Webster Schermerhorn Astor, Carolyn
Carolyn Webster Schermerhorn Astor
Died October 30, 1908 (New York, New York)
Prior to the Gilded Age, the era of industrialization from the early 1860s to the turn of the century in which a few wealthy individuals gained tremendous power and influence, there was a limited number of very rich and privileged families in the United States. The rural nature of the country had long prevented a large wealthy class from rising, since farming did not usually generate huge profits. Similarly, few people could claim an elite ancestry, since most Americans were descended from farmers.
"She was America's substitute for grand duchess and queen."
In 1845 there were only ten millionaires living in New York City. They generally kept to themselves and saw little need to show off their wealth. Starting in the late 1860s, however, the soaring profits of new industries created thousands of newly wealthy families, many of whom migrated to the city. The older families called the newcomers the "nouveaux riche," or new rich, an insulting term indicating a lack of tradition and refinement. The newcomers quickly began spending large amounts of their money in highly public ways. They bought huge mansions, fancy carriages pulled by the best horses, and expensive jewelry and clothing. They hired lots of servants and held elaborate balls and dinners. The old rich found ways to show off their money as well, while at the same time demonstrating their superior social qualities. Since no real hierarchy (system of ranking in position) existed in the community, the old rich basically created one, and a set of fashionable socialites (socially prominent people) was born. Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, or "Mrs. Astor," as she preferred to be called, was the best-known leader of this movement to redefine the upper crust of New York.
Caroline Astor was born in New York in 1830. Her father was a wealthy merchant with good connections in New York society. Both of her parents' ancestry dated back to the early Dutch settlers of New York. The Schermerhorns claimed to be of Dutch patroon heritage. The patroon system was created in the early seventeenth century by the Dutch West Indies Company, an international trading company based in Holland, to get people to emigrate from Holland to the United States. The company would give a very large grant of land in the United States to any person who would bring over fifty or more colonists at his own expense. In exchange, the patroon owned all the lands in his area and ruled with great authority over his colonists, from whom he collected rent. Some scholars, though, have questioned whether all of the Schermerhorn ancestors were from patroon lineage. In any case, Caroline was considered to be from one of the oldest and most aristocratic New York families and in 1853 she achieved what appeared to be the perfect marriage—the union of her aristocratic background with the immense wealth of William Backhouse Astor Jr. (1830–1892).
The Astor background
Mrs. Astor's new husband was the grandson of merchant John Jacob Astor (1763–1848), whose American Fur Company created the first monopoly (exclusive possession or right to produce a particular good or service) on the fur trade in U.S. territories. John Jacob Astor soon became the wealthiest man in the country. He used his money to buy land in the thinly populated northern sections of Manhattan (a part of New York City) and built commercial buildings and apartments in them. As years went by and real estate values rose, these Manhattan real estate holdings became the basis of the tremendous Astor family fortune.
John Jacob Astor's son, William Backhouse Astor Sr. (1792–1875), inherited about half of his father's wealth and continued to make real estate investments in New York. As large numbers of immigrants began moving into the city in the late 1840s, an urgent need for more living quarters arose. Astor converted many of his buildings into crowded tenements, or urban dwellings rented by impoverished families that barely met minimum standards of safety, sanitation, and comfort. He rented out tiny, airless rooms at high prices. Developing a bad reputation among the less fortunate residents of the city, Astor became known as the "landlord of New York." Many complaints were made about the unhealthy condition of his buildings, but it was years before Astor began to make some improvements. William Astor Sr. left an estate of about $50 million, dividing it up between his two sons, John Jacob III (1822–1890) and the man who later became Mrs. Astor's husband, William Backhouse Jr.
Caroline and William Backhouse Astor Jr. had five children, the youngest of which was their only son, John Jacob IV (1864–1912). The marriage was never a close or loving union. While Mrs. Astor was socially active, her husband preferred a peaceful evening at his club, long sails on the family yacht, and horseback riding at his estate in the Hudson River Valley. Nonetheless, in 1856, Mrs. Astor convinced him to build the family a home on Fifth Avenue in an area that was becoming popular with the rich. Mrs. Astor's house was an elegant brownstone mansion noted for a large art gallery, which could be converted into a grand ballroom that could accommodate several hundred people.
