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Mrs Astor and the Four Hundred

In fashionable East Coast society in the years before the turn of the century, there was just one woman who determined who was in – and out. From calculated calling cards to opulent Fifth Avenue parties, find out more about how the Mrs Astor ruled Gilded Age New York…

Mrs Caroline Backhouse Astor
Published: February 21, 2022 at 2:50 pm
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“There are only about four hundred people in fashionable New York Society,” a gentleman named Ward McAllister told the New York Tribune in 1888. “If you go outside that number,” he warned, “you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or else make other people not at ease.”

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Four years later, the New York Times published an ‘official’ list of the Four Hundred deemed acceptable by McAllister and other social judges of the day. While the figure itself might seem arbitrary (some suggested it was simply because the ballroom of the socially prominent Astor family could only hold 400 guests), the list itself was regarded as anything but random. It represented, in print, the strict boundary that had dominated the upper echelons of East Coast society for decades.

McAllister’s proclamation came at the height of the so-called Gilded Age, a term inspired by an 1873 novel by Mark Twain. In The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, the author satirised the showy materialism and political corruption that he felt characterised American society in the period between the American Civil War (1861–65) and the turn of the 20th century. It was a time when families of ‘new money’, having made their fortunes ‘out west’, flocked with their wealth to the eastern cities of New York, Boston, and Newport, Rhode Island, that had previously been havens of the established old guard.

This new breed of tycoons – Andrew Carnegie, JD Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, to name a few – had made their riches in exploding industries such as railroads, oil, and steel. They soon found that with sizable ‘donations’ into the right pockets, they could machete their way through tradition and into the spaces of the city elite, coming to wield both economic and political power.

Cartoon from American satirical magazine Puck, c1885, showing American millionaires playing Monopoly with the country's assets
Cartoon from American satirical magazine Puck, c1885, showing American millionaires playing Monopoly with the country's assets. From left: William Vanderbilt, Cyrus West Field, Jay Gould, Russell Sage. (Image by Alamy)

But many of the Knickerbockers of New York – descendants of the Anglo-Dutch families who had settled in what was then New Amsterdam in the 17th and 18th centuries – were determined that these interlopers and their families were not to make it into 'real society'.

No matter that their mansions might be built by the same eminent architect, Richard Morris Hunt, or their children educated in the same hallowed halls of Harvard and Yale; in the eyes of the elite, these newly minted millionaires could simply not claim the same pedigree. And in the late 19th century, the power to decide just who made the cut resided with one woman: Mrs Caroline Backhouse Astor.

Who was the Mrs Astor?

Simply known in society by this time as the Mrs Astor, she had been born Caroline Schermerhorn in September 1830, into the city’s Knickerbocker elite; her family could trace their lineage back to the earliest settlers in colonial North America.

Mrs Caroline Backhouse Astor
Born Caroline Schermerhorn in September 1830, Mrs Caroline Backhouse Astor became one of the most important social arbiters of Gilded Age New York. (Image by Alamy)

In 1853, she married into the Astor family, a name that was a byword for wealth and opulence (John Jacob Astor, a German emigrant who had made an unprecedented fortune in the fur trade in post-revolution America, was her husband’s grandfather). But by the standards of the day, she was the one who brought a higher social status to their union.

Together with her husband William Backhouse Astor Jr she had five children, including her favoured daughter, Caroline ‘Carrie’ Astor, and John Jacob Astor IV (who died in the 1912 Titanic disaster). After seeing her children to adulthood, she seized the advantage granted by her combination of family and wealth, and by the latter half of the 19th century she had become the established gatekeeper to the world of ‘acceptable’ New York society.

Who was Ward McAllister?

