No one knows exactly when money first began to talk in New York, but it has not shut up since. What is known is that, by the late nineteenth century, the city had emerged as the millionaire capital of the world, with no other city even a close second in sheer concentration of money. And when so many millionaires, instead of each inhabiting his or her hilltop mansion far removed from all the others, found themselves packed in a seething tangle into so modest an area, the result was an extraordinary culture. Eminence competed with eminence for preeminence—and the traditional two-step of the American Dream, the accumulation of wealth and then the parlaying of it into social status, took on some extravagant twists.
Even before baseball statistics became a national obsession, the number and size of fortunes drew rapt attention. The box scores began surprisingly early. Though Benjamin Disraeli's 1826 novel Vivian Gre gave the world the term "millionaire," it had little relevance in America until the 1840s. A 1798 tax survey of 1.7 million adult males in the young republic revealed only 130 men with valuations exceeding $50,000 (a huge fortune in that era), with the largest at about $300,000.
How rapidly things changed can be seen in the efforts of Moses Y. Beach, owner of the New York Sun, to compile a list of the city's richest men in 1845. Beach found 25 millionaires in New York alone. John Jacob Astor topped the list with $25 million, a sum equal to nearly 7 percent of the nation's total investment in manufacturing. Astor had built his fortune on furs before switching to the more prosaic but immensely profitable field of real estate. Steven van Rensselaer stood second at $10 million, all in land. As Beach said of the van Rensselaers, "One son owns Albany County, and the other Van Rensselaer County." Other familiar names on the list included the land-rich Goelet family, industrialist Peter Cooper, dry-goods magnate A. T. Stewart, shipping titan Cornelius Vanderbilt, and banker Moses Taylor.
At mid-century these fortunes seemed immense, yet within the span of a single lifetime the industrial experience dwarfed them in both size and number. In 1890 the New York Tribune undertook to compile a list of all the millionaires in the United States. The paper did its work with care, using information drawn from 1,500 "merchants, bankers, commercial agencies, lawyers, surrogates of counties, trustees, and other citizens" over a period of 18 months. The final product, published in 1892, listed an astonishing 4,047 members of this once exclusive club. Economic expansion and not inflation generated these fortunes; the years from 1865 to 1897 marked the longest unbroken period of deflation in American history.
To understand what a million dollars was in 1892, consider that a factory worker earned about $446 a year, a railroader $563, and a miner $393. Clerks took home about $885 annually, schoolteachers a paltry $270. A family could live in middle-class comfort with servants on $2,000 a year. With interest rates at 4 percent, people of means could earn this amount on a nest egg of $50,000. In 1892 the purchasing power of a dollar was perhaps 13 or 14 times what it is now, and no one paid any federal income tax regardless of how much he earned.
Although the wealth was spread across the entire American landscape (only five states had no millionaires at all), most of its owners lived in the Northeast and in cities. Two-thirds of all millionaires resided in only five states, 53 percent of them in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts alone. Some 48 percent lived in five cities—with 27 percent in New York. No other American city approached this density of dollars; second-place Chicago contained only 7 percent of the millionaires. Ambrose Bierce immortalized the city's plutocratic preeminence in 1906 in The Devil's Dictionary, where he defined Mammon as "the god of the world's leading religion. His chief temple is in the holy city of New York."
Was the Millionaire Capital in 1892 a place where money was made or a place where money went to live after it was made? The answer is both. Of the 1,103 fortunes listed by the Tribune for New York City, nearly 40 percent were at least partly inherited; another 19 percent were in estates and about to become inheritances. One computation put the percent of new millionaires on the list at 69 percent for New York compared with an average of 82 percent for the rest of the nation and a whopping 98 percent for Chicago, still too new to have old money.
Some of the city's greatest old family fortunes on the Tribune list were rooted in real estate, including the Astors, Beekmans, Cuttings, DePeysters, Fishes, Gerrys, Goelets, Hamiltons, Livingstons, Morrises, Roosevelts, Rhinelanders, Schermerhorns, and Stuyvesants. (These old fortunes tended to disperse among a multitude of heirs; the Tribune list included whole battalions of millionaires with these family names.) Hopper S. Mott had the good luck to inherit the family farm, which in his case extended from near Fifth Avenue to the Hudson River and across the river to the Jersey shore. The old Stryker farm gave its happy heir a large chunk of land near 50th Street. The father and uncle of John E. Simpson had transformed a pawnbroking business into a half-century of land accumulation in the Bowery and Westchester County.
A surprising 17 percent of New York's millionaires were women, but virtually all of them were the widows or daughters of wealthy men. Even Hetty Green, the notorious "Witch of Wall Street", who amassed a fortune at what was deemed men's work—playing hardball in the financial markets—started her career with an inheritance.
