Sunday, September 25, 2016

An old sadness

Today I took Elli to see Casa Loma, a castle here in Toronto.  It was built in 1914 to look like a really old school castle but used construction techniques current to that time.  Basically an outrageously wealthy couple built the place to establish themselves as having more money than all the other upper class folks, lived there for ten years until they lost their fortune, and eventually died penniless.

It was depressing.

There were all kinds of interesting facts there, and artwork that was neat, and all the other things you would expect in a weird historic site like that.  I just couldn't get past the way the tour took the inequality made evident in the castle in stride.  The ruling couple had every single wall covered in carvings, $20 million worth of art (in 2016 dollars), and imported a marble staircase from Europe to be just the thing for the main hall.

The servants, on the other hand, worked 16 hours a day, six days a week, for a pittance.  The audio tour made it clear that this place was an amazing place to be a servant though, because the servants were allowed to use the bathrooms indoors and weren't made to use the outhouse.

Of course they should tell the truth about the way things were, but I do wish there was a bit more recognition of how much of a disaster this inequality was.  It isn't good that servants were usually expected to sleep in drafty attics and just freeze all winter while the upper class people had comfy beds pre warmed for them.

I think a lot of people will dismiss this as ridiculous.  Am I really so worried about the way that we portray the treatment of servants over one hundred years ago?  That it ignores the inequalities of the time?

I guess so.  Learning more about the world, seeing the mess that it is, makes it harder for me to just ignore these things and enjoy the suits of armour and crenellated towers.  I can't help but look about at the human cost of these things and the way that such effort was expended just to make a very few people look important.

Things haven't changed that much.


  1. This wasn't the post I expected from the title; it's better. (I thought you were going to lament how it isn't kept up like it used to be, the gift shop is poky, the feeling of the place is sad).
    I remember learning about servants and moneyed classes in junior school. I understood the inequity without it being taught.

    You've hit on one of the challenges if modern museum and culture curation: how can we introduce information and artifacts in a way which relays the facts, puts those items in a historical context while recognizing the post modern perspective ? Interactive exhibits with a narrative seem to be in vogue. An example is "Terry Fox: Running into the heart of a nation", a museum exhibition in honour of the 35th anniversary of the Marathon of Hope.

  2. isn't that capitalism at work? Given upbringing has plenty to play into direction of life, but could have just as easily been one of the servants in the position of Pellatt if they chose to go in that direction... Are you looking to have everyone cast the same standard issue grey clothing and off to North Korea?

    Appreciate the read(s) all the same - just my take on it.

    1. Straw man, come on. There is a middle ground, which is by far the best spot. Capitalism is useful. However, a strong government that ensures rights for those in the weakest positions and has serious taxation on the wealthy to equalize things to some extent keeps the incentives to succeed in place but prevents extreme inequality. Nobody needs billions of dollars, and incentives at that level are worthless. Letting people earn enough to be millionaires is good, billionaires, not so much.