After the Civil War, American ideals and views shifted greatly as the country moved into an industrial era; big business leaders came out on top and the rest of society worked day in and day out with not even a fraction of such success. This structure of society was reflected in the sport of sailing. At the beginning of the 1870s, sailing was changing from a classic leisure activity to a more competitive sport as it moved from Europe to America.
The same business tycoons who took control of the markets took control of the sailing world as yachting became one of the most expensive activities, far out of reach of the lower and even iddle classes. Part of the appeal of this sport for the business leaders was the inability for the average person to get involved3; every aspect was expensive. The inaccessibility associated a sense of prestige with the sport, so these business moguls immediately got involved, soon surrounding the activity with the image of high-class society.
Sailing also demonstrated the new American ideal of international competition. The country had mainly remained isolationist prior to the 1900s, but this activity came as one of the first international connections; in the 1870s, the US challenged Britain to a race, which would later be called he America’s Cup, initiating competition across the ocean for one of the first times. This reach towards new horizons foreshadowed the political reach that would follow only a few years later with Roosevelt and Wilson.
As sailing shifted from a classic leisure activity to a competitive sport between 1870 and 1920, it mirrored the American ideals of social classes and forthcoming international policies. The transition from a recreational activity towards competition began to display how more free time along with an abundance of money were affecting society. During this period of industrialization, Americans were attracted towards the need to take action.
Rather than relaxing with their free time, the people still wanted to do something with it. In his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, author Thorstein Veblen studies high class society in comparison to that of the lower class. In describing the rise of sports during this time period, he notes, “It is by meeting these two requirements, of ulterior wastefulness and proximate purposefulness, that any given employment holds its place as a traditional and habitual mode of decorous recreation” (Veblen 260).
Americans during this time were prone to moving away rom “ulterior wastefulness” and towards doing something with their lives instead. With sailing, instead of simply drifting around in a boat, they instead wanted to make something out of it. Industrialization came with the desire to act, but it also came with an abundance of money for those in charge. In his article on the Gilded Age, author Ward McAllister explains how due to rapid industrialization, those at the very top of society began to accumulate money, and rapidly accumulated a lot of it (McAllister).
The owners of companies such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt, monopolized their industries, so as market grew, almost all of the money from a single market would be funneled to a single man as well. McAllister also points out that this new exclusive, elite class was sure to display their wealth for all to see through homes, parties, and especially activities. Boats for racing were some of the most expensive items for “play” during this time; J. P. Morgan’s boat, Columbia, was the most expensive boat built at the time, costing $250,000 in 1899, which would be about $7. 7 million in 2015 money (Kingsley 175).
It would not be possible to build such advanced models if it were not for the abundance of money which quickly ccumulated beginning in 1870. Common Americans during this time were almost overwhelmed by the amount of extra time they now had on their hands (Umberger). Regulations on an 8- hour work day along with time off on weekends allowed most of society to find new activities in which to spend their time rather than working long hours all week.
Men who were called the “captains of industry” had even more time on their hands; many claimed to have built themselves up from nothing, so they too now had time to find new leisure activities, often only ones that they could access (instead of the rest of society). Due to this increase” in time, the high class members of society involved in sailing found more time available to dedicate in order to hone the skills of their new professional athletes (instead of amateurs), and also for organizing the races in which they would compete.
Without such time, many would simply continue to cruise leisurely, just going out on their boat when they were available, but more time combined with money and ambition allowed the transformation from an activity to a sport. As soon as sailing presented itself as a luxurious activity, upper class men jumped on the opportunity of such exclusivity; big business ycoons of the time immediately got involved, defining sailing’s role as a sport of high society.
When speaking to a friend who was considering buying a boat much like his own, J. P. Morgan, one of the biggest business icons during the Gilded Age, said, “If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it” (Rossingh). Morgan’s nonchalant response to a friend demonstrates that someone who needs to keep track of their money would ask how much something would cost, but in contrast, men with as much money as business leaders such as Morgan could just spend it as they pleased, and would virtually never run out.
This idea enforces the role of sailing as part of high society, far from the reach of most; only those who have so much money that they don’t even keep track can even consider getting involved in the sport. In a book on the “leisure class” (the upper class) during this time period, author Thorstein Veblen reviews this seemingly carefree life of these rich men, and in depth explains the upper classes’ involvement in sports. Though only specifically citing “yachting” on a few occasions, he describes how “… the canons of decorum will commend sports to him as expressions of a pecuniarily blameless life” (Veblen 260).
