11 Outlandish Ways Aristocrats Displayed Their Wealth During the Gilded Age
The Gilded Age was a time of extreme poverty and extreme wealth (with said wealth often covering up deep-seated social issues). Like, a crazy ridiculous amount of wealth. Here are some ludicrous ways the one percent of the turn of the 20th century spent their money—because, well, they could.
1. Buying entire villages and rerouting trains
In the late 1800s, John D. Rockefeller began buying up land in Westchester, New York. By 1913, he had built Kykuit, an impressive estate boasting over 3,400 acres of land. The oil tycoon spared no expense and filled his home with fine art and over 70 sculptures. But his extravagance didn’t stop with gilded trinkets.
Upon realizing that smoke from the nearby railroad billowed onto the estate’s golf course, the Rockefellers decided to simply move the Putnam Division tracks—the section between East View and Briarcliff Manor, New York—five miles from the property. In 1929, the family also purchased the village of East View and removed forty-six families. To soothe public opinion, they paid each family more than their home was worth. In total, it cost around $700,000 to buy the land and even more money to move the train. But it was all worth it, because now guests could tee off without any unsightly smoke.
2. Building a gold bathroom
In 1878, the Garrett family (known for their success in the railroad industry) moved into the Evergreen estate in Baltimore. Formerly a summer home for the wealthy, the family quickly transformed the rental into a mansion stuffed with worldly treasures. The home even had a private gymnasium, which Alice Whitridge Garrett converted to a private theater in 1923.
The most lavish segment of the home—which would surely be the envy of many a rap star or pop princess today—is the gold bathroom, which features Roman tiles and a bathtub covered in 23-carat gold leaf. It also boasts the only confirmed gold toilet seat in the United States.
3. Shipping in bugs from Brazil
For socialite Mary Astor Paul’s debutante ball in 1906, over 10,000 Brazilian butterflies were hidden behind netting attached to the ceiling. Unfortunately, the heat of the lamps was too much for the delicate insects and they all perished before the big reveal. When the netting was finally released, the butterfly carcasses rained down on the disgusted guests.
4. Tricking out their pads
Although no longer flushed with money, the Vanderbilts were once the poster family of the Gilded Age. Built in 1889, the staggeringly large Biltmore Estate is still the largest private estate in the country, with 178,926 square feet of floor space. Guests of the estate never worried about a lack of activities. Inside, you can find a bowling alley, heated pool, and a library with over 10,000 volumes. Upstairs, there is a billiard room where guests could play pool. Through a secret passage, men (no women or servants were allowed) could enter the bachelor’s wing, which featured a smoking room and gun room. Don’t tell your husband about that last part, or he’ll demand an upgrade for his “man cave.”
5. Committing serious party fowls
Lawyer and socialite Ward McAllister once attended a banquet in New York City in 1890 that was so extravagant, it shocked even the jaded New Yorker attendees. Hosted at Delmonico's, the event featured a long table with a thirty-foot lake in the center. Four swans brought in from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park floated peacefully in the water, surrounded by a variety of different flowers. The entire thing was encased in a magnificent gold-wired cage to prevent splashing.
6. Rubbing elbows with VIPs
Marion Graves Anthon Fish, or “Mamie,” was known for throwing extravagant parties for hundreds to thousands of guests at her opulent homes in New York City and Newport, Rhode Island. To add intrigue, she would advertise unusual guests that might drop by her shindigs. On one occasion, she mentioned an unnamed prince on her invitations. Guests were surprised when the “prince” was actually a monkey in a tuxedo. Another time, she asked her friend Henry Lehr to dress as the Czar of Russia and donned him in robes, a crown, and a scepter. For entertainment, she would also invite prize fighters and athletes to perform.
7. Creating elaborate themed parties
Socialite and billionaire James Hazen Hyde loved a good party, and in 1905 he threw an elaborate costume ball in honor of his niece Annah Ripley. Hyde was an unapologetic Francophile, so the masquerade was decorated to look like the court of Louis XIV. Flowers covered the walls of the ballroom and the Metropolitan Opera House's forty-piece orchestra serenaded the guests. Fine wine was shipped in from France and diners ate in the dining room while surrounded by roses.
8. Bringing the outdoors inside
In the early 1900s, businessman James Stillman threw a dinner party with a somewhat rustic theme. His dining room was converted into a faux forest, complete with an artificial waterfall.
9. Booking the cast of a Broadway musical
Just in time for Newport’s famous tennis week, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt invited the entire cast of the musical The Wild Rose to the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, to entertain New York’s 400 families (a kind of fancy social club). The full-scale production (complete with sets) was well received, but no one requested an encore.
10. Torturing their dinner guests
In 1903, well-known horse enthusiast Cornelius K. G. Billings finished the construction of his $200,000 stable (it was just a small edition, really). The expensive infrastructure housed 20 carriages, 33 horses, a trophy room, gymnasium, and enough living space for two families.
To celebrate the stable’s completion, he invited 36 members of the Equestrian Club, of which he was president, to a dinner party at Louis Sherry’s, a 12-floor restaurant in New York City. The ballroom, as decorated by Billings, featured live birds, flora, and sod on the floor. However, there was no table. Instead, guests were expected to mount trained horses that faced each other in a circle. Their plates were connected to their saddles and champagne was drunk through straws connected to saddlebags.
11. Giving out awesome party favors
Caroline Astor threw exclusive parties for the old money of New York (the nouveau riche Vanderbilts were famously shunned from the affair). Limited to 400 guests, invitations were a highly sought after prize. The events were apparently a dull affair, but no one cared—as long as they could go. (Kind of like Jennifer’s eighth grade sleepover birthday party.) At the end, Astor gave out decadent party favors like gold pencil cases (Jennifer would be proud), China figurines, and leather letter cases.