Marian Brook inherits $30 from her deceased father and sadly, even in 1882, this isn’t very much money. Marian has her job cut out for her.
“The Gilded Age” is set in 1882, during a period of a rapid economic boom in the United States. Although business is booming and immigration is increasing, not everyone is wealthy. In fact, in the United States, a massive wealth gap is forming. Some families are able to leave their descendants a financially secure legacy, while others are left to start from scratch.
Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) begins the play by speaking with a lawyer concerning her late father’s fortune. Marian discovers that her father was not the savviest with his money and that she has been left with a paltry sum, dressed in all black and visibly in mourning but hoping that perhaps he has left her with something of worth that will help her get a fresh start. Her only option at the start of the Gilded Age is to turn to her remaining family. Marian sells her belongings and relocates to New York City, where she will live with her Aunts Agnes van Rhijn and Ada Brook.
Marian’s lawyer informs her that after funeral expenses and other outstanding bills have been paid, she will be left with about $30. However, accounting for inflation, that number equates to something much larger today, but it still isn’t much. In 2022, $30 would be equivalent to $820.01.
According to US Census data, the average annual wage for an industrial worker increased from $380 to $564 between 1880 and 1890. So, at the lower end of that scale, closer to when “The Gilded Age” chronology begins, $30 would have been around a month’s wage on an annual income of $380. Marian mentions the railroad industry to the lawyer, implying that there must be more money left over because of his involvement with it. Perhaps there was more money at one time because Agnes claims he spent what he did have on women and alcohol.
The average cost of travel by rail at this time was between 2 and 3 cents per mile. Because Doylestown, PA is roughly 90 miles from New York City, her stolen railway ticket would have cost a little more than $2.00 in 1882, or about $60.00 now, a sizable piece of her tiny inheritance. $30 today doesn’t seem like much, and it didn’t seem like much in 1882.
“The Gilded Age” is full of problems, and Marian has her work cut out for her after her father’s death. She is left with the knowledge that her father was not the man she believed he was, and that he has left her with very little. Marian, on the other hand, wants to establish a name for herself and is motivated by her new acquaintance Peggy Scott (Denée Benton). This is the Gilded Age, and while everyone is striving to take advantage of the economic boom, Marian, fueled by the meager $30 her father left her, may find a way to stand out from the crowd.