Clio Talks Back

I.M.O.W.'s debut blog, Clio Talks Back, will change the way you think about women throughout history! Be informed and transformed by Clio Talks Back, written by the museum's resident historian Karen Offen.

Inspired by Clio, the Greek muse of History, and the museum's global online exhibitions Economica and Women, Power and Politics, Karen takes readers on a journey through time and place where women have shaped and changed our world. You will build your repertoire of rare trivia and conversation starters and occasionally hear from guest bloggers including everyone from leading historians in the field to the historical women themselves.

Read the entries, post a comment, and be inspired to create your own legacies to transform our world.


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On the historical meaning of gold

Gold has haunted the imagination of people in many cultures. One of the most famous fairy tales from central Europe has to do with a girl who was captured by a gnome named Rumpelstiltskin and forced to spin straw into gold. In medieval times, alchemists tried every chemical combination they could think of to turn ordinary materials into gold – they never succeeded. Thousands, even millions of men (and some women) contracted “gold fever” in the mid-nineteenth century, and rushed west – to California, to Australia, to the Yukon, and south to the tip of Africa. Men made huge fortunes in mining gold – and silver – and lost them just as quickly. Gold was greatly prized! It became the object of greed, fraud, even killing, to mine it, refine it, possess it, hoard it.

Gold ornaments from antiquity have survived in archeological digs (unlike woven fabrics made by women), and now feature prominently in museum collections, as for example, in the National Museum of Bulgaria (in Sofia), and recently the objects from what archeologists call “The Bactrian Hoard,” in an extraordinary touring exhibition from the National Museum in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Gold has had, and still has great power to excite. Women in many cultures carry and exhibit their wealth in the form of gold jewelry. Until recent times, national governments based their currency on the “gold standard,” which meant that the worth of a country’s circulating paper money was based on solid gold bars hidden away in banks and vaults. This is no longer the case. Today the price of an ounce of gold is higher than it has ever been.

One of the most remarkable analyses of the meaning of gold came from the pen of the novelist Christina Stead (1902-1983), an Australian by birth and upbringing who lived in Paris from 1929 to 1935, where she worked for an international investment bank. Stead, a great fan of Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine series, and its exposure of the follies of the human condition, proved to be a faithful disciple as well as a remarkable innovator. She probes the souls and minds of men and women with great subtlety but also with unremitting irony.

Stead set her powerful novel, House of All Nations (1938) in Paris in the years 1931-1932, the earlier years of the great world depression, while the French government still clung to the “gold standard” to ward off financial catastrophe and Hitler was on the march to power in Germany. This novel unremittingly exposed the shady, self-serving practices and cynical attitudes of the greedy and unscrupulous men in charge of the fictional Banc Mercure, and of the equally corrupt women who backed them up. Both she and her partner, then husband William Blech (later Blake) were skeptical about capitalism but, even as committed Marxists “in orientation and sentiment,” they were similarly skeptical about the pretensions of the Left.

Here is what Christina Stead wrote about the multi-dimensional significance of gold:

“The word ‘gold’ spoken by those who have seen it, had it, lived with it, has undertones of sensual revel and superstitious awe and overtones of command and superhuman strength that excite the greatest hostility and indignation in those who have not got it, have never seen it, or have not lived with its beautiful invisible presence – invisible, because it is always socked away. This joyful sensuality comes not only from its brightness, softness, purity, rarity, great specific gravity, nor from the designs, head, crowns, olive branches, men with staves, lions, unicorns, escutcheons, arms, and legends printed on it, nor from its finely milled edge in coins, nor wholly from the worshipful value of a very small bar of it, nor from the soft jingling it makes in a leather bag, nor from the way, like a little sun it can bring light on to the face of everyone who regards, and reverence, as Ra to his admirers: it comes from all these things, but also from a lifelong association of the word ‘gold’ with the idea ultimate wealth, perrenial ease, absolute security. It is an absolute and in its presence the anxious heart breathes sweetly and the blood laughs and the toiling brain sheds its dew of agony. Sweet gold! It has in it everything that man desires in a wife, that cannot, precisely, be purchased with gold. Beautiful gold! It is cosmetic: it makes a girl handsome and marriageable in a moment. Virgin gold! There may be suspicions and shades of jealousy clinging to those whose all is paper and participations, but there is a sun-colored cloak ‘Sir-Galahad’ model for those who own gold. Fetish gold! But that’s an old one: we know what that means: it means ‘I’ve none’.”

Clio is curious to learn what you readers think about when you think about gold. Would you agree with Christina Stead? Would you consider women’s relationship to gold as a specific form of wealth similar to or different than that of men. Your comments are welcome.


Source: Christina Stead, House of All Nations (1938; reprinted 1972). See also Rosemary Lancaster, Je Suis Australienne: Remarkable Women in France, 1880-1945 (Crawley: University of Western Australia Press, 2008) and Joan Gould, Spinning Straw into Gold: What the Fairy Tales Reveal about the Transformations in Women’s Lives (New York: Random House, 2006).


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