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During the Gilded Age, the American traditions of New Year’s Eve started to transition from the folk celebrations of immigrants to the elaborate soirees we are more familiar with today, especially for those of a certain class.

New Year’s Eve in Chicago and at the Nickerson Mansion

Chicagoans in the Gilded Age celebrated New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in a similar manner to the way many Americans do today.  The week leading up to New Year’s was full of entertainment, with society leaders like Bertha Palmer and Matilda Nickerson hosting grand New Year’s Eve events where guests danced in the New Year to music played by Johnny Hand’s Orchestra, Gilded Age Chicago’s favorite bandleader.

Johnny Hand conducting his orchestra. Chicago Daily Tribune, “Round About Chicago: Johnny Hand,”. September 15, 1910. The paper noted, “Nobody that was anybody could think of  giving a party until they knew if they could get Johnny Hand to play.”

Johnny Hand conducting his orchestra. Chicago Daily Tribune, “Round About Chicago: Johnny Hand,” September 15, 1910. The paper noted, “Nobody that was anybody could think of giving a party until they knew if they could get
Johnny Hand to play.”

In 1890, the Nickerson’s “Marble Palace” was the site of a lavish New Year’s Eve Reception. The guest list of over sixty-five included the children of neighbors and other prominent Chicago families from both the North and South sides.  The Nickersons followed the common practice of featuring elaborate floral arrangements at receptions.  The marble hall was “decorated with calla lilies” and “the centre-piece on the dining-room table consisted of a bank of delicate pink carnations on a background of maiden-hair ferns.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, “Children Make Merry,” January 1, 1891).

The Chicago Daily Tribune, "Mrs. Nickerson's Party," January 1, 1891.

The Chicago Daily Tribune, “Mrs. Nickerson’s Party,” January 1, 1891.

Dressing Up for New Year’s Eve 

Just as it is customary today to wear something with plenty of glitz and glamour, guests also wore fashion-forward designs in the Gilded Age to New Year’s Eve events. Men wore formal “white tie” dress with black tailcoats while women donned glamorous evening gowns often designed by the preeminent House of Worth in Paris, and received great attention in the society pages of the newspapers.  According to one account, Bertha Palmer wore a “black velvet gown, the bodice studded with diamonds, and a diamond tiara in her hair” at her New Year’s Eve cotillion (“In the Society World,” January 6, 1901).

Left: Cover of Ladies Home Journal from January 1901 Right: Bertha Honoré Palmer. From Address and Reports of Mrs. Potter Palmer, 1894.

Left: Cover of Ladies Home Journal from January 1901 Right: Bertha Honoré Palmer.
From Address and Reports of Mrs. Potter Palmer, 1894.

New Year’s Eve at the Mansions of Newport

Newport, Rhode Island was home to some of the most fabulous mansions of the Gilded Age.  Although initially established as a quiet summer retreat for the newly-wealthy, as the nineteenth century progressed, Newport became a center for the affluent to gather not only during the summer but also during the winter holiday season.  New York society elites, like the Vanderbilts and Astors, threw lavish New Year’s Eve receptions and hosted sumptuous New Year’s Day events reflective of their newly established social status.  Newport celebrations continued to rise in prominence and eventually society reporters began travelling from New York City to cover these spectacular events. While across the nation prominent families of the Gilded Age hosted exclusive and extravagant New Year’s events, Newport was one of the most popular destinations.

Celebrating With Champagne

When attending a New Year’s Eve reception, guests enjoyed novel party favors, refreshments featuring the “delicacies of the season,” a light super (often featuring en vogue French cuisine) at midnight, and plenty of champagne.

moet-chandon

Chicago Daily Tribune, “Moët & Chandon,” December 16, 1901.

French Champagne became a popular drink among wealthy Americans who enjoyed the perceived sophistication of the drink and its intoxicating effects. Beginning in the 1870s, Americans consumed champagne in “astonishing” large quantities and would often pay exorbitant prices for the imported beverage (champagne was subject to import taxes).  In 1894, for example, Americans imported over 70,000 cases of champagne, a significantly greater amount than just twenty-five years before (Chicago Daily Tribune, “Champagne Drank in This Country,” February 24, 1894). Etiquette manuals gave advice on how to host a “bachelor” Champagne supper, and champagne was the drink of choice for celebratory toasts- including on New Year’s Eve. French Brands such as Moët & Chandon catered to the luxury market, with advertisements persuading Chicagoans that the “ablest excerpts” pronounced the brand to be “without question, far superior in quality to any other brands” (Chicago Daily Tribune, “Moët & Chandon ‘White Seal’ Champagne,” May 1, 1900).

Alphonse Mucha, Menu, c. 1899, The Richard H. Driehaus Collection. For more information on this work by Mucha, visit L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters, opening February 11, 2017.

Alphonse Mucha, Menu, c. 1899, The Richard H. Driehaus Collection. For more information on this work by Mucha, visit L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters, opening February 11, 2017.

