writing

Lights and Shadows of New York City

In writing Róisín Campbell, I came upon—I don’t know how—a PDF version of the book The Lights and Shadows in New York City by James D. McCabe, Jr. It was published in 1872. I have taken a copy from Project Gutenberg and converted it into both paperback and hardcover versions on Amazon.

It proved invaluable in providing details of life in the City at the time. In particular, there is a chapter on women’s clothing that was the basis for a major theme of my novel. In the book, McCabe quotes an unidentified person: “It is almost impossible to estimate the number of dresses a very fashionable woman will have. Most women in society can afford to dress as it pleases them, since they have unlimited amounts of money at their disposal. Among females dress is the principal part of society. What would Madam Mountain be without her laces and diamonds, or Madam Blanche without her silks and satins? Simply commonplace old women, past their prime, destined to be wall-flowers. A fashionable woman has just as many new dresses as the different times she goes into society. The élite do not wear the same dresses twice. If you can tell us how many receptions she has in a year, how many weddings she attends, how many balls she participates in, how many dinners she gives, how many parties she goes to, how many operas and theatres she patronizes, we can approximate somewhat to the size and cost of her wardrobe.”

He proceeds to list over six pages the inventory of one woman’s wardrobe that was filed in court when an insurance company balked at paying a claim that that wardrobe was worth $21,000. He notes, further, that the needs of fashion often outran the family’s resources, resulting in “ruin”:

If they have not wealth they will affect to have it. They could not counterfeit good birth, or high breeding, but they can assume the appearance of being wealthy. They can conduct themselves, for a while at least, in a manner utterly disproportioned to their means, and so they go on, until their funds and credit being exhausted, they are forced to drop out of the circles in which they have moved, and the so-called friends who valued them only for their supposed wealth, instantly forget that they ever knew them. No more invitations are left for them, they are not even tolerated in “good society,” and are “cut” on the street as a matter of course.

Not a year passes but records the failure of some prominent business man in New York. His friends are sorry for him, and admit that he was prudent and industrious in his business. “His family did it,” they tell you, shaking their heads. “They lived too fast. Took too much money to run the house, to dress, and to keep up in society.” Only the All Seeing Eye can tell how many men who stand well in the mercantile community are tortured continually by the thought that their extravagance or that of their families is bringing them to sure and certain ruin; for not even in New York can a man live beyond his actual means. They have not the moral courage to live within their legitimate incomes. To do so would be to lose their positions in society, and they go on straining every nerve to meet the demands upon them, and then the crash comes, and they are ruined.

This was the Genesis of that portion of the novel that dealt with the financial reversals for one of the families:

“I was such a fool,” he said to his youngest daughter. “Thank God McNabb took Mary on. By then, it was too late. I couldn’t afford how we were living. Mary’s clothing alone began to eat into my capital. You were the sensible one.”

“But what of my year abroad?”

“That was costly, true. But I did not have to pay for all the gowns even you would need in New York. No. You were the sensible one. Mary was not. And I wasn’t. Or the boys. Only your mother. Bless her. I would not have gotten as far as I have, pitiful as that may be, without her support. I do not deserve her.”

He took another gulp. “She is ‘magnificent,’ as someone once called the house. I do not tell her often enough.”

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