About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.
Psychologist Williams James (1842 – 1910) wrote, “No more fiendish punishment could be devised than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by the members thereof.”
It was the Gilded Age in America: a time when obscurity was despised, discrimination was desired, and the word “society” referred to the economic elite.
Charles Southmayd was wrong when he instructed his young law partner, Joseph Hodges Choate, that it was sufficient and proper to accumulate and hold wealth. Southmayd did not appreciate that, during the Gilded Age, wealth was to be used to garner public regard. Wealth had to be accumulated, discriminatingly spent and intelligently “put in evidence” to establish social position.
Gilded Age entertainments were theater. More than theater, they were pageantry. Every elaborate display was covered by the press, giving rise to the first society columns. The hosts and hostesses were undoubtedly our first celebrities and, just as our current celebrities, they set the style in art, architecture, interior design, clothing and feasting. Entertaining in America achieved a standard hitherto unknown in America and more reminiscent of European royalty.
The images resonate to this day and have become legend: the equestrian dinner at Madison Square Garden where the gentlemen diners were served as they sat on horseback; a dinner at Delmonico’s where Ward McAllister “economized” by limiting the number of orchids on the table to 1,000, and Mrs. Astor’s October Ball where the glint of diamonds outshone the chandeliers.
Fashionable society found any excuse for a party–the musicale, the tableau vivant, tea, luncheon and picnics following tennis, golf, croquet, boating, polo, the horse show or the gymkana – but the grand events of the Gilded Age were the dinner and the ball.
Every aspect of a dinner required knowledge of proper form. Form was the substance – social etiquette designed to ensure social decorum. One arrived on time, knew what to wear – pearls or diamonds, white tie or black, sleeve or sleeveless and the exact measurement to the fraction of an inch of acceptable décolleté.
There was a promenade into the dining room led by the hostess and her guest of honor. Right without apparent favoritism, that is, without lingering too long in conversation with either side. One did not shout across the table.
Typically there were nine courses: Potages (soup), Hors d’Oeuvres, Poisson (fish), Rélèves (literally “relief”), Entrées (first course), Rôtis (roast meat), Entremets (salad), Dessert and Café. The language of food was French. At a signal from the hostess, the women rose and withdrew. After brandy and cigars, men joined the ladies in the salon, the ladies remained seated and spoke with whichever gentleman crossed the room to converse with them.
There were private balls with themes such as bal blanc, bal costume, and bal masque, There were public balls called assemblies such as the City Assembly and the Patriot’s Ball.
Never mistake “public ball” to mean open to the public. “Heaven forefend – ”it meant the ball took place in a public space rather than a private home. Private or public, the ball was exclusive and the ballroom was a dazzling and romantic place.
On Feb. 2, 1892, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor invited 600 guests to her private ballroom at her home on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Every one of the ground-floor rooms was festooned with flowers. Mrs. Astor, at an undisclosed price, had commanded the seasons and turned winter into spring. In the great hall, guests were greeted with large Majolica vases filled with pink American Beauty roses and mirrors festooned with roses. The balustrade and newel post was wound round with ferns, tendril of vines and topped with little baskets of flowers. On each landing was a 5-foot blue vase of white lilies. Tucked into the recess under the grand staircase, placed against a backdrop of palms and orange trees in full fruit, the first orchestra provided the promenade, or entrance music. In the ballroom, every alcove was filled with hyacinths and tulips–not cut, but growing in cases of dirt and arranged artfully. There the second of three orchestras was placed.
The “leading off” was an honor granted by the hostess to a special or favorite guest. Mrs. Astor asked J. R. Roosevelt to lead. The ball always included a supper and, again, at the appointed time, Mrs. Astor with an escort of her choosing lead the way into the dining room.
The dining room was set with 45 small tables, each seating six and each decorated with silver candelabra festooned with cascading pink roses. The main table had a three-tiered silver centerpiece with white hyacinth and white Cattleya orchids. Naturally, in addition to food, there was a third set of musicians – a string quartet for music during the supper.
At no time in American history were entertainments as numerous and as elaborate. The visions of the Gilded Age ballroom glittering with silks and jewels and the Gilded Age dinner table gleaming with polished silver and fine china have been recreated as works of art in the motion pictures and at the numerous Gilded Age house museums from Biltmore to the Breakers.
Everyone who was anyone, or hoped to be anyone at all, was involved in what Edith Wharton called “the complex art of civilized living.”