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.

The History Behind 10 Thanksgiving Dishes

VeselovaElena/iStock via Getty Images
VeselovaElena/iStock via Getty Images

Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. Turkey

A roasted turkey on a platter.
612645812/iStock.com

Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as … served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. Stuffing

Pan of breaded stuffing.
mphillips007/iStock.com

Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. Cranberries

Dish of cranberry sauce.
bhofack2/iStock.com

Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. Mashed Potatoes

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
bhofack2/iStock.com

Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting president to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. Gravy

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to create a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. Corn

Plate of corn.
PeopleImages/iStock

Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. Sweet Potatoes

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
bhofack2/iStock

In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. Green Bean Casserole

Plate of green bean casserole.
DreamBigPhotos/iStock.com

Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you probably know was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. Pumpkin Pie

Slice of pumpkin pie.
bhofack2/iStock.com

Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. Wine

Two glasses of wine.
Moncherie/iStock.com

Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

8 Festive Facts About Hallmark Channel Christmas Movies

The holiday season means gifts, lavish meals, stocking stuffers, and what appear to be literally hundreds of holiday-themed movies running in perpetuity on the Hallmark Channel, which has come to replace footage of a crackling fireplace as the background noise of choice for cozy evenings indoors. Last year, roughly 70 million people watched Hallmark's holiday scheduling block. If you’re curious how the network manages to assemble films like Check Inn to Christmas, Christmas at Graceland: Home for the Holidays, and Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen with such efficiency—a total of 40 new films will debut this season on the Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, and Hallmark Movies Now—keep reading.

1. The Hallmark Channel Christmas movie tradition started with ABC.

The idea of unspooling a continuous run of holiday films started in the 1990s, when ABC offshoot network ABC Family started a "25 Days of Christmas" programming promotion that would go on to feature the likes of Joey Lawrence and Mario Lopez. The Hallmark Channel, which launched in 2001, didn’t fully embrace the concept until 2011, when ABC Family moved away from the concept in an effort to appeal to teen viewers.

2. Most Hallmark Channel Christmas movies are shot in Canada.

To maximize their $2 million budget, most Hallmark Channel holiday features are shot in Canada, where tax breaks can stretch the dollar. Wintry Vancouver is a popular destination, though films have also been shot in Montreal and Toronto. One film, 2018's Christmas at the Palace, was shot in Romania to take advantage of the country's castles.

3. Each Hallmark Channel Christmas movie only takes a couple of weeks to film.

If you’re wondering why a holiday movie on basic cable can regularly attract—and keep—a list of talent ranging from Candace Cameron Bure to Lacey Chabert, the answer is partly scheduling. Most Hallmark holiday movies take just two to three weeks to shoot, meaning actors don’t have to commit months out of the year to a project. Actors like Rachael Leigh Cook, who stars in this year's A Blue Ridge Mountain Christmas, have also complimented the channel on giving them opportunities to be with their families while on location: Cook said that the production schedule allowed her time to FaceTime with family back home.

4. Hallmark Channel Christmas movies use a variety of tricks to create snow.

Even more pervasive than Dean Cain in the Hallmark Channel Christmas line-up is snow. Because some of the films shoot in the summer, it’s not always possible to achieve that powder naturally. Producers use a variety of tricks to simulate snowfall, including snow blankets that mimic the real thing when laid out; foam; commercial replica snow; crushed limestone; and ice shavings. Actors might also get covered with soapy bubbles for close-ups. The typical budget for snow per movie is around $50,000.

5. There’s a psychological reason why Hallmark Channel Christmas movies are so addictive.

Like a drug, Hallmark Channel Christmas movies provide a neurological reward. Speaking with CNBC in 2019, Pamela Rutledge, behavioral scientist, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, and a faculty member in the Media Psychology department at Fielding Graduate University, explained that the formulaic plots and predictability of the films is rewarding, especially when viewers are trying to unwind from the stress of the holiday season. “The lack of reality at all levels, from plot to production, signals that the movies are meant to be escapism entertainment,” Rutledge said. “The genre is well-defined, and our expectations follow. This enables us to suspend disbelief.”

6. Hallmark Channel Christmas movie fans now have their own convention.

Call it the Comic-Con of holiday cheer. This year, fans of Hallmark Channel’s Christmas programming got to attend ChristmasCon, a celebration of all things Hallmark in Edison, New Jersey. Throngs of people gathered to attend panels with movie actors and writers, scoop up merchandise, and vie for prizes during an ugly sweater competition. The first wave of $50 admission tickets sold out instantly. Hallmark Channel USA was the official sponsor.

7. Hallmark Channel Christmas movies are helping keep cable afloat.

Actors Brooke D'Orsay and Marc Blucas are pictured in a publicity still from the 2017 Hallmark Channel original movie 'Miss Christmas'
Brooke D'Orsay and Marc Blucas in Miss Christmas (2017).
Hallmark Channel

In an era of cord-cutting and streaming apps, more and more people are turning away from cable television, preferring to queue up programming when they want it. But viewers of Hallmark Channel’s holiday offerings often tune in as the movie is airing. In 2016, 4 million viewers watched the line-up “live.” One reason might be the communal nature of the films. People tend to watch holiday-oriented programming in groups, tuning in as they air. The result? For the fourth quarter of 2018, the Hallmark Channel was the most-watched cable network among women 18 to 49 and 25 to 54, even outpacing broadcast network programming on Saturday nights.

8. You can get paid to watch Hallmark Channel Christmas movies.

If you think you have the constitution to make it through 24 Hallmark Channel holiday films in 12 days, you might want to consider applying for the Hallmark Movie Dream Job contest, which is sponsored by Internet Service Partners and will pay $1000 to the winning entrant who seems most capable of binging the two dozen films and making wry comments about them on social media. You can enter though December 6 here.

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