He refers to “him” as the men of high society, and explains that these decorous and exuberant standards and activities such as sailing are simply rich men expressing their money filled lifestyles rather than experiencing the true worth of such activities. In a table included in a book dated from 1899, author, Darwin Kingsley, includes the amount of money spent on all of the boats competing in the America’s Cup, one of the most prominent yachting races which initially took place between Britain and America, then spread to the majority of Europe and beyond (Kingsley 177).
Kingsley proceeds to criticize and omment on what he finds to be the absurdity of the money spent alone on building the boats alone over the course of 30 years. He then goes to cite that the main reason why so many yachtsmen want the cup, worth only $75 in comparison to the men’s riches, is simply due to the desire for pride and ambition. These men were known to be the leaders of the biggest businesses, so ambition was in their blood, and the trait would be there for sports or any other activity they took part in.
The hunger for pride was involved in demonstrating their superiority over anyone else, just like emphasizing the superiority of one usiness over another. Far out of reach of the rest of society, the business leaders’ interest in the sport lay mainly in their desire to prove themselves as better than the rest of society, and to fulfill their ambitions that business could not. Along with the involvement of the rulers of the monopolies, the sport reflected many of the changing American values that were beginning to appear during this time period.
In the magazine Forest and Stream from 1901, the article about the America’s Cup demonstrates the patriotism and superior spirits Americans were feeling towards their British counterparts prior to the start f the 19th century. The article describes the Americans’ interest in the trophy as relating to “patriotic reasons”, and that the reason the US was beating the often more skilled Europeans was due to our own advancements in comparison to the traditional ways of the Brits (Killeen 296).
The author of the article satirically criticizes the Europeans, who are expected to beat the Americans, in making fun of them for losing to the crazy, and more modern, yachtsman in the US. Much like history demonstrates, the Europeans stubbornly remained with their classic designs and tactics, while the Americans, who were lready taking part in a time of innovation, stepped forward with new designs and ideas. The Europeans looked on in attempts to catch up, but it took many years before they left their outdated models.
This competition overseas foreshadowed more American involvement in upcoming years. Teddy Roosevelt, and avid yachtsman, was one of the first presidents to extend US involvement internationally, and from then on, world power for the country only grew. Another reflection of societal values came with the treatment of women involved in the sport. Sailing had always been a spectator sport or women, so when a woman attempted to become a member of the New York Yacht Club, it created a large debate over what to do.
Lucy Carnegie challenged the male supremacy, which held strong in the sport, and petitioned to be the first female member of the club. After forming a committee to review her petition, in 1894 she was admitted as a “Flag Officer”, meaning she could only fly the flag of the club and use the mail stations which it was associated with (Yarnal). 50 years later, women were admitted to NYYC as full members, fulfilling the legacy of women in the sport which Lucy strove to achieve.
During this era f industrialization, more circulation of money allowed for more innovations in technology to arise; American yacht owners were sure to include the most innovative designs in their boats in order to make them the best they possibly could, all with disregard to the price tag. Captains of industry had little regard for money, but instead were fueled by ambition to beat their competitors, as modeled by both their racing and their companies. Yet problems arose when the differences in technology were so diverse that boats were no longer racing based on skill, but instead mainly who had the more expensive yacht.
Designers such as Nathanael Herreshoff created boats with such original designs that no older boats could compete. Mirroring the restrictions that were put on monopolies during the same time, rules to regulate the designs of the boats such as the International Rule and the Universal Rule were put in place so that racing would be fairer for the competitors (“America’s Cup”). While Presidents tightened governmental control on the monopolies, these same business owners faced new regulations in their nonprofessional life as well.
Sailing closely reflected many of the successes and imperfections of society during the Gilded Age. Its changes were much like that of the changes in America as it progressed past the Civil War into a new era for the country. Business tycoons such as Morgan and Vanderbilt were closely involved in competitive sailing with their continued ambitions to conquer sporting along with the business world. They advertised their wealth by purchasing yachts that the middle and lower classes couldn’t even imagine, and by hiring the best people in every area of sailing in order to achieve their goals of winning.
The international competition which came along with the sport preceded America’s political involvement globally that would begin to sprout only a few short years later. No more would the Americans let the Europeans be better, so while the British and Scottish were stuck in their classic ways, the Americans modernized the competition with new technology and ideas, evolving it and conquering it better than anyone else. The evolving habits of sailing during this time period demonstrated the prevailing American values of competition and wealth which would soon take over society.