The winter social season in Gilded Age New York, which lasted from October until Easter, was a whirlwind of frantic activity that included dinner parties, luncheons, receptions, opera performances, and, of course, balls.
The single most important event of the season was indisputably Mrs. Astor’s annual ball, which always took place on a Monday in January. To comprehend the importance of this event one must understand that a Gilded Age ball wasn’t simply a frivolous pastime, but rather a battlefield of social domination. Winning or losing such a battle could forever define a young lady’s status and chart the subsequent course of her life. Debutantes came out knowing that their marriage prospects would hinge entirely on their success at these balls. Attending better balls meant meeting better prospects. A worse fate than failing to attract suitors at a ball was not being invited to one, and not being invited to Mrs. Astor’s annual ball meant relegation to social obscurity.
Caroline Astor (née Schermerhorn) could trace her ancestry to the original New York settlers with Dutch names — the trait that defined her as a member of the newly-formed American aristocracy. Big-boned and plain-featured, she was far from beautiful but possessed a no-nonsense personality and a fiery drive to become a leader of society. She married William Backhouse Astor Jr., grandson of the original money-making Astor, one of the wealthiest Americans of his time. The couple was rather mismatched, as the handsome and jovial William had no interest in “society.” He was a “sporting man” and spent most of his time on his yacht, leaving his capable spouse to lead social functions all by herself. Caroline Astor, however, maintained an unflappable attitude towards the situation, reckoning 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. “
But she was not completely left to her own devices. She found a right-hand man in Ward McAllister, a connoisseur of the “finer things in life, from food to etiquette.” He was teasingly called “make-a-lister” because of his habit of drawing lists of people he deemed worthy of belonging to the elite. Armed with ambitions to create a high society and earn Caroline Astor’s friendship, he achieved his goal by organizing the so-called “Four Hundred.” He professed to the New York Tribune, “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 … ” Virtually overnight, McAllister christened the city’s upper crust as “The Four Hundred.”
This “society” consisted primarily of members of the old Knickerbocker families, as McAllister maintained that “it took four generations to make a gentleman,” and was sprinkled with a few nouveaux riches. A self-proclaimed “social arbiter,” he understood that the most important feature of his plan was its exclusivity. Guided by the motto “Only invite nice people,” he invented the artificial limit of 400. Incidentally, 400 was the approximate number of people that fit into Mrs. Astor’s ballroom.
The anxiety wrought by the possibility of not receiving a little card with the words “Mrs. Astor requests a pleasure…” could only be compared with the agony of not getting one at all. The poor souls excluded from the list had to invent reasons for leaving town to cover the indignity of not being invited. These excuses varied from taking one’s daughter on an educational trip to Paris to attending a sudden family funeral to falling victim to some dramatic ailment. But this was all to no avail — their social status shattered, the unfortunates were forever doomed to obscurity.
The anointed ones, however, would arrive at the Astors’ mansion at 350 Fifth Ave to attend a lavish and prestigious annual ball. The night of the ball, the huge mansion would be magnificently lit and filled with flowers. Guests would arrive after the opera performance at 11 pm to be greeted by the regal Mrs. Astor, who stood stiffly in front of a portrait of herself, 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 broach once belonging to Marie Antoinette. (The broach was the French queen’s famous “stomacher,” a necklace that fell over the breast to the stomach.) It was customary at the time to flaunt one’s wealth by wearing as much jewelry as possible. In the irreverent words of one of her contemporaries, 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, the first dance was the quadrille. After a few hours of dancing, supper was served. Unlike other hostesses, who settled for a buffet, Mrs. Astor served an elaborate multi-course sit-down dinner. The festivities continued with more dancing and lasted into the small hours of the morning. Reportedly, Mrs. Astor’s annual ball wasn’t a place to enjoy oneself so much as the place to be as if one’s 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 were held for a few more years until they ceased 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 in spirit, and died three years later.
Her “social arbiter” Ward McAllister died in 1895. After publishing Society As I Have I Found It, in which he took too much credit for shaping the upper ranks, he fell out of favor with Caroline and subsequently the rest of high 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 certainly have approved!
Mrs. Astor presided over fashionable society in Gilded Age New York for almost four decades until her death. With her passing, the task of leading the elite was split among three extremely capable ladies: Mrs. Vanderbilt, Mrs. Fish, and Mrs. Oelrichs. The times changed along with 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.
1860’s Ward McAllister becomes known in NYC
1862 Astors builds a brownstone at 350 Fifth Avenue
1872 Ward McAllister starts the “Society of Patriarchs,” a group of 25 gentlemen from old New York families, and organizes the Patriarch Balls
1872 Ward McAllister meets Caroline Astor
1887 Caroline Astor changes her calling card from Mrs. William Astor to Mrs. Astor after the death of her sister-in-law Charlotte Augusta Gibbes
1890 Ward McAllister publishes Society As I Have Found It
1892 William Astor dies, leaving the title of the richest man in America to Caroline’s son John Jacob Astor IV
1893 Caroline and her son John Jacob Astor IV move into a double mansion (designed by Richard Morris Hunt) at 840 Fifth Avenue (65th Street)
1895 Ward McAllister dies
1905 Mrs. Astor hosts 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/