For most of the 1860s the family lived in the quiet manner of New York's older families, not drawing unnecessary attention to themselves. By the early 1870s, however, Mrs. Astor began pursuing the supreme goal of high society mothers of the time—making good matches (finding romantic partners with money and social standing) for her children. With her daughters frequently accompanying her, she began a busy routine of socializing. She appeared at all the upper-class galas in New York during the winter season; lodged in Newport, Rhode Island, during the summer season; and spent the rest of the year in various elite European settings.
The Patriarchs and the List of 400
In 1872 Mrs. Astor met Ward McAllister (1827–1895), who would become her longtime partner as a society leader and raise her to the status of the queen of New York high society. McAllister decided to become a society man around 1852. His first step was a long trip to Europe where he mixed with the upper class and learned the arts of refined society. When he came back to the United States, he formed an elegant and exclusive social scene in the previously sleepy town of Newport. After his success there, he focused on New York, declaring himself the one to ask about foods, wines, dress, and all matters of etiquette (manners). He divided New York society into the Nobs (old money) and Swells (new money). One of his first acts was to form a loose organization of twenty-five of New York's oldest families. The men who headed these families were called Patriarchs, and it was their duty to give an annual ball. Each of the Patriarchs was to invite nine other people—five women and four men—to each ball. This created a select group that included acceptable people from among both Nobs and Swells. In his memoirs, Society As I Have Found It (1890), McAllister describes the purpose behind the balls:
The whole secret of the success of the Patriarch Balls lay in making them select; in making them the most brilliant balls of each winter; in making it extremely difficult to obtain an invitation to them, and to make such invitations of great value; to make them the stepping-stone to the best New York society, that one might be sure that any one repeatedly invited to them had a secure social position, and to make them the best managed, the best looked-after balls given in this city.
McAllister and Mrs. Astor met while she was preparing for the coming out (first appearance as a grown, and therefore eligible for marriage, woman) of her oldest daughter. He wrote in his book that he "at once recognized her ability, and felt that she would become society's leader, and that she was admirably qualified for the position." Together Mrs. Astor and McAllister created a New York institution unlike any other at the time: Mrs. Astor's annual ball. They put together what they referred to as a List of Four Hundred, the number of people invited to the ball. Some say the list was limited to the number of people Mrs. Astor's ballroom could accommodate, but this was generally believed to be a myth. McAllister told a reporter from the New York Tribune in 1888 the reason for the number four hundred:
Why, there are only about 400 people in fashionable New York society. If you go outside that number you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or else make other people not at ease…. Now with the rapid growth of riches millionaires are too common to receive much deference…. So we have to draw social boundaries on another basis; old connections, gentle breeding, perfection in all the requisite accomplishments of a gentleman, elegant leisure and an unstained private reputation count for more than newly gained riches.
Mrs. Astor's balls
Mrs. Astor was a plain woman with little humor and a stern, dignified manner. Her annual balls were not known for witty or interesting conversation and few considered them fun. The ballroom was always beautifully decorated, however, filled with expensive china, silver, crystal, flower arrangements, and art pieces. The servants were dressed in livery (uniforms) that had been copied from that of the royal servants at England's Windsor Castle. The balls were perfectly organized and managed, and, with carefully selected guests and discussion generally limited to the weather and upcoming balls and weddings, there were few embarrassing moments.
The balls began around 11 pm when guests arrived at the brilliantly lit house on Fifth Avenue. They were met by a reception line at the end of which was Mrs. Astor, standing under a large and highly flattering portrait of herself. Along with an elaborate and expensive gown, she wore so many diamonds and other jewels it was said that she could not sit back in her chair comfortably. When the reception period was over, Mrs. Astor would lead her guests into the art gallery that served as the grand ballroom. Mrs. Astor's red silk throne was placed on one side of the room, and many of the female guests hoped to be asked to take the places of honor near it. An orchestra played from a balcony.
Dinners were served on gold-plated china, with silver and crystal utensils. The tables were piled so heavily with serving ware that they sometimes had to be braced in order to hold up the weight. At each place setting there were different forks for salads, fish, vegetables, meats, and desserts. Knowing which fork to use for which food was considered a part of the refinement necessary to belonging to high society.
