The driving premise of this website is for us to consider the past history of Saint Louis at a specific time and place and how we might learn from that era. As with most concepts, this idea can be fraught with challenges. Eighteen Seventy-Five in Saint Louis was a time of incredible growth. The city was thriving and fortunes were being made as industry was driven by the parallel growth of the American West. At many levels it was a very wonderful time. Much good was done during this period, but times were different back then. The Golden Age also reflected immense economic divides between the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor.
Many of the people who we profile on this website were veterans of the Civil War, both Union and Confederate soldiers. Many owned slaves prior and in all honesty after the war. The cultural ethics in 1875 were very different back then than they are today.
So how do we judge that era? A great example of this dichotomy is the profile of Samuel Kennard. Kennard was a very successful businessman in Saint Louis and became a pillar of the city. He rubbed shoulders with the city’s elite and was on the boards of some of the largest, most successful businesses and institutions. He was one of the leaders of the 1904 World’s Fair Exposition. As a tribute to his contributions to the city, an elementary school was named after him.
Recently, Kennard had his name stripped from that school because of his slave owning and Confederate Army history. There was even a rumor that he was associated with a general who was a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Today we might consider these behaviors questionable at best and despicable at worse. But in 1875, that was not so. The cultural ethics in the late nineteen hundreds were very different.
So where does that leave us today? We must consider all of the profiles in the project through the lens of social norms in 1875. Many of the descriptions of the resident’s lives are the original biographies written about them back then, often in flowery prose and employing an almost god-like flattery and tribute.
That was then, and this is now. Our premise is that many of the profiles describe men of great character when considering their contributions to their society and the City of Saint Louis. However, like all of us, we must realize they were flawed human beings reflecting the cultural ethics of that era.
What lessons might we learn from this historical cultural ethics phenomenon? What characteristics and practices of our lives today which are entirely acceptable in our culture, might be construed as traits that are totally unacceptable in decades to come. It is certainly a thought worth considering.