The newer fortunes on the list were more various. Some of the city's best-known millionaires were still at the height of their careers. Benjamin Altman and Isidor Straus had become giants in retail dry goods, George F. Baker and J. P. Morgan in banking, Charles A. Dana and Joseph Pulitzer in publishing, Thomas A. Edison in electric invention, the Rockefeller brothers and their partners in oil, Jay Gould in railroads and western development, Augustus D. Juilliard in wholesale dry goods and woolen manufacturing, Jacob Ruppert in brewing, William Steinway in the manufacture of pianos, and Charles L. Tiffany in jewelry and silverware.
Other new fortunes sprang from more unexpected sources. James P. Allaire owned the nation's largest marine engine works. Jordan L. Mott made the first stove that could burn anthracite coal. L. Mortimer Thorn grew rich by discovering a fast dye for calico, while Semon Bache made his money importing plate and window glass, and Birdseye Blakeman by publishing schoolbooks. Milo M. gelding manufactured sewing silks, Clarence Brooks varnish, E. Frank Coe fertilizer, Maximilian Fleischmann yeast, and Robert A. Cheesebrough Vaseline. William H. Gebhard imported wines and liquors for a growing clientele that could afford the best. Dr. Frederick Humphreys grew rich on homeopathic family medicines. Stephen R. Lesher parlayed something as humble as imported tailors' trimmings into a fortune. Leonard Lewisohn began his successful business career by importing hair, bristles, and ostrich and other feathers before becoming a sales agent for several copper companies.
Living in close proximity to each other, amidst a seemingly endless panorama of identical plutocrats, these millionaires struggled to distinguish themselves above their fellow tycoons, with the same energy—though with less ingenuity and variousness—that they had brought to the making of money. At bottom, the strategies they adopted boil down to only four. The most obvious was exuberant, flamboyant, flaunting display. Men who competed fiercely in business—and some who no longer had to—vied to own the grandest, most opulent mansions, the biggest yachts, the finest horses, and the most stunning art collection, while their wives contrived to give he most memorable parties.
Mansions were the most conspicuous form of display. The block-long, triple-brownstone mansion of William H. Vanderbilt at 51st Street and Fifth Avenue, built in 1883 in the Italian Renaissance style, cost an estimated $3 million. In Mrs. Vanderbilt's exquisite bedroom, where "silver toilet services, embroidered silks, and delicate hangings vie with masterly paintings to refresh the attention," one awed visitor was charmed to find "one worn-looking object, and only one: it is the little Bible." At least Mrs. Vanderbilt was able to sleep among the magnificence of her surroundings; Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish commissioned for herself a Gothic bedroom that so enraptured her that she chose to leave it unsullied by sleeping in an adjacent dressing room. As it turned out, most of these elaborate homes, built to endure the ages, did not survive a century.
Entertaining took place on the same opulently showy scale. Alva Vanderbilt's 1883 costume ball was rumored to have cost $250,000 for costumes, catering, food, champagne, and decor, which included transforming the second-floor supper room into a tropical forest luxuriating with potted palms and orchids. One wealthy animal lover gave a banquet for his favorite dog, culminating in the gift of a $15,000 diamond collar to the canine guest of honor. In 1905 James Hazen Hyde, heir to the Equitable Life Assurance fortune, hired famed architect Stanford White to create a court ball in the style of Louis XVI. The state suite of Sherry's restaurant became a replica of the salons of the Grand Trianon Palace, graced by guests in elaborate period costumes. Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, bored with the usual social affairs, hosted a formal dinner party for a mysterious "prince," who turned out to be a pet monkey in white tie and tails.
At bottom, all this display really aimed at a more permanent distinction. New York's tycoons sought to be recognized by high society. A pattern developed: energetic men furnished the sinews of the war for social acceptance in the form of a fortune, and their equally energetic and ambitious wives fought the battles that gained their family entry into society. The excesses these battles spawned led Henry Adams to observe that American society was the first to move from barbarism to decadence without passing through the middle stage of civilization.
The translation of wealth into social status over the course of a generation or two was the way American democracy had always conferred status. So it's not surprising that New York, the center of American economic life, also became the capital of high society. In a democratic, highly mobile society where class was not rigidly defined, money bought social status along with the other comforts of life. While Americans spurned any notion of formal aristocracy, they embraced a privileged class based on wealth because it suggested that the social system was still fluid and open to all comers. Although later studies confirm that most of those at the top started near the top, enough poor-boys-made-good—like Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould, and John D Rockefeller—turned up on the Tribune list to preserve the cherished belief that anybody could make it with enough grit and hard work.
