February 14, 2020
During the Gilded Age, Caroline Astor, also known as The Mrs. Astor, reigned as the queen of New York society—and her parties were equally as famous. Find out what it was like to attend one of Mrs. Astor's events below....
If the name Astor sounds familiar to you, it’s because they're one of the most prominent family names found in New York history. The Astors, and specifically Caroline Astor, built what we now know as The Knickerbockers, the upper crust of New York’s society in the Gilded Age. From the 1870s until the 1900s, Mrs. Astor presided over thousands of parties at her opulent mansions on Fifth Avenue, only open to those she deemed worthy (later known as "The 400")—you can thank Mrs. Astor for bringing European societal norms to The Big Apple.
We gathered the ins and outs of what it would have been like to attend one of of her famous soirées below.
Papers at the time made a big to-do of Mrs. William Backhouse Astor’s (born Caroline Webster Schermerhorn) desire to be called The Mrs. Astor. She actually wasn’t the only Mrs. Astor, and her husband was only a second son, but that didn’t stop her from claiming the name.
Despite protests from her nephew Waldorf Astor (yes, that Waldorf), Caroline became The Mrs. Astor in NYC social circles. Hers was the only name on a calling card that gave you guaranteed entry to any elite event of the time.
“Lina” as she was known to family and friends was not considered a beauty. She had strong features, a pudgy and short figure, and dark hair, which she apparently dyed.
And because Mrs. Astor did not like photographs of herself unless she had complete artistic control, not many images of her exist.
You could only secure a spot at one of Mrs. Astor’s parties if you were one of “The 400” or “The Patriarchs,” a list of people referred to as The Knickerbockers by the likes of Washington Irving (though they didn’t like the name). These soirées were frequented only by those directly related to what Mrs. Astor and her ilk thought of as “Old New York.”
Old New York of course just meant old money that came from the Dutch and English settlers of the city—familiar names like Stuyvesant and Rhinelander—who made a substantial mark on Manhattan and its surrounding areas.
Along with Ward McAllister, Mrs. Astor decided on the 25 families—all with at least $1 million at the time, which amounts to over $20 million by today’s standards—that would be included at all fêtes, and required to bring at least four friends of the same caliber to each affair.
Mrs. Astor famously denied entrance to “New Money” families that earned their fortunes, like the Vanderbilts. Incidentally, her feud with Alva Vanderbilt only ended because Mrs. Astor’s daughter Carrie wanted to be invited to the Vanderbilt costume ball, but couldn’t go because Alva had never received a calling card from the Astors. Cracking under this pressure ultimately ended Mrs. Astor’s reign as the Queen of New York.
Decorum, upheld mostly by women of the day, was of utmost importance to Mrs. Astor. There could be no talk of “legs” (or any body parts at all, for that matter) at one of her parties. And don’t even think about being alone with a member of the opposite sex. That was expressly forbidden.
Men, of course, were granted more liberties, and frequently held mistresses or visited brothels in what is now Murray Hill. Mrs. Astor, for her part, politely declined to notice.
Mrs. Astor was given a very fine education for a lady of her day, brought up by nannies and governesses, attending an elite private school, and frequently making trips to Europe, where she learned what it really meant to be a member of the aristocracy.
Her party guests were permitted to talk to her about the weather, etiquette, languages, and even gossip slightly at the goings-on.
Mrs. Astor’s parties were a glorified marriage mart for the wealthiest people of the day. You’d attend if you were looking to settle down with a powerful other half—or find a match for your offspring—and expand your fortune and influence.
No other avenue in New York housed as many well-to-do people as Fifth Avenue at the turn of the century. Wealthy people kept building up the street, higher and higher, ultimately residing on what is now the Upper East Side.
Mrs. Astor had two houses on Fifth Avenue, one in the 30s and one in the 60s, after the 30s became “too downtown” for her and her family.
Mrs. Astor’s most famous residence at 350 Fifth Avenue was a New York staple, but she would never have guessed the address’ significance today.
When she vacated her home near what is now Herald Square, it became the second half of the Waldorf-Astoria, which was later torn down to build The Empire State Building. The joint hotels moved uptown to their current location.
One of the biggest causes of New Yorker envy today centers around square footage, but Mrs. Astor never had to worry about that. Her joint houses (which she shared with her only son John Jacob Astor the IV and his family—he would later die on the Titanic) would both be thrown open for parties, able to admit over 1,000 guests for balls.
Inside her cozy abode you’d find peacock feather rugs, an art gallery that doubled as the ballroom, and even several nude female statues.
The one thing you wouldn’t want to do at a Mrs. Astor party would be to out-shine Mrs. Astor herself. Case in point: this old-money society queen wore a black velvet gown with a white jet and tulle shoulder knots, topped with her famous diamond tiara and necklace to one party thrown at her Upper East Side mansion.
These parties were nothing if not an all-out event, which meant plenty of food, drinking, and dancing. But if you were a lady, any showing of your ankle or calves during a dance would be completely out of the question—dances like the Polka were banned because they had a tendency to show these “vulgar” parts of a woman’s body.
Photography by: PHOTOGRAPHY BY CAROLUS-DURAN [PUBLIC DOMAIN] VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (CAROLINE ASTOR PORTRAIT); BY UNDERWOOD & UNDERWOOD/UNDERWOOD ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES (ASTOR HOUSE)