American History · biography · history

Mrs. Astor, Queen of the Gilded Age

The Gilded Age, specifically in New York City, took place from about 1870-1900. This time period is so fascinating because of the absurd amount of wealth that was being thrown around by the upper class. The rules of society (specifically for women) were so strange and so confining. This is a time that the average modern American would not be able to connect to (maybe today’s technology billionaires could) and they must have seemed like other worldly beings to their contemporaries. They created luxurious houses, draped so many jewels around themselves, and stuck to a rigid code of etiquette all to cultivate an image. The members of the upper class during this era wanted to create something that America did not have. They wanted to be the aristocracy (like in Europe with their dukes, earls, etc.), yet, as this was America, there were no titles. They even had a queen, the formidable Mrs. Caroline Astor, who ruled and called the shots for what was considered “proper society”.

Vanderbilt Mansion on 5th ave

Caroline Schermerhorn was born on September 22, 1830 in New York. She was the daughter of a wealthy merchant and had a long, established family history which dated back to the colonial Dutch era. She would have grown up well educated, well-traveled, and, likely, a bit spoiled. She was curious, ambitious, and adventurous as well. In 1853, she married William Blackhouse Astor II. The Astor family owned a great deal of New York City. They owned so much that they were referred to as the “landlord of New York”. They had built much of their wealth by taking advantage of new immigrants moving to the city.

Mrs. Caroline Astor, Queen of New York

It was not a love match, but an economic and political one. Mrs. Astor had access to the large wealth of her husband and Mr. Astor gained better social standing by marrying a Schemmerhorn. With the help of Mrs. Astor, William Astor was able to take a step back from the shady business tactics of his father/grandfather. Mrs. Astor wanted their family name to be the peak of society and she held this ambition for a long time. After the birth of their son, the two lived separate lives. William preferred the country while Mrs. Astor threw herself into society. After the death of her mother-in-law in 1872, she finally held the title of family matriarch and it was time for her to take her place at the top.

New York City society was messy after the Civil War and Mrs. Astor took advantage of this social vacuum. She was bold enough to take the reign. She wanted to protect the power and status of old wealth and lineage. She enlisted the help of Ward McAllister who would serve as her advisor and right hand man. To get through to Mrs. Astor, one had to be vetted by McAllister first. McAllister was born in Savannah, Georgia and made it his life goal to learn everything about the rituals of proper etiquette (especially in European courts). He traveled extensively and observed. He was reported to be a bit of a snob. Together, Mrs. Astor and McAllister created the infamous “Four Hundred”. This phrase was coined by McAllister who stated there were “only 400 fashionable people in New York.” It was also considered to be the amount that could fit comfortably into a ballroom. Patriarch Balls were established where the 25 gentlemen from the old families (and most respectable of the newer) would hold exclusive balls. The 25 were chosen by Mrs. Astor and given a finite amount of invitations. The invitations were rare which just made them more valuable. These were the most exclusive and fashionable social events of the season.

 In reality, the list was actually much shorter than 400. When McAllister released the list to the newspaper in 1892 (in a highly criticized move which essentially ended his career in society), there were only 150 listed. It seems that amount on the list changed in many different versions throughout the period.

At this time there was a great divide between “old money” (nobs)  and “new money” (swells). The “nobs” had the long lineage in New York to justify their place as a society leader. Meanwhile, the “swells” were upstarts and created their wealth and careers quickly. It seems like they were thought of as almost “frauds” or “wannabes”. Mrs. Astor wanted to make sure that most of the membership to her “new society” was from old lineage. This is where they came up with specific rules for their “Four Hundred”:

  • The current members must be separated by at least three generations from the individual who first made the family fortune
  • They must have a minimum of $1 million in cash (in Gilded Age era money)

They also must never get sloppy or forgetful about the acceptable rules and etiquette of society. Any in the “Four Hundred” must be up to standards with their dress, the way they acted, who they called upon, and the events they attended. People aspired to be a part of this list. Nothing could be worse than being dead to society. There were some “swells” who did get onto this list. They were held to even stricter standards of entry.

The Vanderbilts were part of the “swells” crowd, but by now had reached their third generation. Mrs. Astor did not want to include them as railroad money was not respectable. This became a heated battle between Mrs. Astor and the bold Alva Vanderbilt.

