An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew(6)

For David Hostetter, the elixir was a gold mine. The ingredients cost next to nothing, and because he had patented the concoction as a medicine, he didn’t need to pay any tax on the profits. In the early 1860s, he was selling more than 450,000 bottles of herbal elixir a year. He kept away suspicious inspectors and teetotalers by publicly making himself known as a devout supporter of prohibition, and he kept his competitors at an appropriate distance with incentives such as a free almanac he produced and made available every December at American grocery stores.

Aside from weather forecasts, agricultural tips, astrological information, and cartoons, Hostetter’s United States Almanac for the Use of Merchants, Mechanics, Farmers, Planters and all Families was full of anecdotes about the miraculous healing powers of Hostetter’s Bitters. During this period, it was the only book in many American households, aside from the Bible. “They can talk about Shakespeare, but in my opinion old Hostetter . . . had more influence on the national life than any of ’em,” an influential columnist wrote.

By the early 1870s, David was selling more than a million bottles a year. He invested the gigantic profits he made in all kinds of rising industries in and around Pittsburgh, such as railways, mining, the banking sector, and oil extraction, something for which his failed adventures in the Wild West came in handy. The former railway laborer now moved as an equal alongside such famous Gilded Age millionaires as Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie. He was on the boards of various prestigious companies like the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, the Fort Pitt National Bank, the Pittsburgh Natural Gas Company, and the South Pennsylvania Railroad.

But all those herbal elixirs and all the prestige and money in the world couldn’t protect David Hostetter from his own mortality. In 1888, he died at age sixty-nine in a Park Avenue hotel from complications following a kidney operation. He left his widow and three children a fortune of $18 million. Aside from this, all four of them received from the company an annual dividend of $810,000 each—this in a period when the average hourly wage of an American worker was exactly twenty-two cents.

In Jamestown, Hostetter’s Almanac had long been in every household. And there were frequent articles with provocative headlines in the Jamestown Journal that, upon closer examination, turned out to be veiled advertisements for the eponymous herbal elixir. It could hardly have escaped Allene’s notice that the handsome dark-haired young man she met at a dance in the summer of 1890, and who courted her with his mercurial charm, was heir to one of the largest fortunes in Pittsburgh.

The chance that this Tod Hostetter would reveal himself to be a serious marriage candidate was negligible. America was the land of unprecedented opportunity, but this didn’t mean class consciousness didn’t exist. On the contrary, now especially, as the country was flooded with millionaires, the existing elite withdrew into a social fortress in which lineage and name were of utter importance. Caroline Astor, the uncrowned queen of New York society, refused to host in her salon even the Vanderbilts, at the time the richest family in the United States—only because their forefather, Cornelius, had begun his career as a ferry boy and his descendants behaved in a fashion too unorthodox in her eyes for them to be classified as ladies and gentlemen.

“Mrs. Astor,” as all of America knew her, was descended from the Knickerbockers, the British and Dutch pioneers who had set the tone of American society since colonial times. She considered it her personal mission to prove that she and her countrymen were more than the tobacco-chewing illiterate bumpkins the world took them for. After Georges Clemenceau—who would eventually become French prime minister—announced in 1889 that America had gone from barbarism to hedonism “without achieving any civilization between the two,” Mrs. Astor drew up a list of the four hundred people who in her view counted as a kind of American aristocracy. The chosen ones could boast of not only an impeccable way of life but also fortunes that could be traced back at least three generations.

As happens when anything can be bought except social status, trying to prove themselves in Mrs. Astor’s eyes became a true mania among the wives of the nouveaux riches. Handbooks like The Laws of Etiquette, or Short Rules and Reflections for Conduct in Society were studied closely, and any decent American town had its own social register, or blue book—a directory of families who were worthy of being received in polite society. Even Tod’s mother had acted in this race to respectability. Although her husband’s money was certainly new and smelled just a little too strongly of alcohol to be respectable, she still managed to have her two oldest children marry scions of old, prominent Pittsburgh families.

The last thing Rosetta Hostetter needed was a liaison between her son and a girl without social status, means, or useful connections and from a region that, compared to metropolitan Pittsburgh, counted as the sticks. For this reason, the lovers kept their budding summer romance on Lake Chautauqua strictly secret at first. It remained so—even in the late summer, when the season’s visitors had left Chautauqua and Tod was expected to resume his medical studies. And even after Allene, in the heart of the cold winter of 1891, discovered that the clandestine meetings with her Pittsburgh admirer had not been without consequence. She was pregnant.

It was the end of the nineteenth century, and Victorian standards of propriety were followed to the letter. Men and women lived in completely separate worlds, and the bourgeoisie was so prudish that piano, chair, and table legs were covered and any thoughts that drifted toward sexuality were to be fended off. And if there was one sin that a respectable, unmarried girl in this age could not commit, it was to become pregnant.

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