16 Spending Habits of the Gilded Age That Makes Today’s Wealthy Look Frugal

16 Spending Habits of the Gilded Age That Makes Today’s Wealthy Look Frugal

Trista - October 14, 2018

During the 1800s, the United States had no federal income tax, something that sounds like a luxury that we could only dream of — imagine getting to keep your hard-earned money.

While life for the urban poor during this time was known to be particularly harsh, there were some who benefitted immensely: wealthy capitalists known as robber barons. Due to a lack of business regulations, they were able to monopolize entire industries and build immense wealth that we can scarcely imagine. With no income tax to eat away at their profits, many of them had no idea what to do with so much money. Keep reading to learn more about the jaw-dropping spending habits of the people from the Gilded Age.

16 Spending Habits of the Gilded Age That Makes Today’s Wealthy Look Frugal
James Hazen Hyde’s grand party in the ballroom of Sherry’s in 1905. thegildedageera

16 Spending Habits of the Gilded Age That Makes Today’s Wealthy Look Frugal
Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt at one of her famous costume balls. theenchantedmanor.com

1. Ostentatious Costume Balls Signaled the Rise of the New Rich

Before the Gilded Age, the social life of New York City’s wealthy elite was governed entirely by Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, one of the wealthiest people in the world whose family had a long history of deep pockets. When the newly-rich robber barons were finding that they had more money than families like the Astors, people like Mrs. Caroline Astor had to find creative means of keeping them out of high society. She composed an infamous “list of 400” that listed the only 400 individuals who were considered genuinely upper class in the New York hierarchy.

Alva Vanderbilt, who married into the newly wealthy Vanderbilt clan, was desperate to get onto Mrs. Astor’s list, so she threw an elaborate costume party that was considered to be the social event of the year. The costume balls of the Gilded Age rivaled those of Europe, where aristocrats and nobility dressed like historical figures and, behind a mask, danced the night away in unparalleled splendor. The ball that Mrs. Vanderbilt threw was to be no exception. The catch is that she didn’t invite Mrs. Astor until she put her name onto the list.

So in a way, the lavish costume balls that the wealthy threw were akin to debutante balls today, because they signaled the arrival of the new rich into New York’s elite.

16 Spending Habits of the Gilded Age That Makes Today’s Wealthy Look Frugal
Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) in full breeding plumage. The striking color of the lores does not last long, and seems to occur at the very peak of the mating hormonal surge. West Ninth Street colony, Santa Rosa, California. Les Blumin/Wikipedia Commons

2. Rich Women’s Demand for Snowy Egret Feathers Caused Near Extinction for the Bird

The wealthy people of the Gilded Age had more money than they knew what to do with; furthermore, they really didn’t care about anyone or anything, especially not the fate of wildlife. Case in point: the snowy egret, whose wispy, luminously white feathers during breeding season were craved by the fashion-conscious women who were determined to leave their marks on New York’s social scene. They wore the feathers in their hats, on their dresses, on their fans, and even in their home décor.

But in order to obtain the feathers, hunters wouldn’t catch the birds, pluck the feathers, and then let them go. No, they would kill the birds and then skin them. Worse yet, because the desired feathers were only available during the breeding season, the egrets were often killed just before they laid their eggs. Sometimes, they were shot just after the eggs hatched, which meant that the young had to fend for themselves. The snowy egret was hunted so voraciously that it became endangered and would have become extinct, were it not for the work of some Gilded Age women who began a campaign to save the bird. The Migratory Bird Act of 1913 gave it the chance to rebound, and the snowy egret is still in existence today.

16 Spending Habits of the Gilded Age That Makes Today’s Wealthy Look Frugal
Dinner in honor of Admiral Campion at Delmonico’s in 1906. Geo. R. Lawrence Co./United States Library of Congress/Wikipedia Commons

3. Dinner Parties to Honor Dogs

The Gilded Age was indeed an era of extremes. Around 1900, one-third of the country’s urban population was close to starving, and the average annual income of the bottom 90% of society was only $380, equivalent to about $8600 today. At the same time, the filthy rich had no idea how to spend all that cash. Moreso, the wealthy were not using their money to feed the poor, starving workers who made them rich to begin with when they could host a grand dinner party, complete with an indoor lake and swans with the guest of honor as the dog. That’s right, for the dog. After all, who doesn’t love a good dinner party?

Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish hosted such a dinner party at the fancy Delmonico’s Restaurant in Lower Manhattan, close to the inner-city slums were families of workers were huddled together in cramped, unsanitary tenements. Delmonico’s boasted an indoor pond that cost $10,000 and often hosted dinner parties for the rich and fabulous. Its décor mimicked that of European royalty, particularly Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of the United Kingdom. When Mrs. Fish hosted the party for her dog, she adorned him with a collar worth $15,000, worth about $375,000 today.

16 Spending Habits of the Gilded Age That Makes Today’s Wealthy Look Frugal
Artist Maurizio Cattelan created a fully-functioning solid gold toilet for a Guggenheim Museum bathroom. Dodie Kazanjian/newyorker.com

4. Toilets Made of 24K Gold

The absolute gold standard in luxury is able to relieve yourself on a pedestal made of solid gold. Forget gold jewelry, tiaras, and Faberge eggs; those are old-fashioned rich. Besides, the new wealth is in town, and they are pooping in toilets made of solid gold. Consider that this is happening at a time when running water is a luxury, and having a flushing toilet, rather than having to use an outhouse or other unsanitary methods, alone was something reserved for only an elite few.

Enter the Garretts, a family from Baltimore, Maryland that made its fortune in the railway industry. T. Harrison Garrett purchased the Evergreen mansion, now the Evergreen Museum and Library, and turned the place from a blasé summer retreat for the old rich into a palace. It was fitted with Tiffany glass, German porcelain, Japanese ivory sculptures, and Italian paintings, and the library had floor-to-ceiling walnut bookshelves. The piece de resistance was the bathroom: the bathtub was painted with 23K gold leaf, and the toilet was solid gold.

If you have any doubts about the conspicuous consumption of the Gilded Age, you can visit the home today and see it for yourself. However, you probably won’t get to use the gold toilet.

16 Spending Habits of the Gilded Age That Makes Today’s Wealthy Look Frugal
The Balcony by Edouard Manet between 1868 – 1869. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

5. Even the Prostitutes Were Fancier and More Scandalous

The Gilded Age coincided with the rise of the women’s suffrage movement; as such, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that women, even the wealthy women who could flaunt their wealth with snowy egret feathers and gold toilets, were pretty much viewed as their husbands’ property and had few rights of their own. As such, the men frequently visited brothels, which were fancier and more scandalous than their predecessors. After all, prostitution was still legal at the time, and money talked. Big time.

Enter Soubrette Row, a famous street in the New York Tenderloin District, just down the corner from the Metropolitan Opera House. A soubrette was a saucy, flirtatious girl and was slang for a prostitute, and French madams usually ran the houses where they worked. In fact, the soubrettes of Soubrette Row were known to perform acts so scandalous and indecent that the other prostitutes didn’t want to associate with them. But that was of no concern to the robber barons who visited them. They could easily enjoy an evening at the opera and then turn the corner to have all of their fantasies fulfilled. If their wives didn’t approve, there wasn’t much that they could do or say, seeing as women didn’t begin achieving their rights for a few more decades.

16 Spending Habits of the Gilded Age That Makes Today’s Wealthy Look Frugal
A stateroom in Sunbeam.Photo by Stephen Hussar/curbed.com

6. The Only Way to Travel in Style Was in a Private Railway Car – Complete With Servants’ Quarters

One of the challenges that the rich seem to face continually is how to travel in style. And when you’re living in the Gilded Age – always trying to impress your friends, neighbors, and everyone else that you don’t like with how expensive your life is – you just can’t be seen traveling in anything short of magnificent. Enter the private railway car, first brought into use by PT Barnum in 1850 for his traveling circus and adopted by another traveling circus, the wealth of the Gilded Age. They were frequently used by the robber barons, either for leisure or business.

By the turn of the twentieth century, there were as many as 2000 private railway cars in use. They were often outfitted not only with sleeping quarters and a dining area, but also with their observation decks, staterooms, full kitchens, secretary’s area, and even servants’ quarters. Presidents used private railway cars some in their so-called “whistle-stop tours” on the campaign trail; the ever-scrupulous Abraham Lincoln disliked their use so much that he never rode in the one designed for the president (akin to the president refusing to use Air Force One) until his coffin traveled cross-country in it.

16 Spending Habits of the Gilded Age That Makes Today’s Wealthy Look Frugal
The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina is now a popular tourist destination. Carptrash/Wikipedia

7. The Ultimate McMansion: Biltmore Estate

New York City was undoubtedly the center of Gilded Age opulence, extravagance, and utter wastefulness, and many summer homes of the super wealthy were in places like Newport, Rhode Island. However, some preferred warmer climes, particularly for the cold winter months. One such individual was George Washington Vanderbilt II who, between 1889 and 1896, built the ultimate McMansion just outside of Asheville, North Carolina: the Biltmore Estate. He was born in Staten Island, New York, but when he visited North Carolina, his imagination was sparked, and he decided that he would build his country retreat there.

