- Historic Sites
1893 One Hundred Years Ago
April 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 2
In early April the dancer Dorothy Denning was the brightest light on the New York stage; the Police Gazette reported that she wore “nearly 100 electric lamps” during her performances “and almost as many feet of electric wires.” The weight of all her electrical rigging—which would have bowed most Christmas trees—apparently was nothing next to the psychological strain on Denning. “I have the greatest confidence in my electrician,” the dancer explained. “I know well that every precaution is taken, but just suppose something unexpected would occur, where would I be?”
In New York City the Liberty Dawn Association of Free and Independent Hackmen vowed to fight “to the bitter end” a new edict by certain hotels and stables around town that ordered them to shave off their whiskers. The Waiters’ Protective Union threw in its lot with the hackmen, fearing a precedent might be set and their beards would be next to go. While also siding mostly with the drivers, the April 22 Harper’s Weekly advised different strategies. The union’s argument that going clean-faced would endanger its members’ health did not wash, the editors felt. Rather, they urged the hackmen to fight on aesthetic grounds, stressing their pride in wearing dundrearies, side-lights, or Galway twists. “When the hackman declares that by the order to shave he is compelled, as the resolutions say, ‘to disfigure his countenance and distort his features’ so that his wife will not let him into the house and his children are afraid of him, then the hackman plants his feet upon a high ground of vantage.”
The failure of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad in February had caused skittishness along Wall Street, but in April the panic became fullfledged when the national gold reserve dipped under $100 million—then the established minimum standard that all was well with the national economy. The metal had been slipping out of the country for several years. Almost 100 percent of government customs receipts had been taken in gold in 1890, but by 1893 only 5 percent came in that way; the rest was cash and silver. Business failures and rumors that the federal government would soon abandon the gold standard had affected confidence in the U.S. currency both here and abroad. Europeans were buying up gold rather than truck with risky dollars; for a price, British investors would dig their American gold out of their yards and sell it back across the water. Six months after the close of what R. G. Dun & Company had called “the most prosperous year ever known in business,” New Yorkers were selling their paychecks at a loss for gold rather than trust the paper currency.
The demise of the National Cordage Company in May destroyed what calm remained among traders, and the stock market plunged on “Black Wednesday,” July 26. Within days President Cleveland called a special session of Congress, which met on August 7 to consider repealing the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890. The federal government had been laboring under the act to buy up silver even as it fought to keep from going off the gold standard for lack of reserves. The repeal of the act by both houses of Congress came on October 30 after a long fight, but in spite of the solid new ratio of silver to gold at sixteen to one and a two-day market rally, confidence did not return. Hopeful rumors collapsed one upon another that one of the Street’s big men had made a market killing that would soon restore order to the exchange. But large and small investors remained jumpy, and by year’s end 642 banks had shut and some 15,000 businesses gone under.