Keeping Up With the Joneses: The Tragedy of the Other Half

Toronto Star Weekly/May 1, 1920

This deals with the Other Half. The Other Half, you know, is that stratum of society from which any of us have just now emerged. We have magazine articles on How the Other Half Lives, How the Other Half Eats. And so on. All the doings of the Half are chronicled by faithful observers. Anything the Half does is interesting.

Of course, most of us would never admit having emerged from anything. We all cherish a fond delusion that we have sunk to this present level.

Look at our grandfather! Or if by chance he should be living, look at our great-grandfather. There was a man for you. All great-grandfathers are enveloped in a mantle of romantic gentility.

If our great-grandfather isn’t a great man, it is our own fault. We can go as far as we like with him. Nobody can prove us wrong.

Almost the first thing a newly minted millionaire acquires is a genealogy. This is expensive but it is bound in leather and titled “History of the Kale Family.” No one ever reads it, of course, but it goes backward through a series of begats to some suitable and defenseless ancestor selected for the millionaire by the genealogist.

This is a fine thing for the millionaire, for it gives him the feeling common to all of us that he had a great-great-great-great-grandfather who was a greater man than he was. Thus the millionaire, whose father may have run a soap boiler, enjoys that feeling of having come down in the world and always thinks of himself as a decayed gentleman.

To the millionaire, we are all the Other Half. There are just two classes of people, he and others. To the rest of us, humanity is divided into a greater number of classes.

The present social scale seems to be dictated by the motorcar. All of Toronto is divided into those with and those without. To those with, those without are the Other Half. They have been much spoken of in various Other Half books.

First in the scale of the new feudal system comes the Fordowner. The Fordowner has just got under the wire in the race for social supremacy. Every Fordowner has one ambition, to cease to be a Fordowner. This is not because he is dissatisfied with his car but because all Fordowners are looked upon as the Other Half by those who possess cars with a different type of gear shift.

Of course there is the case-hardened type of Fordowner who declares that the little car is good enough for him. She’ll pull through anything and it doesn’t bankrupt a man to buy a new casing once in a while. No big cars for him. But steal a glance at the look in his eye when a McSwizzle Light Four goes by.

As soon as a man leaves the Fordowner class he is lost. From then on it is a mad race until he achieves a Rice-Rolls or the grave. The most cautious bookmaker would lay thirty to one on the grave. But the ex-Fordowner is not daunted. He smashes into the race.

His easiest time is during his service in the medium-priced car class. There are a number of cars of about the same price and the man and his wife who own a Choochoolay feel themselves on terms of equality with the possessors of Overseas Darts and other cars of about the same voltage.

This time is one of comparative comfort. The Choochoolay owner refers affectionately to his car as “a good little wagon.” He contemplates trading it in next year for another of the same make. He has a comfortable disdain for Fordowners and We Who Walk. Then the blow falls.

Jones across the street, who is not earning a cent more than he is, has a McSwizzle Light Six. Mrs. Jones tells his wife about it. All unsuspecting, he arrives home from the office in the good old Choochoolay only to be confronted by the fact that it is doomed. Jones has started the race. Perhaps it was Mrs. Jones who put him up to it, but at any rate no one in the Choochoolay set can be comfortable any longer. Jones has a McSwizzle.

Once out of the Choochoolay class there is no more peace before the achievement of a Rice-Rolls or Rose Hill. Buying a McSwizzle Light is like stepping into the rapids above Niagara. Once in, you must go the pace.

Of course he has moments of triumph, as when he first owns a Delusion-Demountable. But the Delusion-Demountable is three hundred dollars cheaper than a Complex Collapsible, and the Browns have just purchased a Complex. The Complex is a good car and it is a far cry to the first motor. He is a changed man, for a man changes with his cars. He is making much more money, too. He has to or face bankruptcy. In fact he is so successful that one night after dinner the Mrs. broaches the subject of a Pierced-Sparrow.

Going from even such a car as the Complex Collapsible to a Pierced-Sparrow is only comparable to the initial jump out of the Fordowner class. A Pierced-Sparrow is the insignia of success. In our modern system of civilization the Pierced-Sparrow takes the place of the heads that our ancestors used to dry in the smoke of their hut fires. In the Pierced-Sparrow are concentrated all the scalps of his business competitors. It is better than the accolade. He thinks that if he has a Pierced-Sparrow it will mean that he has arrived in the elect.

So he buys a Pierced-Sparrow, unhappy man! As soon as he has the Pierced-Sparrow he discovers that a great many other people have them too. Then one day at the club he overhears this conversation:

“What kind of a car has he?” asks the first gentleman.

“Pierced-Sparrow,” replies the second, blowing a cloud of smoke.

“Upper Middle Class people, eh?” says the first comfortably.

It is the beginning of the end. The ex-Fordowner has achieved business success. He has raised a son who knows more than his father. He has a daughter who smokes cigarettes and has been a successful debutante for eight years. He has enough servants to make him uncomfortable. You would imagine that he would be happy. But he is not.

He makes one last desperate effort to escape from the Other Half. He buys a Rice-Rolls. He can’t afford it, of course. But it is necessary for his self-respect. The Rice-Rolls is the ultimate.

Now if this were comedy we would leave him in happiness riding through life in his Rice-Rolls, having attained the true happiness of success. His chauffeur might even let him drive his Rice-Rolls sometimes. Nothing would be lacking. His son would know more every day and his daughter would learn to roll her own. But this is tragedy.

There is no peace for him this side of the sepulcher. We have reliable information from England that a super-car is being brought out which will cost at least four times as much as the Rice-Rolls. The curtain falls upon the tragedy of How the Other Half Lives.

(Source: William White, ed. Ernest Hemingway: Dateline: Toronto. Simon and Schuster, 2002.)