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Extravagance by Amelia Edith Huddleston Barr

From, Maids Wives and Bachelors

The Anglo-Saxon race is inherently extravagant. The lord and leader of the civilized world, it clothes itself in purple and fine linen, and lives sumptuously every day, as a prerogative of its supremacy.

This trait is a very early one, and the barbaric extravagance of “The Field of the Cloth of Gold” only typified that passion of the race for splendid apparel and accessories which in our day has reached a point of general and prodigal pomp and ostentation.

No other highly civilized nations have this taste for personal parade and luxurious living to the same extent. The French, who enjoy a reputation for all that is pretty and elegant, are really parsimonious, and it is as natural for a Frenchman to hoard his money as it is for a dog to bury his bone, while a Dutchman or a German can grow rich on a salary which keeps an American always scrambling on the verge of bankruptcy.

Some time ago Lord Derby said: “Englishmen are the most extravagant race in the world, or, at least, only surpassed by the Americans.” And the “surpassing” in this direction is so evident to any one familiar with the two countries that it requires no demonstration,—an American household, even in the middle classes, being a model school for throwing away the most money for the least possible returns.

American women have a reputation for lavish expenditure that is world-wide, but they are not more extravagant than American men. If one spends money on beautiful toilets and splendidly dreary entertainments, the other flings it away on the turf, on cards or billiards, or in masculine prodigalities still more objectionable. In most fashionable houses the husband and wife are equally extravagant, and the candle blazes away at both ends.

To foreigners, the most noticeable extravagance of Americans is in the matter of flowers. Winter or summer, women of very modest means must have flowers for their girdle. They will pay fifty cents for a rose or two when half-dollars are by no means plentiful, and it is such a pretty womanly taste that no man has the heart to grumble at it; only, if the women themselves would add up the amount of money spent in this transitory luxury, say during three months, they would be astonished at their own thoughtlessness.

For of all pleasures flower-buying is the most evanescent; before the day is over the fading buds are cast into the refuse cart, and the money might just as well have been cast into the street.

As for the amount spent in floral displays at weddings, funerals, theatres, balls, and dinners, it must be presumed that people who thus waste hundreds of dollars on articles that are useless in a few hours have the hundreds of dollars to throw away, and that they enjoy the pastime of making floral ducks and drakes with their money. But if they do not enjoy it, then why do they not imitate the economy of Beau Brummel, who, when compelled by his debts to make some sacrifice of luxuries, resolved to begin retrenchment by curtailing the rose water for his bath?

Large floral outlays are just as fantastic an extravagance, for though flowers in moderation are beautiful, in excess they are vulgar, and even disagreeable. The Greeks, who made no mistakes about beauty and fitness, contented themselves with a garland and a rose for their wine cup. They would never have danced and feasted and wedded themselves in a charnel-house of dying flowers.

Our dressing and dining is done on the same immense scale. Lucullus might preside at our feasts, and queens envy the jewels and costumes of our women. Perhaps the size of the country and its transcendent possibilities in every direction instinctively incite those who have the means to lavishness of outlay. People who live under bright high skies, and whose horizons are wide and far-reaching, imbibe a largeness of expression which is not satisfied with mere words; and if we look at our extravagance in this way, we may regard it as a national trait, developed from our natural position and advantages.

Of course, it is easy to say that Americans are lavish because, as Dr. Watts puts it, “it is their nature to” be, but the real reason for the overgrown luxury of the last two or three decades is to be found in the rapid increase of the vulgar rich, the very last class worthy of our imitation. Are not the absurd blunders of the poor man who strikes oil a common subject for witticisms and stories?

Profuse display will probably be the only social grace the newly rich can dispense. So, then, if wealth increases more rapidly than culture, it is sure, in the very nature of things, to be squandered ostentatiously; for the men whose minds are in a stunted state, being fit for nothing else, will throw their money away on cards or horses or any other fashionable form of dissipation; and the women in the same mental incompleteness, knowing nothing but how to dress and dance, when they have wealth thrust upon them will be able to find no better use for it than to dress and dance all the more conspicuously.

This senseless love of display, once inaugurated in a city set or in a small town, is apt to take the lead: first, because all the snobs will cater to it; second, because sensible people know that they cannot start a reform movement without making themselves unpopular, and going to a great deal of trouble and expense.

For, however extravagant the machinery of society is, it has the enormous advantage of being there, and few people can afford to live against it. For to do as every one else does, and to go with the stream, is much easier than to set good examples that no one wants to follow. Indeed it takes a tremendous exercise of pluck, thought, trouble, time, and energy to reduce an establishment that has been an extravagant one to a more economical footing.

The justification of private extravagant expenditure is found in the necessity of a class who will have leisure to encourage the intellectual tastes and ambitions of the nation. And this end might be accomplished if only matters could be so arranged that a shower of gold should descend on the right people in the right place at the right time.

But wealth is no more to the worthy than the race is to the strong, and so it often finds outlets for dispersion for which there is no justification, and whose sole object is that sensual life pictured in “Lothair,”—fine houses, great retinues, costly clothing, clubs, yachts, conservatories, etc., etc.,—in fact, an existence without a crumpled rose-leaf, that would make a man a mixture of the sybarite and satyr. Such specimens of humanity may occasionally be found in America, but they are not yet a distinct class, nor are they likely to become one in our pushing, up-and-down, constantly changing society. Indeed, amid the earnest strivings, the intellectual aspirings and the mechanical wonders of steam and electricity which environ us, a semi-monster of the Lothair type would be as incongruous as a faun on the Avenue or a Pagan temple on mid-Broadway.

If we would only take the trouble to examine the facts before our eyes we have constantly in our university towns the proof that high culture and moderation in dress and living go together. Take Cambridge, Mass., for instance; its very best society is singularly unostentatious, and the wives and daughters of its educated dignitaries entertain without extravagance, and look for respect and admiration from some loftier standpoint than their dress trimmings.


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