New Year’s festivities during the Gilded Age reflected the evolving expectations of celebrations, from the lavish receptions of the wealthy to the café and dancehall revelries of the middle and working classes.  Although at the time celebrating with champagne would have been reserved for society’s elite, champagne is a nearly obligatory part of New Year’s Eve rituals today. We still associate champagne with social status, sophistication, and prosperity. So when you raise your glass of champagne to usher in the New Year, you are making a gesture that is a nod to the past, while also celebrating the future New Year and all of its possibilities.

Sources:

Top image: Wikipedia

Chertoff, Emily. “How Rich People Celebrated New Year’s Eve in the Gilded Age.” The Atlantic. (2012). http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/12/how-rich-people-celebrated-new-years-eve-in-the-gilded-age/266663/.

Glover, Ellye Howell. “Dame Curtsey’s” Book of Etiquette. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1909.

Sengstock, Charles A., Jr. That Toddlin’ Town: Chicago’s White Dance Bands and Orchestras, 1900-1950. Chicago and Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Happy 166th Birthday to Louis Comfort Tiffany born February 18, 1848.

One wonders what gift would make this artist/impresario smile? In the years following his death in 1933, many of his iconic works were relegated to attics or dustbins. But following a renaissance of appreciation, Tiffany’s name and output are once again secure in the annals of art history.

So exactly how might Mr. Tiffany celebrate today? There are some hints in the fabulous, over the top fetes that became a part of his legacy. On the occasion of his 68th birthday in 1916, Tiffany threw a lavish party at his Madison Avenue studios in New York City complete with a masque in pantomime entitled The Quest for Beauty . A woman clad in white robes emerged onto the darkened stage and told the hushed spectators they would see “Genius in the form of an artist hunting for Beauty”. The actors then mimed a caveman drawing inspiration from a dancing flame of a fire.

Later after a toast by J. Alden Weir, president of the Academy of Design, Tiffany, in a speech to the 300 assembled celebrants, summed up the quest that was his lifelong ambition:

If I may be forgiven a word about my own work, I would merely say that I have always striven to fix beauty in wood or stone or glass or pottery, in oil or watercolor by using whatever seemed fittest for the expression of beauty; that has been my creed and I see no reason to change it. It seems as if the artists who place all their energies on technique have nothing left over for the more important matter — the pursuit of beauty.

Harper's Bazar, April, 1916

Harper’s Bazar, April, 1916

But that was just one of the many parties Tiffany threw in the cavernous space that was his studio and showroom. He had many theatrical events there in rooms heated by four huge fireplaces and lit with panels of vividly colored glass. It was the perfect artist’s loft to wow awestruck guests. Perhaps Tiffany’s most spectacular event was The Egyptian Fete of February 4, 1913. Invitations in hieroglyphs were sent written on papyrus scrolls. Four hundred attendees, attired in pre-approved period costumes including Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Dorothy Roosevelt and the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert de Forest stepped into “Alexandria” to witness a romantic encounter between Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Tiffany’s daughter Dorothy played one of the Queen’s attendants. One highlight was a suggestive dance performed by Ruth St. Denis who made a spectacular entrance unfurled from an Persian carpet. Catered by Delmonico’s restaurant, there was enough champagne to fuel some risqué behavior in the form of a rather uninhibited Turkey Trot. All of this sybaritic splendor was presided over by the artist himself garbed as an Eastern potentate.

Described in a gushing review by the New York Times, the late night bash was “one amazing riot of color” and “it eclipsed any fancy dress function ever presented in New York“. Even the Pinkerton security force wore Oriental disguise as they stood in silent watch over the treasures in the event space.

So perhaps today’s celebration although heartfelt might be a bit more restrained? How about a multi-layered cake with gloriously colored fondant stained glass panels and jewel-like flowers wrapped in iridescent Favrile spun sugar and lit with 166 candles? To quote the master: “I want to protest that beauty can be found in any material given the proper channel.” 

Many happy returns Louis Comfort Tiffany!

 

To read the article in the April 1916 issue of Harper’s Bazar click here.

 

Sources:
Louis Comfort Tiffany and Laurelton Hall: An Artist’s Country Estate, Elizabeth Hutchinson, ed. (Metropolitan Museum of Art,  2006)
The International Studio, Volumes 57-58,  John Lane Company, 1915
Egyptian Fete A Fine Spectacle NYT February 5, 1913
(Art-The Quest for Beauty , An Address by Louis C. Tiffany) Art and Life, Volume 7, Issue 6 Author’s Bureau., 1916
 Behind Glass: A Biography of Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham By Michael John Burlingham  pp 130-131

Our upcoming evening event featuring The Great Gatsby (1974) has us reminiscing about another grand party that took place years ago in our Gilded Age mansion.

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Happy New Year!

Lindsey Howald Patton —  December 31, 2011 — Leave a comment

Even if your New Year’s party didn’t make Tribune gossip column status like the Nickersons’, here’s to celebrating in Gilded Age style.

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