The main house of the Biltmore Estate is a whopping 200,000 square feet, making it 100 times larger than many suburban homes today. The entire property consisted of eleven square miles. The building project was so massive that a whole village was constructed for the workers, and a three-mile railroad spur was installed so that the building materials could be transported to the construction site. The site was so unsustainably expensive that the owner had to sell part of the grounds to the United States government.

Today, the Biltmore Estate is the most substantial privately-owned residence in the United States and is a huge tourist attraction to visitors of North Carolina. It is still owned by the descendants of George Washington Vanderbilt, who allow people to visit for a fee to help pay with the considerable upkeep costs.

16 Spending Habits of the Gilded Age That Makes Today’s Wealthy Look Frugal
Gilded Age elites changed clothes to show off their wealth. “Das Album”, page 62-63. Dupons Brussel/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

8. Servants Changed Sheets Twice Per Day

As you may be coming to see, the excessive extravagance of the Gilded Age’s wealthy elite wasn’t so much about having anything you wanted. That was pretty much a given, as long as you weren’t a woman wanting equal rights as men or any other nonsense like that. It was about showing off. The name of the game was proving to everyone else that what you had was more prominent, shinier, and more luxurious than what your neighbors had, especially if you were of the “crass” new rich, like the Vanderbilts, trying to prove yourself to the old rich.

The large homes that were owned by these wealthy people were run by a large staff of servants who, for the most part, carried out their duties in such a way that they were invisible to the owners and any guests. In fact, many chambermaids had “hidden entrances” into rooms via “secret passageways” so that they could go in and out without being seen. They would inconspicuously go into the bedrooms to change the sheets twice a day, whether they had been slept in or not. Towels were changed after every use. Carrying out these menial tasks took up most of their days while their masters lived in unbridled, unprecedented luxury.

16 Spending Habits of the Gilded Age That Makes Today’s Wealthy Look Frugal
“Diamond” Jim Brady had a world-class appetite. ephemeralnewyork

9. They Had Legendary Appetites (and Waistlines to Prove It)

It wasn’t enough to have extra-scandalous prostitutes at their beck and call, solid-gold toilets, or private railway cars complete with a stateroom and servants’ quarters. No, in an age of unrelenting poverty and hunger for the vast majority of Americans, the robber barons of the Gilded Age had corpulent figures that served as a status symbol. After all, being fat, or rather, rotund and portly, meant that you could afford to, well, eat. Something that most people should to just about every day.

One robber baron in particular, “Diamond” Jim Brady, exemplified the greed of the age with a voracious appetite for seafood and steak. Restauranteur George Rector described him as “the best 25 customers I ever had,” and author Paul Jeffers described his typical dinner as consisting of

“a couple dozen oysters, six crabs, and bowls of green turtle soup. The main course was likely to be two whole ducks, six or seven lobsters, a sirloin steak, two servings of terrapin, and a variety of vegetables… He finished with several whole pies.”

But since everything was a competition in the Gilded Age – a never-ending quest to have the best of everything – eating such a delectable menu wasn’t enough. No, these people had to have food-eating contests. Just an extra measure to make sure that their workers, who were starving, knew their place.

16 Spending Habits of the Gilded Age That Makes Today’s Wealthy Look Frugal
Marble House, a summer cottage, in Newport, Virginia. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

10. McMansions Were Built to Brag

If you have read the book or seen the movie The Great Gatsby, you know that there was a struggle between the “old rich” and the “new rich” (yes, Gatsby supposedly lived after the Gilded Age, but the point about old rich and new rich remains). Those who had been part of Europe’s wealthy and had traveled to the US, having held money in their families for generations, like the Astors, turned their noses at the riff-raff of the new rich, who earned their money, like the Carnegies, Vanderbilts, and Rockefellers. Meanwhile, the new rich were building their version of McMansions that far surpassed pretty much anything that the old rich had ever made.

Newport, Rhode Island was (and in many ways, still is) an exclusive community where the new rich began making their mark by building “summer cottages” that were bigger, better, and fancier than anything that the old rich had previously built. One of these cottages, now known as “Marble House,” cost $11 million ($260 million in today’s money) and was a perfect cube made of pure marble. Most of the money used to build it went into purchasing the marble. It was created because one of the Vanderbilts wanted to outdo his brother, who had previously established another McMansion, a home known as The Breakers, which had 70 rooms and 20 bathrooms.

