Etiquette in the time of social change

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Etiquette in the time of social change

What Would Mrs. Astor Do?: The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age by Cecelia Tichi, New York University Press, US $24.95, Pp 308, November 2018, ISBN 978-1479826858

The period between 1870 and 1900 in the United States is known as the Gilded Age. The American population unprecedentedly grew and industrial base expanded. Americans were never richer. Most rich and influential people lived in New York City. In their once-exclusive world of balls, opera boxes and summer gatherings at Newport, the Old Money titans were surrounded by the nouveaux riches. The Old Money titans thought their social mores and manners were under threat. In this background, Mrs. Astor rose to defend and define the Gilded Age’s social mores and manners. In What Would Mrs. Astor Do?, Cecelia Tichi says that the late 1800s Gilded Age was marked by intense business and political rivalries although it was hailed as an era of abundance. Social rivalries also seethed beneath the gilded surfaces. The generations prior to the Gilded Age produced a class of wealthy Americans whose social preeminence was guaranteed by their lineage. They were horrified by the nouveau riche class who thought their fortunes earned them entry into late 1800s society. To an extent, old money successfully manned its social barricades.

Old money could somehow secure its threatened status by marriage, a strategy dating back centuries in Europe and elsewhere. One such celebrated marriage in 1854 was between twenty-four-year-old Caroline Webster Schermerhorn and William Backhouse Astor Jr. Cecelia Tichi says that Caroline Astor became the acknowledged social arbiter of the Gilded Age when a pedigreed, pudgy and, pompous courtier of sorts named Ward McAllister endeared himself to her. He persuaded Mrs. Astor that she was uniquely qualified to uphold the manners and mores of Gilded Age America. Mrs. Astor — popularly known as the Mystic Rose — was doubtless also keenly conscious of the vast influence of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, whose long reign demanded that an American of similar influence and stature rise up to challenge it. Mrs. Astor claimed that power.

Seasonal features of Mrs. Astor’s reign were the dinner parties that functioned as her auditions for candidates bidding to enter the elite “Four Hundred,” the number of guests who could be accommodated comfortably in the ballroom of her Fifth Avenue mansion. Cecelia Tichi says that an invitation to Mrs. Astor’s annual ball meant a passport into society for any given year. The regular cohort of old-money friends and family was a staple of the invitation list, but apprehension darkened the outer rings of the social world, where new-money aspirants feared being dropped in favor of those deemed more worthy with each succeeding year. Such rituals and hierarchies were imitated, if not replicated, throughout the nation in the cities large and small, but Mrs. Astor’s New York ruled the social epicenter of the Gilded Age. Lurking just beneath the glittering surface, however, society was roiled with political, economic, and democratic and demographic struggles.

It may appear that Mrs. Astor’s dicta represented a huge expansion of a tightly — and arbitrarily — structured view of acceptable behavior. Cecelia Tichi explains that it is because the social code of Gilded America took hold in a turbulent period in American history. Having only recently endured bloody Civil War and Reconstruction, the nation now experienced violent skirmishes in the territories of the West and the unprecedented arrival of multitudes with widely varied languages and cultures to its shores and burgeoning cities. Against this ideal of uncertainty, to know what Mrs. Astor would do may have seemed like the reassuring bulwark separating civilization from anarchy.

What Would Mrs. Astor Do is an important addition to the existing scholarly literature on the social history of the United States during the Gilded Age. Gilded Age was a period when a society underwent a huge change and a large number of nouveau riche surfaced and claimed their place along with the old money class. With her impeccable scholarly credentials, Cecelia Tichi shows America’s upper class’ internal conflicts at a time when the old moneyed class was being swept away by the nouveau riche class. As the social conflict worsened, there came Mrs. Astor who decided for the rich or the aspiring rich from what and how to eat to when to arrive at the opera house. History and history books are rarely as entertaining as this one.

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