The winter social season in Gilded Age New York, which started in October and lasted until Easter, was a whirlwind of frantic activity that featured dinner parties, luncheons, receptions, opera performances and, of course, balls.
The single most important event of the season was undisputably the annual ball thrown by Mrs. Astor, which always took place on a Monday in January. To comprehend the importance of this event one has to understand that the Gilded Age balls weren’t just a frivolous pastime but rather a battlefield of social domination. Winning or losing such a battle could define your position and life choices. Balls were the places for debutantes to come out, with their marriage prospects solely dependent on their success. Attending better balls meant meeting better prospects. A worse fate than not attracting suitors at a ball would have been not being invited to one, and not being invited to Mrs. Astor’s annual ball meant being condemned to social obscurity.
Caroline Astor (nee Schermerhorn) could trace her ancestry to the original New York settlers with Dutch names – the trait that identified her as American aristocracy. Big-boned and plain featured, she was far from beautiful but possessed a no-nonsense personality and a great desire to become a “society” leader. She married William Backhouse Astor, the grandson of the original money-making Astor, one of the wealthiest Americans of his time. The couple was rather mismatched, as William, jovial and good-looking, had absolutely no interest in “society.” He was a “sporting man” and spent most of his time on his yacht, leaving his capable spouse to lead society all by herself.
Caroline Astor had an unflappable attitude towards the situation and always maintained that “that the sea air was so good for dear William,” while regretting that she could not “accompany him as she was such a poor sailor. “
She was not completely left to her own devices. Her right hand was a southern gentleman by the name of Ward McAllister, a connoisseur of the finer things in life, from food to etiquette. Teasingly, they called him “make-a-lister,” because he made the lists of people worthy of belonging to the élite. Armed with Caroline Astor’s friendship and ambitions to create society, he achieved his goal by organizing the so-called “The Four Hundred.” He professed to the New York Tribune that “There are only about four hundred people in the fashionable New York Society. If you go outside that number you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or make other people not at ease …” Overnight, McAllister defined Society as “The Four Hundred.”
This “society” consisted of a carefully selected group mostly from the old Knickerbocker families, as McAllister maintained that “it took 4 generations to make a gentleman,” sprinkled with a limited number of “nouveaux riches.” A self-proclaimed “social arbiter,” he understood that the most important feature in his plan was its exclusivity. Under the motto – “Only invite nice people” – he invented the artificial limit of 400. Incidentally, that was the approximate number of people that fit into Mrs. Astor’s ballroom.
The anxiety caused by the possibility of not receiving a little card starting with “Mrs. Astor requests a pleasure,” could only be compared with the agony of not getting one. The poor souls excluded from the list had to invent reasons for leaving town to cover the indignity of not being invited. The reasons varied from taking a daughter on an educational trip to Paris or attending a sudden family funeral to abruptly developing some dramatic ailment. Their social position in New York was shattered, and they were doomed to obscurity.
The anointed ones, however, would, once a year, arrive at the Astors’ mansion at 350 Fifth Ave to attend a most lavish and prestigious annual ball. The night of the ball, the huge mansion was filled with flowers and blazed with light. Guests arrived after the opera performance at 11 pm to be greeted by the regal presence of Mrs. Astor herself, who stood stiffly in front of her own portrait, both figures bedecked in diamonds. Mrs. Astor, an awe-inspiring presence, wore a diamond tiara on her head, a triple diamond necklace around her neck, and a huge diamond “stomacher,” a necklace that fell over the breast to the stomach, that once belonged to Marie Antoinette. It was customary at the time to flaunt one’s wealth by wearing as much jewelry as possible. In the irreverent words of her contemporary, Mrs. Astor, the queen of society, looked like a walking chandelier.
She presided over the festivities sitting in the ballroom on her red velvet divan. It was considered a special honor to be invited to sit next to her. As per tradition, ball dancing started with a quadrille. A supper was served after a few hours of dancing, but unlike other hostesses, who settled for a buffet, Mrs. Astor served an elaborate multi-course sit-down dinner. Festivities commenced with more dancing into the small hours of the morning. Reportedly, Mrs. Astor’s balls weren’t necessarily the place to enjoy oneself but rather a place to be as if your life depended on it.
Due to the Astor family scandal, the annual tradition was interrupted for six long years until Mrs. Astor moved to a bigger and more spectacular mansion at 840 Fifth Ave. The annual balls went on for a few more years until they stopped in 1905. A few days after her last party the Queen of society, aged 75, fell on her staircase and broke her hip. She never recovered, neither in body nor spirit, and died three years later.
Her “social arbiter” Ward McAllister died in 1895. After he published The Society the Way I Found It, in which he took too much credit in the matter, he fell out of favor with Caroline and subsequently the rest of society. He died after dining alone (it was an opera night after all), but got a lavish funeral attended by the “nice people.” He would have approved…
Mrs. Astor presided over Fashionable Society in Gilded Age New York for almost four decades until her death. With her passing, the role of leading society was split among three extremely capable ladies – Mrs. Vanderbilt, Mrs. Fish, and Mrs. Oelrichs. The times have changed along with the ideas behind exclusivity and propriety. In the end, Mrs. Astor’s once spectacular balls were considered old fashioned and, frankly, rather boring.
1830 Caroline Schermerhorn is born
1853 Caroline Schermerhorn marries William Backhouse Astor Jr.
1860s Ward McAllister becomes known in NYC
1862 Astors build a brownstone at 350 Fifth Avenue
1872 Ward McAllister starts the “Society of Patriarchs,” a group of 25 gentlemen from New York old families and organizes the Patriarchs Balls
1872 Ward McAllister meets Caroline Astor
1887 Caroline’s sister-in-law, Charlotte Augusta Gibbes, dies. Caroline Astor changes her calling card from Mrs. William Astor to Mrs. Astor
1890 Ward McAllister publishes The Society the Way I Found It
1892 William Astor dies, leaving Caroline’s son John Jacob Astor IV the richest man in America
1893 Caroline and her son John Jacob Astor IV move into a double mansion (designed by Richard Morris Hunt) at 840 Fifth Avenue at 65th Street
1895 Ward McAllister dies
1905 Mrs. Astor gives her last great party
1908 Caroline Astor, known as Mrs. Astor, dies
- Justin Kaplan “When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age”, Penguin Books; 1st edition (June 1, 2006)
- Greg King “A Season of Splendor: The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York”, Wiley; 1 edition (October 1, 2008)
- Cecelia Tichi “What Would Mrs. Astor Do?: The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age”, NYU Press (November 27, 2018)
- EDWARD SOREL “Astor vs. Astor” “Town & Country”, DEC 20, 2012 https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/money-and-power/a912/astor-family-feud/
- Virginia Cowles “The Astors”, Sharpe Books (February 28, 2018)
- “The Gilded Age: A History From Beginning to End” by Hourly History
- Alan Axelrod “The Gilded Age: 1876–1912: Overture to the American Century,” Sterling (November 14, 2017)
- Mary Cable “Top Drawer: American High Society from the Gilded Age to the Roaring Twenties”, New Word City, Inc.; 1 edition (January 18, 2018)
- Anne de Courcy “Mrs Astor Invites”, Beyond, The St. Regis Magazine https://magazine.stregis.com/mrs-astor-invites-2/