Thorstein Veblen and The Theory of the Leisure Class
One of the outspoken critics of the wealthy and business classes during the Gilded Age was social scientist Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929). The sixth of twelve children born to Norwegian immigrant parents, Veblen grew up in rural Minnesota. He graduated in 1880 from Carleton College, Minnesota, and in 1884 earned a doctorate in philosophy at Yale. After leaving Yale he was forced to spend seven unhappy years on his family's farm in Minnesota after he failed to find an academic job. In 1891 Veblen revived his academic career by enrolling as a graduate student in economics at Cornell University. A year later he became a professor at the University of Chicago, where he remained for the next fourteen years. While at the university he wrote his first and best-known book, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899).
The Theory of the Leisure Class presented a complex economic and social theory as well as a sometimes humorous study of the rich during the last half of the nineteenth century. The book was an unexpected success. Veblen wrote of U.S. economic life as if he were an anthropologist describing the traits of an ancient culture, noting that a leisure class was generally to be found in the higher levels of barbarian societies. Labor in those societies was associated with weakness and lack of power. He argued that the unfavorable view of working for a living continued to present times:
The … distinction between the base and the honourable in the manner of a man's life retains very much of its ancient force even today. So much so that there are few of the better class who are not possessed of an instinctive repugnance [disgust] for the vulgar forms of labour…. It is felt by all persons of refined taste that a spiritual contamination [corruption] is inseparable from certain offices [jobs] that are conventionally required of servants. Vulgar surroundings, mean (that is to say, inexpensive) habitations, and vulgarly productive occupations are unhesitatingly condemned and avoided…. From the days of the Greek philosophers to the present, a degree of leisure and of exemption [freedom] from contact with such industrial processes as serve the immediate everyday purposes of human life has ever been recognised by thoughtful men as a prerequisite [necessity] to a worthy or beautiful, or even a blameless, human life.
In this book Veblen introduced the term "conspicuous consumption" to describe the actions of the wealthy. He claimed that the rich felt the urge to buy wildly expensive and often strange things, but that they did not buy these things in order to make themselves happy. Veblen believed they were compelled into this behavior mainly to show others how rich they were, and he compared this to the elite members of ancient tribes, who limited their activities to warring with neighboring tribes, sports, and festivals, and displayed their collections of enemies' goods (or heads) to show their superiority. According to his theory, conspicuous consumption began when the leisure class first learned the art of discrimination: that is, learning to pick out fine wines, the best textiles, and good foods. Conspicuous consumption changes the rich person's "life of leisure into a more or less arduous [difficult] application to the business of learning how to live a life of ostensible [seeming] leisure in a becoming way. Closely related to the requirement that the gentleman must consume freely and of the right kind of goods, there is the requirement that he must know how to consume them in a seemly manner." Conspicuous consumption, Veblen said, led to irrational spending.
Although Veblen's book presented a highly sophisticated economic theory that attacked the mannerisms of the businessmen and middle class of the day, many of his readers were more delighted with the book's exposure of the ridiculous attitudes of the aristocratic families.
Many New Yorkers waited nervously each year for their invitation to Mrs. Astor's ball. Not being invited meant that one was not accepted in New York's high society. For the socially ambitious, the lack of an invitation was devastating and had lasting consequences. That, of course, was the point of the List of 400—to create an exclusive club in the new urban and industrial society. Mrs. Astor did not care for the crude manners of many of the new rich. She developed a particular dislike for the family of the wealthy railroad businessman Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877; see entry). Vanderbilt was a rough man who chewed tobacco and used vulgar language in mixed company, things of which Mrs. Astor did not approve. Cornelius had never been interested in fashionable society, but his grandson William and William's wife, socialite Alva Vanderbilt, were determined to take their place on Mrs. Astor's List of 400. They built a grand mansion near the Astors on Fifth Avenue, but Mrs. Astor continued to ignore them. Alva then befriended Mrs. Astor's daughter, Carrie, and made certain that she was around during the planning of a very large costume ball at the Vanderbilt home—one of the biggest social events of the year. Then she let it be known that she could not invite Carrie to the party since Mrs. Astor had never paid a visit to the Vanderbilts. In order to ensure an invitation for her daughter, Mrs. Astor included the Vanderbilts in her invitations from that time on.