The Academy of Music was the place to be to see the opera. The typical season opened with a performance at the Academy and throughout the season on Mondays and Fridays. When the Vanderbilts attempted to buy a box they were rejected. Many of the families who were rejected came together to create the Metropolitan Opera House as a challenger. They created an awe-inspiring building with rich materials and fabrics. It was the image of opulence and luxury. It had better acoustics as well, so that all parts of the performance were heard with clarity. The new theater was also located in a more fashionable district than the old Academy at 39th and Broadway. They also had the money to steer the best acts away from the Academy. Due to this, “old society” was forced to purchase boxes at the new theater and within 2 years the old Academy closed. This was a turning point when the elite realized that it may be to their advantage to let the new money in. Mrs. Astor herself purchased box 7 which was at the center. She always arrived at the middle of the 1st act, but never left her box to socialize. She let her admirers come to her. Then she would leave in the middle of act 2. She kept up an image of aloofness and royalty.

Metropolitan Opera House 1888. This opera house is still in use today.

Yet, the Vanderbilts still struggled to find acceptance in high society of New York. Alva Vanderbilt was ambitious and dominant, and she relished the challenge of taking down Mrs. Astor’s empire. After she pursuaded Ward McAllister, Alva was able to scrape together a few invitations to social events, but Mrs. Astor would still never receive them personally.

Upon completion of the Vanderbilt mansion on 5th Ave in 1882, Alva decided to throw the most extravagant costume ball that society had ever seen. Guests would arrive in elaborate costumes based on a fashionable historical figure. People desperately wanted an invitation. Mrs. Astor was not on the invitation list as she had never formally called upon Alva Vanderbilt. Yet, Alva found out an interesting tidbit that she could use to force Mrs. Astor to accept her.

Carrie Astor, the young daughter of Mrs. Astor, desperately wanted to go to the ball. She had been practicing the dances and read news articles highlighting the details of the event. This forced Mrs. Astor to have to drive over to the Vanderbilt mansion and leave her calling card. Mrs. Astor had formally acknowledged Alva Vanderbilt. This was a triumph in the eyes of Alva. An invitation was sent the very next day.

The ball was a success. Glittering and jeweled costumes filled the mansion. The guests wandered into rooms filled with the most elaborate flower arrangements. Many of the rooms were filled with electric lights, Chinese lanterns and even fountains. Mrs. Astor and Alva Vanderbilt both appeared costumed as Venetian princesses. They were even spotted in deep conversation with each other. The former rivals had now come together. Mrs. Astor couldn’t help but be impressed with the success of the ball and the glory of the new mansion. The next year Alva Vanderbilt made an appearance to the famed Astor opera ball.

Alva Vanderbilt at the famous costume ball

In the 1890s, after almost 40 years of her reign as Society’s Queen, Mrs. Astor made a gradual retreat from society which led to another social vacuum. Society had started to change and drift from the opulent displays and firm social rules. She also would suffer dementia after an accidental fall in 1905 and passed away in 1908. She would always be remembered for the strong impact she had on New York City during this era.

As part two of this post, I wanted show what a day during the social season would look like for a female member of New York City society during the Gilded Age. The social season took place from November to the onset of Lent. In the springtime, many would enjoy the social seasons in foreign courts (England, Europe) before coming back to enjoy their summer homes (many in Newport). They would return to the city in October. For twelve weeks, the season would jam packed and move at an exhausting pace. There were constant receptions, dinners, ball, soirees, musicales, luncheons, etc. As a debutante (a young woman entering society), it could be even more stressful as her job was to meet as many eligible suitors as possible. It was recorded that Gertrude Vanderbilt attended 92 dinner parties/dances in one season. Everything was a social function (even just a carriage drive through the park or attending church) and one had to always be dressed in their best and constantly remain guarded. A woman was expected to be an impeccable wife and mother, but also was expected to be a leader in social and philanthropic events. Did these women ever get a chance to just breathe?

