Friday, October 3, 2014

Etiquette and a Sumptuous Gilded Age Dinner Ball

"What is the chief end of man?-- To get rich. In what way?--dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must." Mark Twain, 1871
During the "Gilded Age," every man was a potential Andrew Carnegie, and Americans who achieved wealth celebrated it as never before. In New York, the opera, the theatre, and lavish parties consumed the ruling class' leisure hours. Sherry's Restaurant hosted formal horseback dinners for the New York Riding Club. Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish once threw a dinner party to honor her dog who arrived sporting a $15,000 diamond collar.

A gilded macaroni server, circa 1880 ~ The Gilded Age unofficially is believed to be the period between 1870-1900. "Gilding" is to cover, or coat, with gold, as many silver items were at the time. The period also got its name from the title of a book. "The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today" was an 1873 novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner
This ball at the Astors' 5th Avenue residence, a "double mansion" according to the news account, hosted nearly 300 guests. All of whom were "prominent representatives of New York society." The midnight supper (menu below) required the entirety of Mrs. Astor's "solid silver table service" as any menu of that size and amount would require, in the Gilded Age. The menu was as follows:

Consommé à la Princesse
Filet de boeuf aux champignons frais et truffes
Canard canvasback rôti
Salade de céleri et laitue
Sandwiches assortis
Glaces de fantaisies
Biscuit glacé biscuit Tortoni
Gâteaux assortis
Gelée macédoine 
Charlotte Parisienne
Café  Champagne  Claret Cup  Lemonade  Poland water

The supper was immediately followed by the cotillion. The party favors were "novel and artistic" and were pulled in "by ribbon bands, on an old French Sleigh, mounted on castors, a copy of one formerly used by Louis Quatorze." The goodies given to guests were quite a haul! The swag for the guests included; "Wands of roses with little bells attached, tartan plaid silk sashes, with the monogram of Mrs. Astor in gold, with the date of the ball; Beardsley poster blotters, and sachets with large bouquets attached." (Aubrey Beardsley was one of the most controversial artists of the Art Nouveau Era, and he died a year after this ball was held.) For the men, favors included; "Handsome leather tobacco pouches, with silver tops, gold and silver trimmed golf sticks and golf balls, and jeweled orders with gold chains.

Guests were required to attend a dinner party like the Astor's in "full dress." Just what that meant, was a question of time and place. Strictly interpreted, it allowed gentlemen very little choice.

A black dress coat and trowsers (sic), a black or white vest and cravat, white gloves, and pumps and silk stockings were formerly rigorously insisted upon. But the freedom-loving "spirit of the age" has already made its influence felt even in the realms of fashion, and a little more latitude is now allowed in most circles.

The "American Gentleman's Guide" enumerates the essentials of a gentleman's dress for occasions of ceremony in general, as follows:
"A stylish, well-fitting cloth coat, of some dark color and of unexceptionable quality, nether garments to correspond, or in warm weather, or under other suitable circumstances, white pants of a fashionable material and make, the finest and purest linen, embroidered in white, if at all; a cravat and vest of some dark or neutral tint, according to the physiognomical peculiarities of the wearer and the prevailing mode; an entirely fresh-looking, fashionable black hat, and carefully-fitted modish boots, white gloves, and a soft, thin, white handkerchief."

A lady's "full dress" was not as easily defined, and fashion allowed her much greater scope for the exercise of her taste in the selection of materials, the choice of colors, and the style of making. However, she had to arrive dressed "in the fashion."

The following is a list of just some of the notable female guests, and notes on what they wore:

Articles with highlights of what the socialites wore, written about in great detail and featured in the nationwide and international newspapers, were precursors to modern day, award shows and red-carpet, "Best Dressed and Worst Dressed" lists given out in entertaining television shows, magazines and blogs.
While the rich wore diamonds, many wore rags. In 1890, 11 million of the nation's 12 million families earned less than $1200 per year; of this group, the average annual income was $380, well below the poverty line. Rural Americans and new immigrants crowded into urban areas. Tenements spread across city landscapes, teeming with crime and filth. Americans had sewing machines, phonographs, skyscrapers, and even electric lights, yet most people labored in the shadow of poverty.   
To those who worked in Carnegie's mills and in the nation's factories and sweatshops, the lives of the millionaires seemed immodest indeed. An economist in 1879 noted "a widespread feeling of unrest and brooding revolution." Violent strikes and riots wracked the nation through the turn of the century. The middle class whispered fearfully of "carnivals of revenge."
For immediate relief, the urban poor often turned to political machines. During the first years of the Gilded Age, Boss Tweed's Tammany Hall provided more services to the poor than any city government before it, although far more money went into Tweed's own pocket. Corruption extended to the highest levels of government. During Ulysses S. Grant's presidency, the president and his cabinet were implicated in the Credit Mobilier, the Gold Conspiracy, the Whiskey Ring, and the notorious Salary Grab. 
Europeans were aghast. America may have had money and factories, they felt, but it lacked sophistication. When French prime minister Georges Clemenceau visited, he said the nation had gone from a stage of barbarism to one of decadence -- without achieving any civilization between the two.

Sources for this post: PBS, Maura Graber Etiquette Sleuth, The "American Gentleman's Guide" and 1887's "How to Behave" by Samuel R. Wells