By Alexander Berki
Modern New York is often seen as a mixture of people from different cultures and nationalities. One may be in the chicest nightclub in the city and catch a glimpse of an A-list celebrity sitting at the next table over from some unknown hipster from Williamsburg. What brings these people together is common interest of food, music or simply a good time. They may not even address each other let alone be acquainted, but they are at least in the same venue at the same time. However, the social world of New York during the Gilded Age was very different from what we know today.
Before the Civil War and the boom of the Industrial Revolution, the only way to be assured a position in New Yorks’ fashionable society was by birth. This collection of families who were able to trace their lineage to the founding Dutch settlers of Manhattan became known as the Knickerbockers. Named for the knee breeches their ancestors wore, they were proud of their heritage and lived rather conservatively in their townhouses around Washington Square. This old money way of living in New York was arid of culture, fixed in their traditions and continent in being so. Reconstruction would bring an end to their social way of life.
As the South fell so did the exclusive world of the Knickerbockers. Antebellum planters left the ruins of the postwar South to join those men who were amassing great fortunes in the North as Masters of Industry and Barons of Wall Street. The high stakes gabbling of the 1860’s made men into millionaires over night; it would only be a matter of time before these “nouveau riche” would storm the fortress of “old New York.” As the cities wealthy population grew, it became clear to some of New York’s old money that the newly wealthy would not be able to be kept at bay for long. Enter one Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor.
Born into New York’s Dutch aristocracy, Caroline was descended from the extended Dutch settling Schermerhorn family whose wealth came from shipping. At the age of twenty-two she wed William Backhouse Astor Jr., the grandson of John Jacob Astor who had become America’s first multi-millionaire due to his involvement in the fur trade and his prodigious Manhattan real estate holdings. In this union, two of New York’s best families would momentously be joined. The marriage would assure the Astors a position at the pinnacle of New York’s social enclaves and would give Caroline an abundance of wealth, which would assure her place as grand dame.
With the rapidly growing population of Manhattan making its way uptown, society began to abandon Washington Square and move north up 5th and Madison Avenues to an area on the outskirts of town known as Murray Hill. In 1856, William and Caroline built a four-story mansion in the newly fashionable, yet conservative, brownstone style on the corner of 34th street and 5th Avenue. In the mid 1870’s, Caroline emerged as the Queen of New York society; New York quickly organized itself around her, yet her home lacked one essential requirement: a grand ballroom. In 1875 she commissioned the architect Griffith Thomas to add a relatively modest sized room to the already existing house, the 35 foot long room held an estimated occupancy of 400 guest.
Ruling over New York’s society was a daunting task, which entailed Caroline to enlist the aid of Ward McAllister to be her guiding force. Samuel Ward McAllister was a southerner from Savannah, Georgia and was a cousin of the Astors, by marriage. McAllister set out to make himself the “tastemaker” of New York’s high society. With his alliances with old southern families, his link with the Knickerbockers and the ability to recognize the power of the newly found industrial wealth, he established a group of people and stated; “there are only about 400 people in fashionable New York, if you go outside of that number you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or else make other people not at ease.” The phrase was immediately picked up by the newspapers of the day and the term “The Four Hundred” was coined. Ironically, it was also the number of people who fit in Mrs. Astor’s Ballroom.
New York City being the ever-changing place that it is, would eventually bring an end to “The Four Hundred.” Over the decades the polite patina of the Gilded Age would slowly chip away as different scandals would shake its foundation to the core, and the great fortunes amassed began to dwindle out. And the group would then see that there was little that kept them in a common social setting. Today one can still see traces of “The Four Hundred” in what is left of the old mansions and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Caroline Astor’s life size portrait hangs.