This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we take a look at one of the signal events in late-19th century America, the opulent Vanderbilt Ball of 1883 that announced the dawning of the Gilded Age. One thousand of the richest people in America attended the costume ball that celebrated the opening of the Vanderbilt’s new mansion on Fifth Avenue. It was a conspicuous display of wealth and power never seen before in the US and it marked a sharp departure from traditional republican values of egalitarianism and restraint in favor of conspicuous consumption and pretensions to aristocracy.
And we also take a look at some key events that occurred this week in US history, like the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the 1915 quarantining of Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid. And birthdays, including
March 24, 1834 – explorer John Wesley Powell
March 24, 1919 – poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti
March 25, 1934 – feminist activist Gloria Steinem
Feature Story: The Vanderbilt Ball Ushers in The Gilded Age
On March 26, 1883 – 137 years ago this week – Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt hosted a gala ball at her mansion on 5th Avenue in New York City. There had been opulent balls and parties in NYC in the past, but nothing compared to this one. The event was held to celebrate the completion of the Vanderbilt’s new mansion, which in truth was more of a palace in the style of Louis XIV than a mere mansion. And then there was the price tag for the ball – $250,000 – or $6 million in today’s money. The Vanderbilt Ball of 1883 announced a new era in the US, one we now call the Gilded Age. And with this new era came new norms and values, ones that we are now quite familiar with in the 21st century.
So who was Mrs. Vanderbilt and what was she up to? Mrs. Vanderbilt was born Alva Erskine Smith in Alabama. She married William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of THE Vanderbilt, that is, the great railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. Like his grandfather, he was one of the wealthiest men in America. Alva Vanderbilt had it all.
Well, not quite. People like the Vanderbilts had one problem. They had boatloads of money, but no elite heritage like the old money families like the Astors and Roosevelts. So one of Mrs. Vanderbilt’s motivations behind her grand ball was to gain entry into elite society. The problem was that elite, old money New Yorkers shunned the nouveau rich like the Vanderbilts.
So Mrs. Vanderbilt worked up a plan. New York’s high society was dominated by Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, the queen of the old money set. She had taken it upon herself to determine who was “in” and who was “out” in terms of society. Her confidant and consultant in this matter was a guy named Ward McAllister who claimed that the TRUE elite in New York only numbered “Four Hundred.” Mrs. Astor was especially determined to prevent the Vanderbilt’s from entering this inner circle.
But then a crisis emerged. Carrie Astor—Mrs. Astor’s daughter – did not receive an invitation to the Vanderbilt Ball, while all her elite friends did. Alarmed over the implications of this snub, Mrs. Astor made some discreet inquiries. It turned out that Mrs. Vanderbilt’s response was that since Mrs. Astor had never formally called upon her, they were not formal acquaintances and thus it would be improper to invite her daughter to the ball. It was a brilliant move, for Mrs. Astor, seeing no alternative, swallowed her pride and called upon Mrs. Vanderbilt. The next day, Carrie Astor’s invitation to the ball arrived. The Vanderbilt’s were IN!
Mrs. Vanderbilt’s big bash was a costume ball. She invited 1,000 of New York’s wealthiest citizens to attend and they responded with ingenuity and enthusiasm, spending lavishly on their costumes. Some came dressed as animals and others as figures from history or literature, but the most popular theme was to dress as European royalty—Louis the XIV, Marie Antoinette, and many more.
Now building palaces and dressing up as European royalty signaled a major shift in American political culture. Ever since the American Revolution, American political culture focused obsessively on the need to adhere to republican values and to shun anything that suggested monarchy and aristocracy. These republican values stressed egalitarianism, which explains why Americans in the early 19th century stopped bowing to each other and instead adopted the handshake. Americans also shunned ostentatious displays of wealth and status, valuing instead republican modesty and restraint. For example, the richest people in NYC in the 1830s lived in a nice neighborhood called Gramercy Park. If you walked around it today, you’d be struck by the modest style of the homes of the rich that still stand there.
And republican values also permeated American politics where one of the worst things one could say about their adversary is that they harbored aspirations to be a king or an aristocrat, rather than a man of the people.
So, clearly something had changed by the 1880s. America’s super rich families tossed aside ideas like restraint and modesty and went all in on aping their European counterparts, working self-consciously to transform themselves into a new American aristocracy. The modest homes of the 1830s rich just a few miles downtown in Gramercy Park looked like tool sheds compared to the palatial mansions being built on Fifth Avenue, a place now nicknamed Millionaires Mile. And it was happening in every major American city, where rows of monumental homes were rising in places like Nob Hill in San Francisco, Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, and the Main Line in Philadelphia.
When the Ball took place on March 26, 1883, yet another indication that a new era had dawned became obvious as thousands of everyday New Yorkers gathered on the sidewalks to watch the spectacle. The rich had become celebrities for – being rich. Mrs. Vanderbilt had skillfully cultivated media coverage, providing interviews and inviting reporters in to see the preparations for the big night. And they lapped it up. By the early 1880s the major newspapers had added what they called Society pages that chronicled in breathless detail the European tours of the Belmonts, Astors, and Lodges, the impending weddings of Morgans to the Satterlees and the Vanderbilts to the Whitneys. The scandals of high society—the usual things like affairs, divorces, bankruptcies, and suicides—also received intense media coverage. Basically, you can draw a straight line from this moment in US history right to the Kardashians.
Dancing began at 11:00 pm. Dinner—catered by the famous Delmonico’s restaurant—was served at 2am. The event finally concluded as the sun was rising.
Some of the press coverage the next day was a little scornful about the excess, but most offered giddy descriptions of the guests and the festivities. Mrs. Vanderbilt had vaulted to the upper echelon of New York society. As the kids say these days, Mrs. Vanderbilt had crushed it.
The success of the Vanderbilt Ball inspired other elite families to engage in a competition to see who could outdo everyone in terms of extravagant spending on galas, balls, soirees, parties, and weddings. They also built even bigger mansions in summer resort areas like Newport, RI.
It probably won’t surprise to you to learn that it was in this era that the term “conspicuous consumption” was coined by a sociologist named Thorstein Veblen. “Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods,” he wrote, “is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure.”
And by the way, keep an eye out for a new television series coming to HBO this Fall. It’s called The Gilded Age and it’s the creation of Julien Fellowes, the guy who created Downton Abbey. It’s essentially a DA of an earlier era and set in New York rather than the UK. My bet is it’s going to be a huge hit and you better believe it will feature many of the themes discussed in this piece. I for one, can’t wait. In fact, I’m probably going to start a Gilded Age fan podcast. But more on that later.
For more information about the In The Past Lane podcast, head to our website, www.InThePastLane.com
Music for This Episode
Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)
The Joy Drops, “Track 23,” Not Drunk (Free Music Archive)
Blue Dot Sessions, “Pat Dog” (Free Music Archive)
Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)
The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)
Executive Producer: Lulu Spencer
Graphic Designer: Maggie Cellucci
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© In The Past Lane, 2020
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© In The Past Lane 2020