During the Golden Age – the decades between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the turn of the century – the explosive growth of factories, steel mills and railroads driven by the Second Industrial Revolution made a small incredibly wealthy class of businessmen. In 1890, the richest 1% of American families controlled 51% of the country’s real estate and personal assets.
Among the richest of the rich were the so-called robber barons, whose extreme greed drove them to use unethical business practices and exploit workers to create lucrative monopolies and, in doing so , amassing fortunes that would amount to billions of dollars in today’s money.
The term “conspicuous consumption” is coined
The super-rich of the late 1800s had such an opulent existence that it was perhaps almost unimaginable to the masses of ordinary Americans who worked in the factories and factories they owned. To describe their lifestyle, economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption”.
For the robber barons and their families, writes Veblen, “the apparatus of life became so elaborate and cumbersome, in terms of dwellings, furniture, bric-a-brac, wardrobe and meals, that the consumers of these things cannot make room with them in the required manner without the help” of armies of servants.
But the Robber Barons and their families didn’t just enjoy a life of luxury. Just as they competed in business, they were driven to outdo each other with their lavish spending and possessions. Beyond that, they aspire to become the equals of aristocrats across the Atlantic.
“The United States was a new country, and there was this feeling of looking to Europe and emulating royal society,” says Elizabeth L. Block, fashion and social historian and editor at the Metropolitan Museum of New York Art, and 2021 Book Author Dressing up: the women who influenced French fashion.
Industrialists who had no early roots in colonial America and belonged to a clan of old fortune would make up for it, Block says, by trying to acquire the persona of a European lord. “They would do that by buying the right things, through their possessions and what they wore.”
Here are some of the most ostentatious ways industrialists and their families have flaunted their wealth.
The Vanderbilt family’s 250-room castle-like mansion on the 8,000-acre Biltmore estate in Asheville, North Carolina, was so massive that three separate hills had to be leveled with dynamite and explosive powder to create a flat space for him, and the structure included nearly 10 million pounds of limestone, according to Ellen Erwin Rickman’s 2005 book on the estate.
To entertain the Vanderbilts and their guests, the mansion was equipped with a bowling alley, indoor swimming pool and 10,000-volume library, gardens designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and smoking rooms and special firearms. They could also warm up at one of the mansion’s 65 fireplaces.
Other industrialists also lived in elaborate houses. Another wealthy Gilded Age family, the Garretts, who made their fortunes in the railroads, lived in Evergreen, a Baltimore mansion, where a second-floor bathroom featured Roman tile mosaics and a bathtub and toilet covered in 23 carat gold leaf.
Elaborate and numerous cupboards
Industrialists and their wives sailed once or twice a year to Paris, where courtiers from Parisian fashion houses kept women’s measurements on file so they could have the latest designer dresses ready to try on.
“They would come back with five dresses and roll them out at social events throughout the year,” Block says. Back in the United States, “newspapers wrote about what these women were wearing.” Couples were also stopping in London, where the men traveled to Saville Row, where tailors made them bespoke suits from the finest materials. (Banker and industrialist John Pierpont Morgan, for example, was a client of Henry Poole & Co.)
Industrialists’ wives also employed seamstresses at home to make extra clothes for them, as their social status required them to wear a different outfit for each engagement on their schedules. “A lot of them were changing outfits five or six times a day,” Block says.
Wealthy women on Gilded Ave sometimes even coordinated their clothes with the decor of their mansions, Block says. Caroline Astor, for example, had a life-size portrait of herself in the reception room of her home, dressed in finery made in Paris. When guests arrived for a dinner party, she greeted them standing under the portrait, dressed in the latest fashions for that particular year.
Golden age ladies also used jewelry to display their wealth. A socialite, Mrs. Calvin S. Brice, attended a ball wearing what a New York Times account described as a “magnificent” diamond tiara, diamond pendant, bracelet and brooch adorned with black pearls and diamonds, according to the book Gilded New York: design, fashion and society, by Phyllis Magidson, Susan Johnson and Thomas Mellins.
The Golden Age super-rich sought to outdo themselves by throwing grandiose parties with massive guest lists. After aspiring socialite Alva Vanderbilt and her husband, William Kissam Vanderbilt moved into their new mansion on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in 1883, for example, they celebrated by inviting 1,000 guests to a late-night housewarming party in which everyone had to dress in historical costumes.
“Guests wore powdered 18th-century wigs and costumes commissioned from French courtiers,” says Block. They went to the opera, then changed their opera clothes into costumes. Then they went to the ball, dined at 2 a.m., and stayed all night, while their coachmen waited outside in the cold.
Another socialite, Cornelia Martin, hosted an 1897 ball in which the interior of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was transformed into a replica of the Palace of Versailles. Her husband Bradley Martin dressed as Louis XV in a brocade suit, while the hostess took on the character of Mary Stuart in a dress embroidered in gold and adorned with pearls and precious stones. Another guest wore gold-encrusted armor worth $10,000 ($336,000 in today’s money). “The power of wealth with its sophistication and vulgarity was everywhere,” one participant later recalled.
The popularity of costume parties has led super rich women to come up with extravagant outfits. A socialite, Kate Fearing Strong, wore a stuffed white cat as a headpiece and a skirt fashioned from cat tails for the Vanderbilts’ housewarming ball, earning her the nickname “Puss.”
Golden Age industrialists and their wives lavishly decorated the interiors of their mansions, sometimes importing entire suites of furniture from Europe in order to demonstrate their well-traveled worldliness and sophistication.
“Others have searched beyond Europe to find furniture in Morocco, hangings in Turkey, bowls on the Mount of Olives and fans in Japan,” write Arnold Lewis, James Turner and Steven McQuillin in their delivered., Opulent Golden Age interiors. They were particularly proud of possessing candelabra previously owned by the King of Bavaria, or statues that had once adorned the homes of a noble French family.
While they had huge budgets for decoration, the American elite didn’t always have the sophistication to get their money’s worth. “I think we see that with Alva Vanderbilt’s choices for the interior of her home,” says Block. “Perhaps she didn’t know the difference between a medieval tapestry and a Renaissance or 18th century tapestry, when the Europeans certainly would have.”
The Golden Age industrialists also indulged at the dining table, where they demonstrated their prosperity by consuming the finest foods in gluttonous quantities. Perhaps one of the most voracious eaters of the time was railroad magnate “Diamond” Jim Brady, who got his nickname from his habit of wearing so much adornment that his biographer H. Paul Jeffers describes him as “a traveling jewelry store”.
According to Jeffers, Brady’s massive calorie burn started with a huge lunch that typically included two lobsters, devil crabs, clams, oysters and beef, plus two whole pies for dessert. But that was only enough to hold him back until late afternoon, when it was time for dinner. According to Jeffers, Brady would start with “a few dozen oysters, six crabs, and bowls of green turtle soup” and then move on to a main course consisting of two whole ducks, six or seven more lobsters, sirloin steak, vegetables, complemented by pastries and a five pound box of chocolates.
As one restaurateur who served him recalled, Brady would sometimes invite eight to ten guests to join him, then eat the dinners of everyone who didn’t show up. A restaurant owner called him “the 25 best customers I’ve ever had.”
The super-rich lived well, but their opulence had a dark side. The wealth that paid for all of this was often obtained through corrupt business practices and served as a reminder of how the income gap between the powerful few and the many who worked for them became even more extreme. For author and journalist Jack Beatty, the Golden Age was in fact “the age of betrayal”, during which the obsession with wealth caused Americans to lose sight of the democracy they had fought for. to maintain during the Civil War.