Greece and Rome and the European Renaissance. Later, especially during the time of the Weekses’ rise in wealth, many embraced the picturesque nature of the rambling, built-through-the-centuries styling of the houses of the medieval and Tudor nobility of England. Salisbury House, however, is unique in that it incorporates both stylistic influences in its interior furnishings.

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Classical and Renaissance style detailing: grille above Welte-Mignon Organ in the Common Room

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Classical and Renaissance style detailing: chandelier detail in the Dining Room. Both the Common Room and Dining Room are overall Elizabethan or late Tudor style in the architectural details and most furnishings but also include Neoclassical touches such as these.

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Tudor style detailing of 16th century fireplace surround in the Great Hall featuring a Tudor rose flanked by quatrefoils.

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Tudor style, 16th century carved door detail in the hallway outside the master suites featuring linenfold, which was a common type of carving to decorate plain panels in Europe between the 14th and 16th centuries.

In a time where what you owned was an unspoken announcement of who you were as an individual, collecting art and antiques from around the world became an obsession for the nouveau riche who wanted nothing more than to appear sophisticated, worldly, educated and powerful. The Weekses were no different. Much like J.P. Morgan, who had spent a whopping $60 million on art and rare books in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Rockefeller family who splurged on artwork from around the world, Carl and Edith sought after all of the trappings of the leisured class. Carl was an avid bibliophile and Edith’s bachelor’s degree in Art History provided her with a discerning eye for both fine art and period-specific furnishings.

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Late 18th century alabaster urns with Classical style detailing in the Great Hall.

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Elizabethan style carving on Carl’s c. 1600 bed.

The economic devastation in Europe after World War I led to easy pickings for the Weekses and other wealthy Americans who snatched up whatever Europeans wanted to sell, including antiques, art, and architectural detailing. Though they did not spend anywhere close to what Morgan had, Carl and Edith did spend nearly $3 million to build and furnish their house. In today’s money, that would equal about $40 million.

Patronage of artists skyrocketed in the United States during the Gilded Age as well, continuing a centuries-old European tradition where artists relied on wealthy patrons for work and financial support. Artists were sought after as companions as well as for their ability to beautify the homes of the wealthy and public spaces. Rather than pushing the social envelope as many artists do today, the artists of this era reinforced the new status quo and soothed the egos of wealthy Americans through their attention and commissioned works. Architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson once said of Gilded Age artists that their social function was to “provide a setting of leisured elegance bearing the patina of class and taste for people who were frequently one generation removed from overalls and shovel.”

Like their Gilded Age predecessors, the Weekses too befriended artists and even commissioned Joseph Stella to create one work specifically for Salisbury House. This commissioned piece, Apotheosis of the Rose, still hangs in the Breakfast Room today.

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Apotheosis of the Rose by Joseph Stella, 1926. Oil on canvas.

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The Birth of Venus by Joseph Stella, 1925. Oil on canvas. Hangs in the Great Hall at Salisbury House.

Finally assembled at home in Iowa, the Weekses’ collections lent an air of aristocratic pedigree to their new home meant to look centuries old the day it was built. Like the entrepreneurs of the Gilded Age and the European nobility, Carl’s house and collections were a signal to the world that he had arrived and was a force to be reckoned with. A man born to a hog breeder and who had picked up bison chips on the Kansas prairie was now a social and business leader who was well-traveled, well-connected, and a man of noble bearing.

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Salisbury House in early spring.

The Gilded Age gave birth to Salisbury House. The ideals of the era – wealth, consumption, pleasure and leisure – reside throughout its history, collections and architecture. Carl Weeks was born into this era and persevered until he could finally emulate those whose names were on the tongues of every American entrepreneur – Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller. The result was Salisbury House: a grand mansion distinctly English in flavor and filled with treasures that reveal how Carl and others of his ilk wished to be seen – worldly, aristocratic, powerful. It represents one final expression of a bygone era in which America itself came of age.

 

About Laura Sadowsky
Grants Manager & Collections Conservation Coordinator at Salisbury House

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