Rich families of the Gilded Age lived lives nearly unimaginable today. How so? One need only look around one's hometown and see where the enormous, glorious mansions of the late 19th century have either been turned into private or public museums – or are peeling and rotting away – to get a glimpse. In most cases, it is simply too costly to maintain them as private residences anymore. So, imagine just how incredibly rich the handful of mid- to late 19th-century families had to be to keep up such lavish appearances. The Gilded Age wealth disparity was so extreme that people today often compare them to what modern society terms the "one-percent" class.
Excess touched every single aspect of daily life in the Gilded Age, from the responsibility of servants to change bed linen multiple times per day, to designer clothing and jewels, to the horrendously elaborate gastronomical events that were conducted everyday in the dining rooms of the super rich, to the over-the-top feuds between scientists. If you were among the elite of the Gilded Age, you didn't do anything half way.
The filthy rich of the Gilded Age just did not care. Not about anyone. Except themselves. Certainly they would not let the extinction of one of the world's most beautiful animals get in the way of their fashion sense and flair. During the late 19th century, fashionable women became enchanted with the luminous, wispy, gorgeous feathers of the snowy egret. Not just any feathers, mind you, but the ones that grew when the delicate birds were in breeding season, when they were preparing to give birth to their young. In many cases, egret hunters would kill and skin the mature birds right in front of their recently hatched young, leaving the babies to fend for themselves.
No matter. The women needed those feathers for their hats, dresses, and fans. Even for their home decor. The demand grew greater and greater until the snowy egret was endangered and nearing extinction status. To the credit of at least two society women, the species was saved at the last minute. An enormous campaign to protect the Snowy Egret and other birds killed for their feathers resulted in the Migratory Bird Act of 1913.
The rich of the Gilded Age literally had more money than they knew what to do with. So, they were always scouting about to find new and interesting ways to spend their wealth. Costume balls and theme parties were a special favorite, and they were most definitely a prime way to not only display wealth, but also to make a show of great spending on items that would be used for just one occasion and then tossed out or closeted away.
One of the most famous balls of the age was held on March 26, 1883. It was an extremely elaborate costume ball to mark the housewarming of Cornelius and Alva Vanderbilt's New York townhouse, which was built in the design of a French chateau. There was a bit of a problem, though. The Vanderbilts were "new money" and not established in New York society in any way, shape, or form. This was a humiliation, especially to Alva (pictured above in her ball costume). So, she planned the party of all parties and even invited the media in to tour the new house and view the fancy party decor. She pointedly did not send out an invitation to certain old money families. At this point, the Grande Dame of New York society, Mrs. Astor (who had a daughter who was dying for an invitation), was compelled to drop off her calling card at the Vanderbilt house, which signified that the Vanderbilts had at last arrived. Alva was delighted. So was Mrs. Astor's daughter. Not so much Mrs. Astor.
The party really was amazing. The costumes were custom made and imported from Europe, featuring figures real and mythological from throughout European history. The house was decorated in silver and gold finery, with colorful flowers abundant on every floor. One floor was transformed into a tropical garden, and rooms throughout were lit by Japanese lanterns. Thankfully, for historians and the curious, Alva hired professional photographers for the event, and many of the photos taken that night have survived to prove that such a ball really took place.
Yes, there are actual toilet seats of solid gold. And, certainly, the Robber Baron families were going to be among the owners of the same. The railroad tycoon family, the Garretts, bought the palatial Evergreen estate near Baltimore, Maryland, in 1878. They immediately set to remodeling and making the place even more grand than before. One upgrade involved building a theater – replete with stage, seating, and ticket window – for the matron of the house to perform for her guests in.
Probably the most ostentatious update – in a home full of ostentation, mind you – was a golden bathroom, which still exists today. The bathtub alone is covered in 23-carat gold leaf. And to date, it also makes claim to the only confirmed toilet seat of gold in the entire United States. Talk about a "Royal Wee."
Throughout much of the 19th century, the go-to restaurant for showing off was definitely Delmonico's in New York City. Endless lavish parties and dinners were held on the premises, with courses going from late afternoon into the wee hours of the following morning. One of the grandest shows put on at Delmonico's involved the construction of an indoor, landscaped garden, complete with a $10,000 lake in the middle. Swans were brought to swim and glide through the lake as guests enjoyed their rich meal. At a different (but equally opulent) dinner party thrown by a Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, the guest of honor was Mrs. Fish's dog, adorned in a $15,000 collar for the occasion.