‘The Gilded Age’ and My Family

I’ve been watching The Gilded Age on HBO+ and this is one in an occasional rambling reflection on things the show brings to mind. Not a review – maybe, one day – just thoughts.

There are two stories in my family that reflect the multiple dimensions of The Gilded Age.

In 1862, William McClelland Ritter was born in Hughesville, Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. Lumber country. He grew up working in family saw mills and in 1890, moved to Bluefield West Virginia to establish his own business. In 1901, he incorporated as William M. Ritter Lumber and he was super rich. His company devastated the hard wood growth of Appalachia and other Southern towns. Then he devastated the soft wood growth. He developed new types of saw blades, new types of flooring, bought coal mine operations, etc.

Ritter was married twice, had an adopted son, served several Presidents, lived in a mansion on ‘Millionaire’s Row’ along Massachusetts Avenue in Washington DC. He died in 1952, his company was absorbed into Georgia Pacific, and most people – including me – never heard of him.

Ritter was worth $3.67 million when he died the equivalent of over $38 million in 2022 dollars. After his death, the company was purchasedby Georgia Pacific.

In 1878, Frankie Stickman was born to a a working class immigrant family living in Duquesne Heights. He was one of five children. In 1890 at the age of 12, Frankie reported for his first day of work at Fleming & Hamilton, a tin manufacturing company on Third Avenue near what we know as Downtown Pittsburgh. He was 12. His job was to be a hustler – he would run a ‘truck’ of tinware from the third floor into the elevator which he had to operate himself, take it down to the first floor, cross the street to a warehouse, and then take the truck of tinware up another elevator where it would be packed. Repeat and rinse.

The company claimed Frank gave his age as 15. His brother who also worked for the company said he was 12.

On his first day, Frankie Stickman showed up before 8 AM. By 2 PM, his mutilated body was found at the bottom of the “self-regulated” elevator shaft by his own brother. His body was so disfigured that he was identified by his clothing.

At the time of his death, Frank Stickman hadn’t earned a whole days wages. His family couldn’t afford to bury him, but they had to hurry because of the stench. There was no such thing as workers compensation and no hope of seeking recompense for the corporation’s culpability. His brother who found his mangled body had to return to work a day later because the family needed his wages.

Who could be more different – the self-made millionaire and the child victim of a workplace accident?

William M. Ritter was my 2x great grand uncle. His sister was my 2x great-grandmother on my mother’s side.

Frankie would have been the brother-in-law of my 2x great aunt, had he lived past the age of 12. His brother Herman married Nellie Mason, the sister of my 2x great grandfather. So Frankie are I are not directly related, but we share mutual family members – namely the descendants of Nellie and Herman. Judge William Stickman on the US District Court and his family are those descendants.

There’s something else lurking in my mind about The Gilded Age reference. Obviously the gross distortion in income and the corruption of capitalism is at its most egregious here.

Twain said ” the period was glittering on the surface but corrupt underneath.” 

What Frankie and William had in common was their erasure from the narrative. I had never heard of either of them. I had never heard of Frankie’s would-be sister-in-law or her siblings or anyone of her generation. The outrage over his death generated nothing. Same with William, rich as he was, all I knew was “some uncle” invented things that went to Georgia Pacific so my mother had like 6 shares that generated $1.45 every so often. Her grandfather was President of the company – that money made their upper middle class life possible and no one ever talked about him. I don’t see any reason for mid-century shame so I assume the luster on the coins faded because it was gilded, not gold. The funds created by the environmental decimation soon evaporated, they created no real generational wealth, just climate crisis.

Frankie’s legacy is equally forgotten. His burial marker is hard to find. The outcries for labor and child labor reform went unheeded for decades in Pennsylvania or remained corrupted by corporate influences. His family struggled for generations.

Obviously, Uncle William Ritter had a fantastic life with excess and power and all of that, but then it was gone. How many 12 year olds lost their lives or limbs in his industrial complex? How many struggle with the climate crisis fallout to this day? They aren’t the same types of erasure at all, but it does suggest that our focus on The Gilded Age is still on the wrong things – the glamour, the pretense, the social scheming instead of on the children working in unsafe settings or the unchecked authority of corporate barons to just decide the fate of many without oversight.

It isn’t the shows fault, but it is easy to be deceived over and over again because that glittering corruption is so familiar to America. We want to think things were better before the Gilded Age, even the old money folks who still turned a blind eye to poverty and exerted no control over corporations. We want think things progressed. And they did to some extent, but perhaps what we want most of all is to forget the Frankie’s and the William Ritters and somehow think that enough glitter will actually be gold.

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