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.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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10 Words and Phrases That Came From TV Shows

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.

Television can be a hotbed of creativity (or mediocrity, depending on who you ask). But it's not just characters and storylines writers are coming up with—they also coin words. Here are 10 surprising words that were invented thanks to TV.

1. Poindexter

While this term for a studious nerd might seem very 1980s, it actually comes from a cartoon character introduced on TV in 1959. In the series Felix the Cat, Poindexter is the feline’s bespectacled, genius nephew, supposedly named for Emmet Poindexter, the series creator’s lawyer.

2. Eye Candy

This phrase meaning a thing or person that offers visual appeal but not much substance originally referred to such a feature of a TV program. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it first appeared in 1978 issue of a Louisiana newspaper called The Hammond Daily Star: “Sex … is more blatant ... ‘Eye candy,' as one network executive calls it.” Ear candy is slightly earlier, from the title of a 1977 album by Helen Reddy, while arm candy is later, from 1992.

3. Ribbit

Think frogs have always been known to say “ribbit”? Think again: According to the OED, this onomatopoeia might have originated on a TV show in the late-1960s. While we can’t say for sure that absolutely no one was making this frog sound before then, the earliest recorded usage found so far (according to linguist Ben Zimmer) is from a 1965 episode of Gilligan’s Island, in which Mel Blanc voiced a character called Ribbit the Frog. This predates the OED’s earliest entry, which is from a 1968 episode of the Smother Brothers Comedy Hour: “That’s right. Ribit! .. I am a frog.”

4. Sorry About That

You've probably used this expression of regret more than once in your life, but did you know it was popularized by Get Smart? It's one of the many catchphrases from the late 1960s TV show. Others include “missed it by that much” and “the old (so-and-so) trick.”

5. Cromulent

Cromulent is a perfectly cromulent word, as far as the OED is concerned. This adjective invented on The Simpsons means “acceptable, adequate, satisfactory.” Other OED words the denizens of Springfield popularized are meh (perhaps influenced by the Yiddish “me,” meaning “be it as it may, so-so,” from 1928 or earlier), d’oh (the earliest recorded usage is from a 1945 British radio show), and embiggen, which first appeared in an 1884 publication by English publisher George Bell: “Are there not, however, barbarous verbs in all languages? … The people magnified them, to make great or embiggen, if we may invent an English parallel as ugly.”

6. Five-O

The OED’s earliest citation of this slang term for the police is from a 1983 article in The New York Times, although it was probably in use long before that. The moniker comes from Hawaii Five-O, which premiered in 1968. In the show, five-o refers to a particular police unit and apparently was named in honor of Hawaii being the 50th state.

7. Gomer

While the word gomer has been around since the year 1000 (referring to a Hebrew unit of measure), the sense of someone stupid or inept comes from the inept titular character in the 1960s show Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. It’s also a derogatory name among medical professionals for a difficult patient, especially an elderly one.

8. Cowabunga

Sure, the 1960s surfing slang might have regained popularity in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s due to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series, but it originated way before then. Chief Thunderthud, a character on the 1950s children’s show Howdy Doody would use it as faux Native American language. After that, it somehow made its way into surfer slang, hence becoming a catchphrase of Michelangelo, the hard-partying, surfing ninja turtle.

9. Har De Har

The next time you want to laugh in a sarcastic, old-timey way, thank Jackie Gleason for popularizing har de har via his iconic 1950s show, The Honeymooners.

10. Spam

So how in the world did spam, originally the name of a canned ham, come to mean junk email or to inundate with junk emails or postings? Chalk it up to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The food Spam (which stands for either “spiced ham” or “shoulder of pork and ham”) was invented during the Great Depression in the late 1930s. Fast-forward 40-some-odd years and the British sketch comics were singing incessantly about it. This apparently was the inspiration for the computer slang that came about in the early 1990s.