Ward McAllister, a socially ambitious Southern gentleman from Savannah, Georgia, had already made a name for himself as a social arbiter by the mid-1800s, after touring Europe and observing closely how wealthy Americans conducted themselves. Cultivating a network within such circles (he founded the Society of Patriarchs in 1872, which comprised of a group of 25 ‘worthy gentlemen’ from New York society), McAllister was soon regarded as a tastemaker. He would often cherry-pick friends from both old money and new, matchmaking where he saw an expedient opportunity that would better society (and perhaps burnish his own reputation along the way). Together, he and Mrs Astor worked together to shun undesirables and elevate the deserving, protecting (as they saw it) the traditions of the old families.

Ward McAllister, played by Nathan Lane in period drama 'The Gilded Age'
Ward McAllister, played by Nathan Lane in period drama 'The Gilded Age', was a social arbiter in late 19th century New York. (Alison Rosa Cohen © 2021 Heyday Productions, LLC and Universal Television LLC)

What better way, it was decided, for Mrs Astor and her companion to enshrine this social order, but a party? A regular soiree was soon established, exclusive and opulent, with invites coveted as precious social capital.

Hosting the parties in her mansion at 350 Fifth Avenue (on a site that today houses the Empire State Building), Mrs Astor was the ruler of this affluent set. They in turn craved her approval, thrilled to be in attendance amid the peacock feather rugs and midnight suppers served by liveried footmen. She cultivated a regal presence; she wore dark or jewel tones, and often purple, and was always swathed in diamonds (she famously wore a ‘stomacher’ once owned by the young, doomed queen of France, Marie Antoinette).

During her parties, she would often be seen sitting on a red velvet couch, surveying her guests’ behaviour (and making sure that no vulgarity was displayed by the errant flash of woman’s ankle or calf). By the 1880s, these annual balls, always thrown on a Monday in January, were a must-attend event, with the guest list determining who was ‘in’ for the rest of the year.

The game of calling cards

Even if one wasn’t granted an exclusive invitation, there was another way to obtain access to society, and that was by receiving Mrs Astor’s calling card.

A vital aspect of etiquette that demanded to be observed, the calling card was just one way that the old guard like Mrs Astor had the power to elevate a family with a single visit, or keep others indefinitely on the fringes.

One of the rituals of society women at this time was to call upon other society women. Upon calling, a woman would leave her card, which would then be carried by a servant to the lady of the house who would choose whether to admit the visitor. Sometimes the caller wouldn’t even pay the initial visit, but simply leave her card as an introduction, a signal of her intent to call again.

Matriarchs of society such as Mrs Caroline Backhouse Astor (pictured played by Donna Murphy in The Gilded Age) employed the rules of calling cards to maintain the social order. (Alison Rosa Cohen © 2021 Heyday Productions, LLC and Universal Television LLC)
Matriarchs of society such as Mrs Caroline Backhouse Astor (pictured played by Donna Murphy in The Gilded Age) employed the rules of calling cards to maintain the social order. (Alison Rosa Cohen © 2021 Heyday Productions, LLC and Universal Television LLC)

But not everyone could leave a calling card; tradition dictated that women of a higher social standing do the calling; they would not be summoned, as they saw it, by those down the hierarchy. Newcomers could only wait for a coveted visit, with no power to sidestep this carefully controlled ritual.

One such newcomer, though, would have the last laugh, pressing the rules of etiquette to her advantage. Alva Vanderbilt (née Smith), the daughter of a commodities trader from Mobile, Alabama, had married William Kissam Vanderbilt (the grandson of the tycoon Cornelius) in 1875. Dismissed as ‘nouveau riche’ by the old guard, the Vanderbilts had struggled for decades to find social standing in New York despite their vast wealth (William inherited $55 million after his father’s death in 1885), and upon her marriage Alva suffered the same snub. The answer, as she saw it, was to leverage what they did have: money.

The Vanderbilts had commissioned their own mansion a stone’s throw away from the Astor’s estate. The palatial residence at 660 Fifth Avenue was three-and-a-half storeys, inspired by French Gothic style and filled with treasures from Europe. In 1883, in a seemingly calculated social campaign, Alva planned an extravagant costume party to christen their new ‘petite chateau’, inviting more than 1,000 guests – a far cry from Astor and McAllister’s slimmed-down guestlists.