"The" Mrs. Astor and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel
Mrs. Astor had insisted from the time of her marriage on being called simply "Mrs. Astor," to show that she was "the" Mrs. Astor, queen of the Astor family as well as of New York society. This did not please her husband's nephew, William Waldorf Astor. Upon the death of his father, John Jacob Astor III (William Backhouse Astor Jr.'s older brother), William claimed that his wife, Mary, was entitled to be "the" Mrs. Astor. Mrs. Astor, however, would not under any circumstances give up her title. Hostilities grew, continuing well beyond the death of William Backhouse Astor Jr. in 1892. In 1893 William Waldorf Astor and his wife moved to England in disgust, but Mrs. Astor's nephew took a final parting shot at her. He had his father's house, which was right next door to hers, torn down, and on the property he built the original Waldorf Hotel. With a busy hotel right next door, Mrs. Astor and her family were forced to move.
In the end, however, the Astors profited from the move. Mrs. Astor's son, John Jacob IV, had his mother's old house destroyed and built the Astoria Hotel in its place. The Astoria was sixteen stories high, five floors higher than its neighbor, the Waldorf. The two elegant hotels were connected by an indoor bridge. In 1897 they merged to become the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the largest hotel in the world, and for a couple of decades it drew the rich and famous from all over the world.
The decline of an era and its queen
In 1893 Mrs. Astor moved to a large and beautiful double mansion on Fifth Avenue at 65th Street. It had a private living area for her and another for her son and his family, but they shared entertaining halls. There she continued to give her annual balls, but they were no longer the important social events they had once been. She also still spent the summers at Beechwood, her mansion in Newport, where she entertained her distinguished, but aging, guests. She no longer relied on the advice of McAllister, who died in 1895, a few years after he became a subject of public ridicule for his outdated snobbery. Times and attitudes toward society were changing.
In 1893 the United States experienced a severe economic depression (a period of drastic decline in the economy). The depression began with the failure of several railroads, and soon hundreds of banks and businesses collapsed in the Northeast. Thousands of farmers lost their farms, and unemployed industrial workers could not pay rent and many became homeless. Poor families could be seen walking the streets in search of food or work. Large labor union strikes resulted in violent conflicts between workers and the powerful industrialists.
The economy started to recover in 1897. Along with new industries came many fresh job opportunities, increases in educational and leisure activities, and a growing middle class. But the public was more aware than ever that American wealth and income remained unevenly distributed. For the first time since the beginning of U.S. industrialization, people from all social classes joined together to demand political reforms. This was the beginning of the Progressive Era, the period of the Industrial Revolution that spanned roughly from the 1890s to about 1920, in which reformers worked together in the interest of distributing political power and wealth more equally. It was a time when many journalists chose to write about the huge gap between the poor and the rich. Articles ridiculing the upper class's waste of money and energy on unnecessary pursuits became popular reading material. The showy displays of riches on Fifth Avenue did not end, but they received scornful attention from many people.
By the late 1890s, wealthy New Yorkers were paying much less attention to the strict social rituals that had ruled the city in the previous decades. They saw Mrs. Astor as an amusing representative of another time. Although recognized as the queen of a former culture, she would never hold a place of authority in her city again. In 1905 Mrs. Astor suffered a stroke. She lived an invalid until her death in 1908. With her passing, one of the last visible and memorable personalities of the Gilded Age was gone.
For More Information
McAllister, Ward. Society As I Have Found It. New York: Cassell, 1890.
Ruggoff, Milton. America's Gilded Age: Intimate Portraits from an Era of Extravagance and Change, 1850–1890. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1989.
Smith, Page. The Rise of Industrial America: A People's History of the Post-Reconstruction Era. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984.
"A Chat with Ward McAllister: How He Came to Be a Famous Ball Organizer." New York Tribune (March 25, 1888): p. 11.
"A Classification of American Wealth: History and Genealogy of the Wealthy Families of America. Part 2: America in the Gilded Age." http://www.raken.com/american_wealth/encyclopedia/comment_1891.asp (accessed on July 7, 2005).
Micheletti, Ellen. "The Gilded Age." All About Romance. http://www.likesbooks.com/gildedage.html (accessed on July 7, 2005).
Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. Text available online at American Studies at the University of Virginia. http://xroads.virginia.edu/∼HYPER/VEBLEN/veblenhp.html (accessed on July 7, 2005).