16 Spending Habits of the Gilded Age That Makes Today’s Wealthy Look Frugal
The Tiffany Yellow Diamond, a 128-carat stone cut in a modified cushion-shape featuring 90 facets instead of the 57 or 58 of a standard brilliant cut. The stone, discovered in 1878, has never been sold. Wikipedia

11. Tiaras Required: Jewels Of The Gilded Age

The wives of robber barons may have been disdainful of their husbands’ consorting with prostitutes or their lack of rights in the public sphere, but they sure knew how to ornament themselves in style. And these men, who had money coming out of their ears, surely weren’t going to let their wives walk around looking shabby. Women would literally walk up and down the area of New York City that was known as “Millionaire’s Row” wearing millions of dollars’ worth of jewelry.

Companies like Tiffany and Co. and Marcus and Co. made brooches, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and other pieces of jewelry that were ornamented with rubies, garnets, diamonds, gold, and other expensive gems. They would complement the ostentatious bustle-style gowns, usually made with at least gold thread and jewels sewn into them, and hats with snowy egret feathers.

In fact, at the famous 1883 Vanderbilt Costume Ball, Mrs. Vanderbilt wore a dress that was designed with so much gold and silver that it was made to look as if it was composed of electric lights. What’s more, the curators of all this finery could afford to be so exclusive that people had to travel to Paris or other overseas locations in order to obtain their services.

16 Spending Habits of the Gilded Age That Makes Today’s Wealthy Look Frugal
Ellenrieder Krieg von Hochfelden und Gemahlin 1832. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

12. Extreme Dining, Entirely On Horseback

It wasn’t enough to be able to eat whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted, or even to host a food-eating contest for all of your acquaintances, only to prove how much money you had at your disposal. It wasn’t even enough to throw a lavish dinner party for your dog, who was wearing a $15,000 collar, at a posh restaurant that boasted an indoor lake, complete with swans. No, the quest to be better and more luxurious went to a new extreme with dining when a new food trend arose: eating on horseback.

And why not? Horses have long served as a status symbol throughout much of the world; they have served as means of military might as well as of wealth, as those who own them can afford luxuries like fox hunting or lazy weekends in the countryside.

One robber baron, CKG Billing, took the idea of dining on horseback to an even new extreme when he hosted a dinner party at the ritziest restaurant in New York City, Sherry’s, at Fifth Avenue and Forty-Fourth Street. His 36 guests all ate on horseback, and even the horses were treated to the luxury of having their very own bags of oats to munch on during the gathering. The total bill came out to $50,000 – $1.3 million in today’s money – chump change for a robber baron.

16 Spending Habits of the Gilded Age That Makes Today’s Wealthy Look Frugal
Mummy unwrapping at a party. templeofmut

13. Mummies Were Unwrapped at Parties

Some of the things that people did to impress their guests and know the satisfaction of having thrown a good party is downright bizarre. Case in point: mummy unwrappings. During the 1800s in Europe, particularly in Victorian England, so-called Egyptomania was taking over. People could not get enough of the artifacts from the exotic land that Britain was colonizing. The demand for mummies, in particular, was so high that some Egyptians took lesser-known mummies and put them in more prestigious places, giving the mummified individuals the appearance of being more critical.

And what did the elite of England do with these mummies? They unwrapped them at dinner parties, revealing the corpse inside. These were highly dramatized affairs, with the person doing the unwrapping concocting a story about how this individual was connected to the Biblical figure of Moses or some other fanciful tale. To complement the mummy unwrapping, many also used the new invention of the X-ray machine to take X-rays of the guests (with their consent; no one at the time knew of the harmful effects of radiation).

Although this trend was mostly an English one, there are some indications that it spread to the United States, as Egyptomania spread there, as well. After all, what better way to leave a truly lasting impression on your guests than by revealing a 4000-year-old corpse? Especially when you have the money to do it.

16 Spending Habits of the Gilded Age That Makes Today’s Wealthy Look Frugal
Caroline Schermerhorn Astor c. 1850s. Wikipedia

14. Party Favors Included Gold Pencil Cases

If you wanted to be anybody in New York’s high society during the Gilded Age, you had to be in the good graces of Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor. Mrs. Astor – or better known as the Mrs. Astor – was descendent of the original Dutch aristocracy who had come to New York as the city’s original settlers. As such, she recognized the importance of her role as the gatekeeper of New York’s elite upper crust.

