gilded age

Like it or not, people are put into classes based on their income, and as we know, the elite are the very rich ones. Most people fall into the middle class, with a large group of people being in the poverty level. Many of the people in these classes spend their time working hard and sometimes living paycheck to paycheck, just trying to make ends meet. While those people are doing their best to survive, the very wealthy, also known as the Elite Class spend their time doing their very best to outdo each other. What a headache that must be.

During the Gilded Age, the Elite Class was in a particularly fierce fight for supremacy, not in politics or world economy issues, but rather in extravagancy. The Gilded Age took place from the 1870s to about the 1900s. During that time the Elite Class was building great estates with elegantly designed homes…trying to outdo each other while most Americans and Europeans struggled just to make basic ends meet. The Gilded Age elite struggled with one another, competing over who had the biggest, the most, the best…of any and everything. Anything that was outlandish, wild, shocking, or just plain spendy, was fair game in their “struggle.” The biggest source of extravagance was in their homes. Newport, Rhode Island, was prime real estate for the 19th-century one-percenters. Cornelius Vanderbilt constructed his famous home, The Breakers, it was an attempt to one-up his brother, William K Vanderbilt’s latest showplace, Marble House, designed and planned by William K Vanderbilt to “outstaff, outdress, and outparty” his brother and other Gilded Age gents.

The whole production among the elites grew so fierce that home construction was covered in the local newspapers…on a daily basis!! The Newport Mercury reported that Marble House had 500,000 cubic feet of imported marble, as well as paneled walls portraying gods from the Classical age. Some walls were even coated in 22-carat gold leaf, all of it painstakingly applied by hand…not William K’s hand mind you. The latter Vanderbilt couldn’t sully his hands with the work of the common man. That was what his money was for…to underpay the common worker to build the elaborate house.

Yes, the whole age really was ridiculously extreme, but there was actually an ancient precedent that the Gilded Age families simply followed. Just take a look at the surviving Roman villas, the Versailles palace in France, and the Catherine Palace in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The rich and powerful have always felt compelled to put their wealth on display. They did it to show other powerful people that they could keep up with the rest, and to challenge them to take the game to the next level…a challenge they happily accepted. It was a wild time, and in many places around the world, the game continues.

The Gilded Age, as we all know, was a time of great wealth. In fact, the rich people of that time literally had more money than they knew what to do with. Their solution was to spend it lavishly…building huge estates that stretched for miles, and home that were not only huge, but were lavishly decorated. The idea was to show the world that they had money and that they could do what they wanted. The thing is, you can only build so many houses, so what’s next. That said, they were always on the lookout for new and interesting ways to spend their money.

One of the “new and interesting things” they came up with were costume balls and theme parties. In fact, these were a special favorite. While this seems like an innocent and fairly inexpensive thing to do, the items these people purchased for their costume were definitely not inexpensive. They were a prime way to not only display wealth, but also to make a show of great spending on items that would be used for just one occasion and then tossed out or closeted away. Some of these items were quite expensive, and their owner couldn’t possibly be seen using it again, nor would these people buy something from someone else, because they didn’t want to use a hand-me-down item.

On March 26, 1883, one of the most famous balls of the age was held. It was an extremely elaborate costume ball to mark the housewarming of Cornelius and Alva Vanderbilt’s New York townhouse, which was built in the design of a French chateau. The thing is that while these people were all about wealth, they were a bit “snobby” about it, meaning that there was “old money” and there was “new money.” At this particular party, there was a bit of a problem, because the Vanderbilts were “new money” and not yet established in New York society. For Alva Vanderbilt, whose name we all know, this was humiliating. She thought her money should be as accepted as anyone else’s. To prove her family’s worth and that her money was as good as anyone else’s, she planned the party of all parties and even invited the media in to tour the new house and view the fancy party decor. Then to add insult to injury, she purposely did not send out an invitation to certain “old money” families. In the end, the Grande Dame of New York society, Mrs. Astor (who had a daughter who desperately wanted an invitation), was compelled to drop off her calling card at the Vanderbilt house. That card had great significance, because it signified that the Vanderbilts had at last “arrived” in society. Alva’s plan worked and she was delighted. So was Mrs. Astor’s daughter. Mrs. Astor, however, felt a little bit used. She was forced to accept the Vanderbilts so her daughter would not be left out…whether she really accepted them in her heart, or not.

“New money” or “old money” aside, the party really was fantastic. Everyone went all out. Custom-made costumes, as well as costumes imported from Europe, featuring characters real and mythological from throughout European history. Alva had the Vanderbilt house decorated in silver and gold finery, with an abundance of colorful flowers on every floor. One floor was transformed into a tropical garden, and rooms throughout were lit by Japanese lanterns. Whether she planned it this way or not, in a smart move…for the sake of history…Alva hired professional photographers for the event. So, many of the photos taken that night have survived to prove that the ball really took place.

Most of us have seen strange events, designed to be something no one else has done. Things like getting married in a hot air balloon, or during a skydive, or even on horseback. And speaking of horseback…how about dining on horseback. I know, it seems strange, unless maybe you are a kid like my grandnephew, Bowen Parmely, who fully enjoys a popsicle on the back of a horse. While that is a bit unusual, it is not the strangest incidence of dining on horseback.

During the Gilded Age (1870 – 1900), everything was elaborate…for the very wealthy, that is. From estates that were bigger and more ornate and elaborate than many castles, to elaborate train cars, to dining on horseback…really?? How did that fit in with the extravagance of the other things? Normally, during the Gilded Age, meals were elaborate affairs and almost always held indoors. However, there were a few rather strange exceptions. The point of the Gilded Age and the very wealthy people who championed it was that everything had to be outlandish. It had to have a wow factor, and maybe even a shock factor. In fact, the whole point was to shock the people with the very richness of everything they were seeing, as well as the shock of its monetary extravagance.

