What Gilded Age Wealth Could NOT Buy
Today, I begin a new series that is a direct result of research for my September 22, 2022 release, The Last Dollar Princess. As any student of American history knows, Gilded Age robber barons amassed unimaginable riches during a time of unregulated business and industry. Previous posts have highlighted some of the scandals of the era and how a few chose to make contributions to the society in which they prospered through philanthropy, often giving away enormous sums. Other posts have featured the wives of the robber barons, several of whom are credited with setting the gold standard for charitable giving. These men and women dressed beautifully, entertained lavishly, and built palaces in New York, New Port, and other locals. They gave every outward appearance of being at the apex of the social order by dressing in the epitome of fashion, dining at the best restaurants, buying their way into supporting the arts, and living at the most coveted addresses. For all their striving, determination, and vast wealth, there was at least one arena in which they did not excel. For the better part of the 19th century its doors remained firmly barred against them by those who deemed them to be low-bred, social-climbing arrivistes. This was the closed, intimate world of old Knickerbocker New York and Mrs. Astor’s 400.
The United States supposedly gave up all the trappings of class distinctions and social rank associated with royalty and titled aristocrats when she separated herself from Great Britain. While it is true that Americans do not have hereditary titles, there have always been persons who considered themselves aristocrats in all but name.
In the nation’s first capital, New York City, those persons were the Knickerbockers, so called after the area’s original Dutch settlers and their namesake knee-length breeches. Most sources credit Washington Irving and his satirical Knickerbocker’s History of New York with creating an interest in the city’s Dutch history and the nickname that became synonymous with its residents.
The Knickerbockers were generally reserved when it came to displays of wealth, eschewing ostentation in all its forms. The husbands’ professions tended to be in banking or the law. Some had inherited fortunes from their mercantile ancestors; others grew rich from the boom in Manhattan real estate values. They resided in the tidy red brick or brownstone row houses of Washington Square and Gramercy Park. They kept a minimal number of servants and entertained quietly. When a daughter made her debut, it was generally a smallish tea or reception attended by her parents’ friends. Once out in society, the young lady attended the opera, dinners, and parties given in the homes of their closed, social circle all under the close supervision of her parents. Life was secure, sedate, genteel, and above all, quiet. People knew where they belonged, who belonged, and exactly how to behave in any given situation.
Striding into this reserved world of quiet gentility came a new
economic force whose members had notions of grandeur and who failed to recognize their place in society. They began appearing in the 1860s with the rapid advancement of the
Industrial Age and the multimillionaires it produced. These upstart Lords of
Industry expected their wealth to gain them entree to the highest levels of
society, but they flaunted that wealth in the most vulgar ways. Their houses
were palaces of tacky extravagance. They acquired far too many of the latest
fashions for decorum’s sake. The Worth of Paris trunks were hardly off the
boats before these women had donned all of the best gowns. They entertained as though the
more opulent, the louder, the bigger, was all the better. They started showing up
in the stalls at the revered Academy Of Music. They even wanted box seats,
which they would never get because those were passed down from generation to
generation. These people had the effrontery to believe they could just waltz
into society and be welcomed with open arms. The Knickerbockers’ English
aristocratic counterparts would have phrased it this way: these were men who
had to buy their own furniture. This invasion of the great unwashed was not to
be borne. Just because one’s husband deigned to lower himself to do business
with the men, did not mean that Knickerbocker wives must endure the company of
every upstart woman or admit her fellows to their parlors. While some of these new-money people might be acceptable, others were decidedly NOT. How was one to know whom one might entertain without being tainted by the undesirables? Something had to be done to
stabilize and restore order to New York society.
Into the breach stepped the only person who had the social clout to
formulate and carry out a plan to thwart the enemy: the former Caroline Schermerhorn, Mrs. William Backhouse Astor, the Mrs. Astor. Caroline was aided in her mission by a transplanted Southerner, Ward McAllister. McAllister believed himself an authority on etiquette and a deft interpreter of every social nuance. It was his idea to construct a list, THE list, whose sole purpose was to separate society’s wheat from its chaff. Mrs. Astor thought it a grand idea and together they planned how the list should be made. They began with twenty-five families that they termed the Patriarchs. The Patriarchs differed in their backgrounds, Nobs being Old Money and Swells being New Money, but they shared one common trait: they were deemed “at ease in a ballroom.”
Beginning in 1872, an annual Patriarch Ball was held. The guest lists were constructed using McAllister’s design. Each Patriarch was to invite five females and four men of the highest social caliber from among their friends. The list of acceptable guests grew in this manner until it was deemed complete. The list attracted serious attention from newspaper society columnists and its growth and membership was duly reported with all the excitement of a presidential campaign. This brings us to the 400 Ball of February 1892.
McAllister decreed 400 to be the maximum number Mrs.Astor’s ballroom could accommodate and those invited should be seen as the cream of New York society. He is quoted in a New York Times interview as saying, “Wait a moment and I will give you a correct list, don’t you know, of the people who form what is known as the Four Hundred… you understand that it will be authorized, reliable, and don’t you know, the only correct list.”
Those poor souls unlucky enough not to make the cut were instantly cast into high society’s basement. Many of them left town in order to have a plausible excuse for why they did not attend. The Tatler describes the evening as follows:
“On the night of the party, guests travelled from the night’s performance at the opera, to 350 Fifth Avenue, where they were greeted by Mrs Astor. Trussed up in jewels, including Marie Antoinette’s famous ‘stomacher’ necklace (which stretched to her abdomen), the social gatekeeper ushered the chosen ones into her ballroom, which, by chance, could fit a maximum of 400 inside. After a few dances, supper was served, a sit-down dinner of multiple courses at midnight, rather than the buffet her contemporaries would have put on. Then, the evening continued with more dancing, going on into the early hours.”
Missing out on an invitation was tantamount to social doom, with many cooking up elaborate medical reasons to be out of town, or leaving town altogether, traveling to Europe. It was an essential way for young, eligible women to meet husbands, with marriage being the end goal of these social occasions.
In 1892, after much debate and gossip in the tabloids, The New York Times published McAllister’s official Four Hundred list, with those on it including the grandchildren of former presidents, wives of European princes and heirs to dynastic fortunes.”
So what can one do if one did not make the cut? The answer will be the topic of future posts.
De Courcy, Anne. The Husband Hunters. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2017.
MacColl, Gail and Wallace, Carol McD. To Marry an English Lord. New York: Workman Publishing, 2012.