Even after she was manipulated into including the new rich onto her notorious “list of 400,” which specified who was high society and who was not, she was the person behind many of the city’s social events. Many were hosted at her mansion on Fifth Avenue, which incidentally is today marked by the Empire State Building.

Unfortunately, her parties tended to be a bit dull, seeing as she was quite fastidious about etiquette and the rules of how one should behave in society. However, whether you liked her parties or not, a calling card from Mrs. Astor signaled that you were “in.” You would be crazy not to go. And all of her partygoers were richly rewarded, as she was known to give out elegant, luxurious party favors, which included figurines imported all the way from China, gold pencil cases, and leather bags.

16 Spending Habits of the Gilded Age That Makes Today’s Wealthy Look Frugal
One of the 70 statues at Kykuit, the Rockefeller Estate. Hudsonvalley.org

15. An Entire Village Was Purchased So a Train Could Be Rerouted

In the late 1800s, John D. Rockefeller, the famous oil tycoon who is mostly remembered for his philanthropy (even though he paid his workers pennies) bought up vast tracts of land in Westchester County, just north of the Bronx, to build his Kykuit estate. He spared no expense on the charming house, which was decorated with no fewer than 70 sculptures and ornamented with gold knick-knacks from all over the world. The entire estate sat on 3400 acres.

Not far from Kykuit, however, was a train track that was frequented by trains running back and forth from New York City. Today, people might be put off by the noise of a train, but the Rockefellers were miffed because its smoke was billowing onto the golf course. If you have more money than what you know to do with, what would you do about this problem? The family had an ingenious solution: they decided that they needed to move the train tracks so that they were five miles away. In 1929, they purchased the entire village of East View so that the train could be rerouted to pass through it.

Of course, no one was happy about having their homes taken away from them. The family went on to pay all of the people whose homes had been made more than what the houses had been worth. They ended up paying $700,000 to compensate the families, plus the expense of moving the railroad tracks.

16 Spending Habits of the Gilded Age That Makes Today’s Wealthy Look Frugal
Mary Astor Paul. findagrave.com

16. Butterflies Were Shipped From Brazil for a Debutante Ball

Mary Astor Paul, undoubtedly related to the Caroline Schermerhorn Astor that ruled New York social life until the infamous Vanderbilt costume party of 1883, was a socialite of the Astor clan who was born in 1889. Her debutante ball was in 1906, towards the end of the Gilded Age. Debutante balls were formal events in which a young lady was formally presented to society; some are still held today, but they are nothing compared to the debutante balls of the Gilded Age.

Young Mary’s debutante ball was to feature 10,000 butterflies, which had been shipped all the way from Brazil to New York City just for the occasion. The idea was that they would all be released in a surprise move that would flood her guests’ senses with beauty. Unfortunately, the net behind which all of the butterflies were kept was precariously close to a lamp, and the heat was too much for the poor butterflies to handle. All of them died. When they were finally revealed and the net released, 10,000 dead butterflies rained down on the guests.

Mary went on to work in the French resistance movement of World War II to help relocate American soldiers, proving that even the rich of the Gilded Age could care about someone other than themselves.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Private Railroad Car.” Wikipedia.

“Snowy Egret.” Wikipedia.

“The Vanderbilt Costume Ball,” by Barbara Jones. The Enchanted Manor. March 26, 2016.

“Escapes: Evergreen mansion, Baltimore’s hidden Gilded Age gem,” by James Lee. The Washington Post. March 15, 2012.

City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920, by Timothy Gilfoyle. 1994.

“Biltmore Estate.” Wikipedia.

World Poverty by Sylvia Whitman.

“Newport Mansions: Squinting at the Gilded Age,” by Sue Katz. Open Media Boston. August 24, 2011.

“The legendary appetite of Diamond Jim Brady.” Ephemeral New York.

“All the Glitter and Gold: Gilded New York.” Victoriana. October 10, 2014.

“A Dinner on Horseback,” by Madeleine Hazelwood. MCNY Blog: New York Stories. June 21, 2016.

“Victorian Party People Unrolled Mummies For Fun,” by Dimitra Nikolaidou. Atlas Obscura. February 23, 2016.

“America’s Egyptomania: Mummies in the 19th Century.” Temple of Mut. October 25, 2012.

“11 Outlandish Ways Aristocrats Displayed Their Wealth During the Gilded Age.” Mental Floss.

“Mary Astor Paul.” Wikipedia.

“Caroline Schermerhorn Astor.” Wikipedia.