So, how do you make dining on horseback into something elaborate, elegant, expensive, and rich? Obviously, outlandish was easy on this one. Remember that paper plates didn’t exist then, and the very idea of the ultra-wealthy people eating a fancy dinner with their fingers…well, it is outlandish, I guess. Most meals involving the very wealthy, involve several courses, so just imagine devouring those endless, rich courses, while trying to steady not only the horse, but the China dishes, crystal, and silver too!!

While everyone at the dinners were treated like millionaires, including the horses, the whole affair must have had some rather unpleasant components to it too. Never mind the fact that you are trying to juggle plates, cups, and silverware while on horseback, but consider the smells in the room. The food smelled delicious, I’m sure, but you cannot keep a horse from doing what horses do, so in addition to waiters, were there also stable boys in attendance. And as for the waiters, I’m quite sure it was necessary to watch where they walked…very carefully. The last thing they needed was to slip on a pile of manure and land on the floor, after throwing the food intended for a guest to eat, all over said guest. The horses were encouraged to stand still and behave, by being provided with their own individual bags of oats. I’m sure that helped, but it would still be very hard to stand perfectly still, especially since these horses weren’t previously trained for a life as a piece of furniture.

One such dinner was hosted by millionaire C K G Billing and was held at a swanky New York restaurant. Now just imagine having all those horses inside a restaurant. It would take a week to clean up afterward, I’m sure, and all of this came at an enormous cost. Billing’s bill came to $50,000, an amount unimaginable to most people in the world, but for Billing…well, he was just showing off! As for the guests…I’m sure it was considered a once-in-a-lifetime occasion, or at the very least, I’m sure they hoped it would only be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Who in their right mind would want to repeat such a dinner? Certainly not me!! And I venture to say, these guests didn’t either.

During what became known as the Gilded Age in United States history, extending roughly from 1870 to 1900, the economy grew so rapidly that the wages of Americans, especially in the Northern and Western United States actually surpassed the wages in Europe, especially for skilled workers. Still, increased industrialization demanded an increased unskilled labor force too, so the there was an influx of millions of European immigrants looking for a better life, to fill the need for workers. Basically, the Gilded years were years of overwhelming extravagance.

While many of the estates of the Gilded Age were in the Eastern United States, not all the great estates were in places like New York City or Newport, Rhode Island. Some of the very wealthy apparently didn’t really like the Northern winter climates, so they chose to build their estates in areas of the South. One of the greatest of these southern estates was the Biltmore Estate near Asheville, North Carolina, The estate was built by George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1896, and it is enormous!! The estate covers nearly 11 miles. Of course, the real difference between what we would consider a mansion, and the Gilded Era estates is the fact that the grounds are as extravagant as the homes. The main house of the Biltmore Estate has nearly 200,000 square feet!! Most of us consider a nice sized house to be 2,000 to 3,000 square feet, so 200,000 square feet, for me at least, is beyond what I can even imagine in a house. The construction was a huge undertaking, that literally took building an entire working village near the site to house the workers, manufacturers, and supplies. A three-mile railroad spur was even built just to transport building supplies to the construction site. More than 1,000 workers were hired to build the huge house.

The Biltmore remains in the ownership of the Vanderbilt family, with at least one member of the family living there until 1956, at which point it was operated as a historic museum. It is the largest privately owned home in the United States. To help with the high cost of modern maintenance and expenses, the house and grounds are open to the public, for a price, and a number of ticketed events are held on the site throughout the year. At the request of the City of Asheville, which hoped to revitalize the area with tourism, and in an attempt to bolster the estate’s finances during the Great Depression, Cornelia and her husband opened Biltmore to the public in March 1930 at the request of the City of Asheville.

These days, people can buy a ticket to ride a train and have a private room with a bed and bathroom in it to make their trip more comfortable. Since I have taken a train trip from Seattle, Washington to Chicago, Illinois, I can tell you that paying the extra money for that private cabin is really a good idea. We traveled in in a seat among the other passengers, and while the seat was pretty comfortable, it was not comfortable to sleep in. My parents traveled on the Amtrack too, and they did get a private cabin, so their experience was probably much better than mine, although I loved the trip…just not the sleeping part of it. Of course, even with the comfort my parents had on their trip, it was nothing compared to the Gilded Age, when the very rich had their own car on the train.

The Gilded Age was a time when the very rich went to great lengths to let all of the “less fortunate ones” know that they had wealth. The Gilded Age took place mostly from 1887 to 1900, with some earlier exceptions. One of the main objectives of life during the Gilded Age, if one could afford it, was to see and be seen in the most luxurious ways possible, and the railway was no different. Commercial air travel didn’t exist then, and cars were very slow. So, when the nation came into the age of the rails, the wealthy made sure that extreme luxury there was no exception. By the 1870s, private railroad cars…some extravagantly decorated…were the most fashionable way to travel. I suppose it would have been like the very rich on ships, but they could stay a little closer to home, and still travel. The people would never travel in humble wooden coach seats, which I can understand, but most people had no other choice. Money bought comfort.

With great fanfare, the very rich boarded their own entire rail cars, where the walls were lined in velvet, the upholstery plush, and the decor much like that of a fancy parlor at home. The private cars had bedrooms, running water, and a private water closet. Now expense was spared to make sure that the wealthy car owner was never out of the lap of luxury. It seems like a cruel way to act, but I suppose it is simply the way it is.

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