The least subtle way of gaining entry to society was to force your way in by a show of financial force too overwhelming to oppose. The ingenious and fiercely determined Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt used this tactic brilliantly to breach the citadel of high society ruled by the redoubtable Caroline Astor. From the ultimate dominance of society by these two strong-willed women emerged the emblem of all ambitious hostesses of the Gilded Age, a fictitious snob dubbed "Mrs. Astorbilt" by one disenchanted critic.
Caroline Astor had established herself as the reigning queen of high society, while the Vanderbilts were still mere pretenders whose money was so new, it was said, you could hear it crackle as they walked by. To gain social recognition, Alva Vanderbilt (the former Alva Smith of Mobile, Alabama) decided in 1883 to test Caroline Astor's supremacy by giving the most elaborate costume ball ever to dazzle New York.
News of the event flooded the papers, and anxiety over who might be invited, according to the Times, "disturbed the sleep and occupied the waking hours of social butterflies . . . for over six weeks." Hearing that Caroline Astor's daughter planned to attend, Alva Vanderbilt sent word via a mutual acquaintance that, regrettably, an invitation to young Caroline was quite impossible because her mother had never called on the Vanderbilts. Stifling her anger, the haughty Caroline Astor bowed to expediency. In grand style she rode her carriage to the Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue and allowed her footman dressed in blue livery to hand a Vanderbilt footman in maroon livery her card. That moment of surrender marked the formal arrival of the Vanderbilts in high society. Those who relished this encounter missed its most revealing aspect: namely, how new the
Astors themselves were to the ranks of old money and how quickly the Vanderbilts would join them there.
Sometimes the assault was a group effort, and in at least one case it produced a civic treasure as a by-product. In 1883, the same year as Mrs. Vanderbilt's ball, the Metropolitan Opera was founded by a formidable combination of new money led by the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Goulds, and others who could not secure boxes at the prestigious Academy of Music. The opera battle capsuled the larger issue of translating wealth into social status. The Academy had only 18 boxes, all of them clutched by old-money families, including the Livingstons, Schuylers, and Beekmans. The newcomers offered as much as $30,000 for boxes in the dress circle but could not pry any of them from the old guard, who scorned the siege of what they considered nouveaux vulgarians.
Banker August Belmont tactfully suggested adding 26 new boxes to the Academy, but the Vanderbilt camp insisted on original boxes. The argument was about not music but status. Few of the combatants actually enjoyed opera; some, like Jay Gould, could not distinguish Aida from the national anthem. Undaunted, they subscribed enough money to build a new opera house with two rows of boxes known as the Diamond Horseshoe, that seated new-money denizens worth altogether about $540 million. Their presence, sniffed one reporter, "perfumed the air with the odor of crisp greenbacks. Their tiers of boxes looked like cages in a menagerie of monopolists." Within a decade the Metropolitan had supplanted the Academy.
Other tycoons joined the ranks of the elite by making love, not war. "Men of no social distinction," recalled Mrs. John King van Rensselaer, a grande dame of New York high society, "have frequently become prominent in society by marrying women of breeding. The Vanderbilts, the Astors, the Belmonts, and other present leaders have attained their station through the infusion of aristocratic blood into their line through marriages with the old families. Their wives made them." But the reality was that the gentility depended on money for its existence, and the need to underwrite its privileged style of life sometimes required drawing newcomers into the charmed circle.
John Jacob Astor helped blaze this trail to social success that so many others would follow. The immigrant son of a German butcher, Astor used his fortune to marry his son William to an Armstrong, whose bloodlines embraced many of New York's oldest families. Where his father was rude and unpleasant, William was merely dull. But he learned the alphabet of manners from his wife and let her grace and reputation carry him upward in society. Their son William also married the daughter of a proud old New York family, Caroline Schermerhorn, who used the Astor fortune to make herself the undisputed queen of high society, known simply as "the Mrs. Astor." In three generations the Astors had advanced from crude, ill-mannered possessors of wealth to the pinnacle of New York society, from which they could sneer haughtily at those striving to do what they themselves had done.
The widows and daughters of men who'd made it into the social elite often took this process one step further: they traded American money for European titles through the marriage mart. The Countess Di Agreda gained her fortune from her first husband, tobacco scion George L. Lorillard. The Duchess De Camposelice owed hers to the sewing machine riches of first husband Isaac M. Singer, whose daughters acquired the titles of Duchess Decazes and Princess Scey-Montbeliard. Railroad baron Collis P. Huntington's daughter metamorphosed into Princess Hatzfeld, while Medora Marie Hoffman, daughter of a rich banker, became the Marchioness de Mores. And just plain Florence Garner was transformed into the elegantly titled Lady Gordon-Cumming.
