Today I bring you a non-fiction book where, as they say, reality can be stranger (or more extreme) than fiction.
What Would Mrs. Astor Do?: The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age by Cecelia Tichi.
A richly illustrated romp with America’s Gilded Age leisure class—and those angling to join it
Mark Twain called it the Gilded Age. Between 1870 and 1900, the United States’ population doubled, accompanied by an unparalleled industrial expansion, and an explosion of wealth unlike any the world had ever seen. America was the foremost nation of the world, and New York City was its beating heart. There, the richest and most influential—Thomas Edison, J. P. Morgan, Edith Wharton, the Vanderbilts, Andrew Carnegie, and more—became icons, whose comings and goings were breathlessly reported in the papers of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. It was a time of abundance, but also bitter rivalries, in work and play. The Old Money titans found themselves besieged by a vanguard of New Money interlopers eager to gain entrée into their world of formal balls, debutante parties, opera boxes, sailing regattas, and summer gatherings at Newport. Into this morass of money and desire stepped Caroline Astor.
Mrs. Astor, an Old Money heiress of the first order, became convinced that she was uniquely qualified to uphold the manners and mores of Gilded Age America. Wherever she went, Mrs. Astor made her judgments, dictating proper behavior and demeanor, men’s and women’s codes of dress, acceptable patterns of speech and movements of the body, and what and when to eat and drink. The ladies and gentlemen of high society took note. “What would Mrs. Astor do?” became the question every social climber sought to answer. And an invitation to her annual ball was a golden ticket into the ranks of New York’s upper crust. This work serves as a guide to manners as well as an insight to Mrs. Astor’s personal diary and address book, showing everything from the perfect table setting to the array of outfits the elite wore at the time. Channeling the queen of the Gilded Age herself, Cecelia Tichi paints a portrait of New York’s social elite, from the schools to which they sent their children, to their lavish mansions and even their reactions to the political and personal scandals of the day.
Ceceilia Tichi invites us on a beautifully illustrated tour of the Gilded Age, transporting readers to New York at its most fashionable. A colorful tapestry of fun facts and true tales, What Would Mrs. Astor Do?presents a vivid portrait of this remarkable time of social metamorphosis, starring Caroline Astor, the ultimate gatekeeper.
“A new etiquette guide…has just turned up, offering further proof that sliding around the naughty edges of society can be as informative as it is entertaining.”-Alida Becker, The New York Times Books Review
“Tichi delivers a crisp survey of New York’s upper-class world in the late 19th century, using society maven Caroline Astor as the guide… Presented with a breezy authority that keeps the pages turning, Tichi’s book will captivate those interested in a light look at America’s fashionable gentry of eras past.”-Publishers Weekly
About the Author
Cecelia Tichi is William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English and American Studies at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of several novels and books, including Exposés and Excess: Muckraking in America, 1900-2000 (2004), Embodiment of a Nation: Human Form in American Spaces (2001), High Lonesome: The American Culture of Country Music (1994), and Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (And What They Can Teach Us) (2009).
Many thanks to NYU Press and Edelweiss for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
I picked up this book because I was interested in the era, late XVIII and early XIX century, personally and also for research purposes, and although I had read fiction set in the period, I lacked a reference book that would provide me the data I needed and written in such a way that it could be read from cover to cover. I’m happy to say this book provides both, facts and amusing anecdotes, and it is easy to read.
Despite the title, the book does not focus excessively on Caroline Astor, although it is organised around her figure, and it follows her life, from birth to death. Caroline Astor was the glamorous centre of New York society in the Gilded Era, and there is much talk in the book about the four hundred, as that was supposed to be the number of select guests who were truly the movers and shakers of the time. But this is not an in-depth biography, far from it, and the true focus of the book is the social history of the period, as it pertains to the upper crust. Those were changing times, and new money was starting to push out the old but not-so-wealthy-any longer families, but money was not enough to gain Mrs Astor’s favour. Class, good breeding and good manners were fundamental.
The book is divided into a number of topics: millionaires’ row (about their houses and their servants), convenience or contraption (about new inventions, such as elevators or the telephone), competitive consumption (shopping), best dressed (clothing), well behaved (etiquette), dinner is served (food and restaurants), the social set (with quite a few subdivisions, mostly about leisure time, including theatre, opera, riding and promenades, summer houses…), the sporting life (sports), getting there (transport), money talks (including popular and unpopular advice, Wall Street, schools and newspapers), the whiff of a scandal (you’ll easily guess this one: from divorce to famous scandals of the era), on the scene (about theatre figures of the era), muckrakers (investigative journalism of the time), and funerals. There are also illustrations (quite a few, although as mine was an ARC copy and not the final version, I am sure there will be even more available to readers of the published book), and a lengthy bibliography that will be helpful for those interesting in checking out the original sources.
The author often relies on sources of the period, including articles, books on etiquette and general advice, and also fiction writers of the era (Edith Wharton, who was related to Mrs Astor figures prominently), and uses their words to illustrate the topics, and that contributes to making us feel as we were there, experiencing the fabulous and incredibly excessive world of those people.
As I said before, the book is divided into topics, and I am sure everybody will be able to find something they are interested in. I was fascinated by many of the anecdotes and by the way this set of very powerful and wealthy individuals affected the world around them. Rich women went shopping but due to etiquette rules could not go to a restaurant unaccompanied by a man, and therefore the new department stores started having their own restaurants (soda fountains to begin with) catering to women, and that spread. As they liked to travel in luxurious surroundings, yachts and train compartments would be built to their standards, no matter the price. Their parties would cost the equivalent of millions of dollars today, and they could result in having a full hunting party inside of a restaurant, horses and all.
I was also surprised to learn about things like the importance of Elisha Graves Otis’s invention of a “safety hoister” that allowed for the creation of safe elevators, and with them, skyscrapers (and know I know who the Otis I see in the elevators was), about the newspaper wars in New York, about the different electricity companies and how they helped shape today’s world, the history of the Panama hat (which comes from Ecuador), and although I knew about the fashion for using bird feathers (and sometimes whole birds) to adorn women’s hats, I was horrified to learn that some five million birds were estimated to have been killed just for that purpose. Oh, and the fact that electric cars were recommended for women drivers, as they were easier to start (no crank) and more reliable. What happened there? (I guess oil companies’ interests have a lot to respond for). There is also mention of philanthropic endeavours, although they all came with strings attached.
In sum, this is a solid reference book, easy to read and full of amusing information and anecdotes. I’m not sure it will break new ground for those already familiar with the topic, but it works well as a reference book for the era, and as a good starting point for further research. A glimpse into a fascinating and at the same time horrifying era of excessive consumption, glamour, and the cult of influence. Although there are lessons to be learned, the book is not intended as a criticism or a warning tale, and that’s left to the readers’ own opinion.
Thanks to NYU Press, Edelweiss and the author for the book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and always keep smiling!