During the season, she would wake up late in the morning. The night before she was likely at a ball into the early hours of the morning. Dressed in a kimono type robe, she would have a breakfast tray brought up and take her meal in bed. This time would also be used to catch up on her personal correspondence. This could take hours as a society woman had many invitations to accept or decline, personal letters, charities requesting assistance, and their own invites to send out. Some women had to hire their own secretaries just to keep up. After a bath, hairdressing, and freshening up at the toilette, she would change in to a long sleeved day dress.

At luncheon time there would be another outfit change into a more formal day dress (especially if she was entertaining visitors). She may have to attend a morning reception with a musical act (usually scheduled on national holidays). In the afternoon, a lady would change into a silk or velvet day dress in order to go make calls. They would want a dress that called attention to who they were. The ritual of calling and calling cards was very important, but time consuming. Every married society lady would schedule certain days each month that they would be at home to receive callers. 5th Avenue received callers on Tuesdays while Madison avenue received on Thursdays. There would be no calls before 2 pm and it was rude for there to be callers after 4pm (as there could be an evening function or afternoon drive). This was ritualized politeness.

Every married woman had a card case which contained their simple vellum card and was engraved with their name. It was always using their husband’s name (for example, Mrs. William Astor). If the person was not at home, one would leave their card (and inquire about the mistress with the butler) so they knew that you took the time to call upon them (it would be rude not to). One needed to have a proper introduction before calling and the first call you make (after her debut) would have to be to a society leader (likely Mrs. Astor). One must call within two days after a dinner party. It was a very uncomfortable situation when two callers who did not know each other (had not been formally introduced ) enter at the same time as introductions could not be made at home (must be a formal event).

As stated before there could be an afternoon drive or a formal afternoon tea (often a good place to gently introduce a debutante daughter to society).  A woman then went back to change into an evening gown for a variety of events that night.

There could be the formal dinner party or a performance at the opera. A dinner party began at 8 or 9 pm. Most parties were about 24-48 people, but up to 100 was not unusual. It was a place for families to show off important visiting people like politicians, clergy, sons/daughters returning from a tour in Europe, a prince or nobleman from a foreign country, etc. The invitations were sent three weeks in advance and a personal RSVP is always required. The protocol of a dinner party was very important. The butler and footmen and all staff would be highly prepared in all etiquette and complicated menus prepared in advance. As Gilded Age society were obsessed with the idea of being America’s aristocracy, they wanted everything European. English butlers were in style and French chefs were the most popular in their houses. The ultimate prize was to secure a coveted invitation to Mrs. Astor’s dinner party.

Society balls typically followed opera nights. The opera was one of the most important events for society to show off. Families would have their own boxes which would be passed down from father to son. After the opera, the women would change into elaborate and luxurious ball gowns. They would bring out their best jewelry and diamond tiaras (which were very fashionable). Balls would typically begin at 11pm and not end until the early hours of the morning. They were usually held in the ballrooms of the city mansions. Each hostess was expected to give about one or two balls a season.

Debutantes would be dressed in light gowns of white satin or chiffon. They would have a corsage of flowers tied to their arm along with a small dance card with a pencil. Potential suitors would write their names here next to particular dance in the dance program. It was advised not to fill it too quick and to assess the options before committing. If refusing a dance, then the woman must sit out that round as it would be rude to accept a different invitation right after refusing the first.

Though she would have to make sure she was not too picky as it was humiliating to be considered a “wallflower” ( a woman with no suitors essentially). A young woman was always being assessed by their potential for marriage. Chaperones were also a constant companion to these young girls. Men were allowed to wander as they pleased, but ladies were never allowed to be the ones to ask for a dance or be without escort. A system was created to send covert messages using fans, gloves and handkerchiefs in order to evade the chaperones notice. Naturally, Mrs. Astor’s ball was another coveted invitation and her ball included a formal sit down dinner (many balls were more buffet style). Mrs. Astor did not stay late at her own party, but would slip away into the shadows at some point in the night. She again kept that regal aloofness in her image alive.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of all the rules and etiquette that the women had to follow in order to be viewed as good society. Everything was about image and one could not relax the rules for even a moment as someone would notice. Lets just say, I don’t think I would be able to handle this lifestyle (especially for an introvert like me). This was such an interesting topic to research as it seems to be a completely foreign world from the one we live in now.


The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York: A Season of Splendor by Greg King

Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe

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