Some more patient possessors of new money insinuated themselves gradually into society by doing all the right things and playing by its rules until opportunity beckoned. They wholeheartedly embraced the old-money style of life and the subtle social conventions that separated the elect from the merely rich. They bought houses in what the Times called the “magic parallelogram” between Third and Sixth avenues and 14th and 59th streets, where by the 1870s nearly everyone of any social standing lived. They tried to send their children to the right schools, join the right church, vacation in the right places, even get into the right club. They worked hard to know the right people, often securing a connection by making friends with the somewhat threadbare members of old money through whom introductions could be garnered to their upper-crust relatives.
Keeping track of the right people was not always easy. Hostesses maintained their own lists of possible dinner guests for any occasion. Grace Vanderbilt had 150 names on one such list and a reserve of another 75. The Social Register came into being in 1887 to ease the task and dubbed fewer than 2,000 New Yorkers with its stamp of approval. Club rosters, subscription lists to charities, dancing groups, and the visiting lists kept by leading ladies also furnished names of the right people.
To outside eyes that saw only the facades of mansions and caught glimpses of the rich emerging from their carriages or read about them in the papers, the life of the right people and their groupies seemed elegant and thrilling. In fact, social rituals drained it of thrills or surprises. Dinner parties often ran to seven courses with a Roman punch in the middle as a bracer, but conversation rarely rose above conventional prattle. Propriety consisted of the bland leading the bland. It was deemed impolite to discuss politics, religion, gossip, sex, servants, money, or anything controversial. "The Four Hundred," writer Lloyd Morris noted dryly, "would have fled in a body from a poet, a painter, a musician, or a clever Frenchman."
The evolution of new money into old money, in short, wasn't always a happy transformation. Too often the founding father of a fortune left heirs who were never able to escape his giant shadow. Few could come even close to matching the achievements of their father. They might preserve or manage the business empire he had created, but more often they failed even at that and gradually sank into the arid, self-indulgent life of leisure that had always been the privilege of the privileged class. As Howard Mumford Jones put it, the "old aristocracies" of New York and other cities "steadily declined into islands of genteel obsolescence."
While old money lost its taste and energy for business, it became the driving force behind philanthropy and civic enterprise in New York. Old-money representatives graced the boards of every major cultural institution in service to a notion of stewardship that replaced their vanished economic dominance. Some believed the wealthy had a social responsibility to use their fortunes wisely; others simply wished to provide the city with the trappings of "culture" in the form of libraries, schools, universities, museums, art galleries, orchestras, operas, and theaters. Andrew Carnegie, whose money was still crinkly new, elevated this impulse into a full-blown doctrine called the Gospel of Wealth. He also practiced what he preached: after selling his giant steel enterprise to J. P. Morgan's new United States Steel, Carnegie made a second career out of giving away $350 million of a fortune estimated at $380 million.
But these socially useful by-products could not conceal the fact that over the span of a generation or two innovation had given way to enervation. New money possessed the energy to get things done but lacked old elite's cohesion and tradition of civic service. Old money possessed the tradition (as well as long memories) but lacked the drive or the influence to exert authority over anything beyond the walls of society. The old elite had lost its power over the city, and the ranks of new money were too diffuse to give them comparable sway. In New York as elsewhere, the elite surrendered their political domination of the city to political machines built on the rising tide of immigration. Only a rare few members of old money—most conspicuously Theodore Roosevelt—ventured into the seamy world of politics.
Moreover, the same proliferation of fortunes that expanded the circle of millionaires also weakened the influence of individual men of wealth. In industrial America business titans had the money to buy political favors but not the power to rule. Nor did they want to rule. Contrary to many of its critics, Standard Oil did not want to run America—who needed all those problems? It wanted only to serve its own needs. To businessmen and corporations, political power was important only to get or prevent legislation vital to their interests.
Nonetheless, New York continued over the course of the century as the wealth capital of the nation: by the early 1990s, New York's half-dozen billionaires represented the country's largest concentration of that still-rare species, and 66 of the 400 richest Americans, or 16.5 percent, called New York home. The same rituals that converted money into status in 1890 operated almost unchanged, from hosting opulent parties to engraving the names of the new tycoons over the portals of museums and hospital buildings, built with the newest of new money.
Had anything changed? Only that New York's 16.5 percent share of the nation's richest people had fallen from the 22.3 percent of a mere decade earlier, a proportion within hailing distance of 1890's 27 percent. That is a most dramatic change, brought about by many forces, from technological change to political folly. And it is a change in something that for over a century has made New York unique.