The Gilded Age

by Ellen Micheletti

The United States may be a classless society, but that does not mean that there is no Society in the United States. But unlike Society in Great Britain, Society in the United States is much more changable regarding its composition. While there are important families in the United States, there are no titled aristocratic families, so who is In Society and who is Out of Society changes over the years. Some families who were once nobodies and upstarts manage to become accepted in Society that used to consider them upstarts. A good example of this is how the Vanderbilt family climbed into Mrs. Astor's social circle.

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Right after the Civil War, there was a period in the United States known as The Gilded Age. Some families had made great fortunes and they had the money and leisure to indulge in conspicuous consumption and indulgence in Society manners. One of the most famous examples of a social circle in the United States was the one created and maintained by Caroline Astor. She consciously set the walls of Society high and (she thought) impregnable. But the eventual success of the Vanderbilt family in scaling the walls of Mrs. Astor's social fortress showed that Society was not as unbreachable as Mrs. Astor thought.

The Astor family was one of the wealthiest in America, having made their fortune in the fur trade back during the Colonial period. The founder of the family and the fortune was John Jacob Astor. His son, William Backhouse Astor married Caroline Schermerhorn who was a descendant of the old Dutch patroons of New York. The marriage was not happy, but neither of them cared. William Astor took no part in public life, and spent most of his time cruising on his yacht. Caroline Astor was very conscious of her descent from an old colonial family and wanted to define and refine Society in New York. She especially wanted to keep out the upstarts - those families who had suddenly become very, very wealthy.

Since her husband was not interested in social life, Mrs. Astor found herself an escort in Ward McAllister, a Southern Gentleman who had a small fortune. McAllister was obsessed with Society - its rules and regulations and frankly, he was a terrible snob. Gradually, he and Mrs. Astor (whom he referred to as the Mystic Rose) defined Society - who was In and who was Out and they had it firmly in their clutches. What they decreed was slavishly followed by all the rest and if you were not received by Mrs. Astor, you were not in Society, no matter how rich or distinguished you might be.

Just as Society in London was known as the ton, Society in New York was known as the Four Hundred. The name came about because of a statement of Ward McAllister. He said there were only about 400 people in New York who were at ease in a ballroom. McAllister even went so far as to make a list of names. There were not quite 400 people on the list, but folklore had it that only 400 people could fit into Mrs. Astor's ballroom, and the term the Four Hundred stuck.

Intellectuals of any persuasion were looked on with suspicion by the Four Hundred and if truth be told, Mrs. Astor's parties tended to be dull. The food was good, but conversation was limited to fashion, dancing, the weather, and who was marrying whom. Later in her social life, Mrs. Astor decided to copy the then popular fashion of asking a member of the Bohemian set to her parties. Mrs. Astor's idea of a Bohemian was the author Edith Wharton, born Edith Jones, from an old and distinguished New York family. Mrs. Wharton may have been a member of Society but to Mrs. Astor she was a writer and therefore Bohemian.

Mrs. Astor especially did not like the nouveau riche and those who were in trade. She is supposed to have explained why she did not receive a businessman. "Just because I buy my carpets from him, does not mean I have to invite him to walk on them." Mrs. Astor especially did did not approve of the very wealthy Vanderbilt family. According to her, they were not ladies and gentlemen.

The founder of the Vanderbilt fortune, Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt, was from an old Dutch family like Mrs. Astor's but had never mixed in the social set she was accustomed to. The Commodore was an uncouth man with a habit of chewing tobacco and missing the spittoon, and he had a vocabulary of swear words that had to be heard to be believed. The Commodore had no interest in Society at all and neither did his wife, who was a quiet, brow-beaten woman. His son, William Vanderbilt was a hard working man with good manners, but Society shunned him as well. He took his snubbing in stride - William Vanderbilt did not burn with the urge to be a social creature. But William Vanderbilt's children were different. By then, the Vanderbilts were the richest family in the United States and the younger Vanderbilts wanted to be accepted into Society.

