Trade places with Vanderbilt? Definitely

The handful of you who read this blog may have figured out that I enjoy the study of history. There are many periods, particularly during the past 500 years, that would be fascinating to have been a part of, at least in my opinion.

Nevertheless, there are two big reasons that exist that clearly illuminate why I’m glad to be alive now and not, say, 150 years ago: modern plumbing and modern dentistry. We’ve got it pretty good today, even if many of us don’t realize it.

Here, Bryan Caplan of EconLog captures the difference between what the average American has today and what George Vanderbilt, one of the richest Americans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, didn’t:

I just returned from the Biltmore, America’s largest home.  Built by George Vanderbilt between 1889 and 1895, the Biltmore is a symbol of how good the rich had it during the Gilded Age.  I’m sure that most of the other visitors would answer “very good indeed.” 

But how many would actually want to trade places with George?  Despite his massive library, organ, and so on, I submit that any modern with a laptop and an internet connection has a vastly better book and music collection than he did.  For all his riches, he didn’t have air conditioning; he had to suffer through the North Carolina summers just like the poorest of us.  Vanderbilt did travel the world, but without the airplane, he had to do so at a snail’s pace. 

Perhaps most shockingly, he suffered “sudden death from complications following an appendectomy” at the age of 51.  (Here‘s the original NYT obituary).  Whatever your precise story about the cause of rising lifespans, it’s safe to say that George’s Bane wouldn’t be fatal today.

Vanderbilt clearly had it better than most of the people in his era.  But the world has improved so much that, all things considered, the average American is now better off than this prince of the Gilded Age.  I can’t be sure, but I bet that George would have agreed.  How much do you think he would have paid to live for a single day in your shoes?

(Hat tip: Coyote Blog)

2 thoughts on “Trade places with Vanderbilt? Definitely

  1. It’s an interesting point but an inapt comparison. People then had a different frame of reference based on the technologies that were available.

    I think if I were George Vanderbilt and had the choice of two restful days on a train from New York to Asheville and getting my nuts yanked by a TSA staffer to be let on a plane, I’d book the train any day.

    • For comfort, I’d take a train any day of the week – even if I believe we have romanticized how comfortable 19th century rail travel was. No doubt, though, Vanderbilt could afford to ride in style. However, if I had, say, a dying relative 2,000 miles away I wanted to see before they passed away, the plane is hard to beat.

      Yes, people do have a different frame of reference, but given that something like 1 out of 10 women died in childbirth and a significant percentage of children died in infancy, it’s hard to not to be grateful for how far we’ve come. Today’s poor live better than most of the 19th century’s middle class.

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