The gilded age and the police nightstick

Oscar of the Waldorf cookbookA legacy institution of the Gilded Age is the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel. Most of us only know it from the nutty salad, the mysterious Red Velvet Cake recipe, Thousand Island Dressing and Veal Oscar named for the famous maitre d’ hotel. I encountered the book of recipes collected by “Oscar of the Waldorf” and its cover illustration caught my eye. The coachman and carriage don’t look so opulent to us today, but do you recognize a timeless trapping of affluence? There’s nothing else in the picture but the policeman and his nightstick.

We almost dismiss the incongruity of the attendant police officer. That’s because he’s Officer Friendly to us, circa the 1950s egalitarian economic boom, earned post New Deal and post WWII, when law enforcement began to serve and protect the middle class share of the pie. Before those times, whose order did the police enforce?

Could the Waldorf diorama have featured some other occupation at the curb? A newsboy, a shoeshine, or a traffic director? If the cabbie is picking up late night revelers, why not depict a doorman or lamplighter?

If this scene did not include the policeman, he’d be missing.

The Gilded Age of the soaring wealth of bankers and industrialists, of the steel, coal, and rail robber barons, came at the expense of poverty wages for all the rest. The homeless of America’s eastern cities died in the streets, if they crossed the paths of the leisure class at all. As in London, where the bobbies were celebrated for carrying no guns, cops on the beat didn’t need more than a nightstick to beat back beggars and riffraff.

Just as in the Waldorf illustration, the policeman’s nightstick isn’t holstered, it is fingered idly like a baton. We’ve seen it in countless Chaplin, Keaton, and Keystone reels. The policeman’s baton might be carried idly, and animated mindlessly as a clerk might twirl a pencil, but the gyrations telegraphed a swinging function meant to be understood.

Today, a modern financial crisis has finally hit the post industrial era, and unemployment is taking a precipitous plunge. The repercussions for the American middle class are yet unclear to most, their comforts still too tangible to fathom gone. But our modern times have already seen the resurgence of the Rich And Famous, (to even beyond the lunge of our Super-Lotto winners, who always chose the sub-six-figure annuity). Exclusive cars, toy submarines and tickets into space cost multi-millions, but the rich have that money to burn. Common Americans have also watched the armoring of their police, using weapons which offend us, but which protect the security of institutional wealth. Para-military police forces are the natural escalation of the right-to-bear-arms arms-race, the equivalent of nightsticks to quell our social disquiet.

Already aren’t we seeing the police block the public’s way, lest we soil the red carpet of the well-heeled? Aren’t police blocking free speech in public spaces, when the monied media has decided it wants the backdrop to serve their message? Wait until we are gazing covetously upon the gilded extravagances, from the alley side of the gilded wrought iron gate.
guilded age of the nightstick
Wiki notes:
Thousand Island Dressing came to the Waldorf from the so-named Lake Ontario waterway where New York’s super rich had their summer homes. The $100 recipe for Red Velvet Cake was the urban myth which resurfaced as the $250 Neiman Marcus chocolate chip cookie.

The original Waldorf Hotel was built by an Astor whose middle name was Waldorf, next door to an aunt with whom he was feuding. Later another Astor convinced her to move uptown and replaced her home with a taller hotel named the Astoria. The two luxurious hotels hyphened via the Peacock Alley, inspiring the popular song “Meet me at the hyphen.” In 1931 the landmark was moved to accommodate the Empire State Building, and was purchased in 1949 by Conrad Hilton who added the double-hyphen flourish, completely in the spirit of gilded ornamentation.

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