Mrs. Astor continued to refuse to accept the family and neither called on them nor invited them to any of her functions. But Mrs. Astor would soon meet her match in Alva Smith Vanderbilt, who William K. Vanderbilt, son of William Vanderbilt and grandson of the Commodore. Alva was a woman of intelligence, strong will, and was as family proud as Mrs. Astor. Alva was determined that the Vanderbilt family would be recognized by Mrs. Astor and the Four Hundred.

Alva Vanderbilt began her assault on Society by building a new home on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. She hired the architect Richard Morris Hunt and together they designed a white limestone mansion that was modeled after a French Chateau. Both Alva and Hunt were determined that this home would be a showplace and it was. The Vanderbilt mansion was so new, so big, so striking and done in such excellent taste that it simply could not be ignored. Compared to the drab brownstone home of Mrs. Astor, Alva Vanderbilt's was a gem and people began to talk.

Fancy dress balls were all the rage at the time. Hostesses would give a ball and the guests would compete to have the most luxurious costumes - costumes that would enable the women to wear every jewel they owned. There was some grumbling in the lower ranks about the waste and conspicous consumption that went into these parties, but the rich ignored the complaints. Alva Vanderbilt decided to give a big fancy dress ball as a housewarming party for her new mansion.

If she had lived today, Alva Vanderbilt would have been a star in the field of public relations. She dropped hints of the wonders of her new home, and the newspapers were soon full of stories about the splendors to come at the Vanderbilt ball. Alva had invited all the prominent men and women of the city and her guest of honor was Lady Mandeville. All of Society was eager for the day of the ball.

One of the ball's features were to be the quadrilles danced by some of the lights of Society. Mrs. Astor's daughter, Carrie, and her friends had been practicing a Star Quadrille for some time and Carrie was very much looking forward to the ball. Mrs. Vanderbilt let the excitment build and build and then let Mrs. Astor know that Carrie was not invited. After all, Mrs. Astor had not called.

A doting mother simply could not let her daughter be disappointed and miss what was becoming the social event of the year. Mrs. Astor gave in and sent her coachman to the Vanderbilt mansion with her calling card. Mrs. Vanderbilt sent an invitation to the Astor family and Mrs. Astor and all the Four Hundred came to her ball.

The fancy dress ball was a huge success, and the Vanderbilts took their place in Society. At that point, Alva Vanderbilt could have taken over from Mrs. Astor as the Queen of Society, but she did not. Alva had accomplished her objective and gotten the family accepted, and that was enough for her. Alva went on to build yet another beautiful home, Marble House at Newport. She divorced William K. Vanderbilt and married another member of Society, Oliver Belmont. Alva then devoted her time toward making a match for her daughter Consuelo who married the Duke of Marborough. Finally, Alva brought her drive, energy and money to the cause of women's sufferage and became a fervent feminist.

Mrs. Astor went on serenely giving balls and dinners until a stroke forced her to withdraw from Society in 1905. She died in 1908. The Astor family split into two branches - one lives in England where they are members of the peerage. The best known English Astor was Nancy, Lady Astor, the first woman to be elected to Parliament. The American branch of the family has kept a very low profile, with the exception of Brooke Astor, a very prominent philanthropist.

The Vanderbilts went on to become fixtures of the social scene for a number of years until they dissipated their great wealth. The beautiful homes they built in New York, including Alva's Chateau were torn down, although the homes they built in Newport, and Biltmore in North Carolina do remain. The Vanderbilt family are still around, most notably Gloria Vanderbilt, but they are no longer in the lists of the super-rich and are not often in the limelight. There is still Society in the United States, but the Society of the Gilded Age as Mrs. Astor and Alva Vanderbilt knew it, is no longer in existence.

Don't miss Linda Francis Lee's Write Byte on Victorian New York

 

Ellen is the editor of the Historical Cheat Sheet and an AAR Editor/Reviewer - you can email her via the link here
Find links to all of Ellen's Historical Cheat Sheet articles at the end of Servants, including her article on Newport in the Gilded Age



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