A view of New York's 5th Avenue in 1900 shows the Vanderbilt residences
A view of New York's 5th Avenue in 1900 shows the Vanderbilt residences, along with St Thomas Church, and Hotel St. Regis. (Image by Getty Images)

“Amid the rush and excitement of business, men have found their minds haunted by uncontrollable thoughts as to whether they should appear as Robert Le Diable, Cardinal Richelieu, Otho the Barbarian, or the Count of Monte Cristo,” reported the New York Times, “while the ladies have been driven to the verge of distraction in the effort to settle the comparative advantages of ancient, medieval, and modern costumes.”

As the daughter of the powerful Mrs Astor, Carrie Astor was the toast of society. Convinced that she would be in attendance, she – along with many other eligible society beauties – discussed what she would wear and began to practice her quadrille. But an invite never arrived.

“Mrs Vanderbilt, hearing what was brewing, was quick to point out that since Mrs Astor had never left so much as a pasteboard at her gates, the inclusion of her daughter at the gala was most regrettably, inconceivable,” wrote journalist Frank Crowninshield in the 1940s. In a subtle leveraging of social mores, Alva had made clear that she could not invite Carrie until she gained introduction to Mrs Astor. Duly, a servant arrived at the Vanderbilt residence soon afterwards, bearing a card from Mrs Astor, and Alva Vanderbilt had unlocked the final gate.

A sketch first published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, of the fancy dress ball at the residence of William K Vanderbilt in 1883
A sketch first published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, of the fancy dress ball at the residence of William K Vanderbilt in 1883. (Image in Public Domain/courtesy New York Public Library digital collections)

On Monday 26 March 1883, police had to hold back crowds that had gathered on Fifth Avenue to watch the arrival of the guests, who came variously dressed as witches, pharaohs, living dolls and animals. One relative of Alva had dressed as a hornet, with a striped satin skirt that tapered to a sting-like point, while Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt was swathed in a yellow satin covered in lightning bolts, and carried a battery-powered light that she could raise over her head like the Statue of Liberty. Alva herself attended in costume as a renaissance Venetian courtier, and hosted a swelled guestlist of 1,200 of New York’s upper crust at the now-landmark event.

Alva Vanderbilt attends her own 1883 costume ball, dressed as a renaissance courtier.
Alva Vanderbilt attends her own 1883 costume ball, dressed as a renaissance courtier. (Image by Getty Images)

As well as securing her daughter an invite, Mrs Astor herself also attended the party, and was reported to say afterwards, in a hat-tip towards the new generation: “We have no right to exclude those whom the growth of this great country has brought forward, provided they are not vulgar in speech and appearance. The time has come for the Vanderbilts.”

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Alva was one of three society women (along with Mamie Fish and Theresa Fair Oelrichs) who would accede to the unofficial reins of power after Mrs Astor’s decline into dementia in her later years and eventual death in 1908. Nicknamed ‘the triumvirate’, they presided over the final years of the Gilded Age, and went on to hold great influence in the social and political issues of New York, and the US, at the dawn of the 20th century.

Mrs Astor in The Gilded Age

Both Mrs Astor and Ward McAllister appear in Julian Fellowes’ new period drama The Gilded Age, played by Donna Murphy and Nathan Lane respectively.

Their characters are drawn from reality, portrayed as gatekeepers between extravagantly wealthy newcomer Bertha Russell (an original character in the drama played by Carrie Coon) and New York society. The fictional Russells’ attempts in the drama to break into the upper ranges of this set mirror those of the Vanderbilts in many ways.

The Gilded Age is currently airing on HBO in the US and on Sky Atlantic in the UK, and it will be available to stream on NOW.

Read more about the real history the show draws upon:

Authors

Elinor EvansDigital editor

Elinor Evans is digital editor of HistoryExtra.com. She commissions and writes history articles for the website, and regularly interviews historians for the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast

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