How the 19th Century’s 1 Percent Lived Large

Posted by Ancestry Team on October 9, 2015 in Family History Month

When it comes to luxurious living, the upper crust of the late 1800s make today’s “1 percent” seem modest by comparison. Even though modern necessities like indoor plumbing and flush toilets were just starting to make their appearances, the 19th century elite enjoyed luxuries that are still astounding (or confounding) more than a century later. Here are a few extravagances of the Gilded Age and Victorian Era:

Charles Dickens (by Jeremiah Gurney; Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Dickens (by Jeremiah Gurney; Wikimedia Commons)

Luxury toothpicks

During the 1800s, a toothpick was the dental hygiene tool of choice in Europe and the United States. While wooden toothpicks were the norm, people who wanted to display their sophistication carried silver, gold, or ivory toothpicks in elaborate ornamental cases. Ads touted gold toothpicks as the perfect Christmas gift for any gentleman. Silver toothpick holders were given as wedding gifts. Even Charles Dickens, known for his scathing social commentary against the rich, owned an engraved ivory toothpick that retracted into its own handle.

Decadent dinners with elaborate place settings

Those who weren’t struggling with poverty in Victorian England or post-Civil War America followed a complicated set of rules when it came to serving meals to guests. It wasn’t unusual for a single place setting to include 24 pieces of silverware and eight pieces of stemware—plus additional knives and knife rests, if the courses served required them. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a best-selling guide from 1861 aimed at the middle class, suggested this as a sample dinner party menu:

First Course: Julienne or Vermicelli Soup

Second Course: Broiled Salmon, Turbot in Lobster Sauce, Filet de Soles, Red Mullet, Trout, Lobster Rissoles, Whitebait

Entrees: Canards a la Rouennaise, Mutton Cutlets, Braised Beef, Spring Chicken, Roast Quarter of Lamb, Tongue, Roast Saddle of Mutton, Whitebait

Third Course: Quails, Roast Ducks, Mayonnaise of Chicken, Green Peas, Charlotte Russe, Strawberries, Compote of Cherries, Neapolitan Cakes, Madeira Wine.

Mamie Fish (from the Gilded Age Era blog)

Mamie Fish (from the Gilded Age Era blog)

The doggie debutante

In an era when even the middle class was expected to serve seven kinds of seafood and eight kinds of meat at a dinner party, the super wealthy went even further to display their prosperity. Mamie Fish, wife of railroad tycoon Stuyvesant Fish, once threw a dinner party in honor of her dog. The canine arrived wearing a a $15,000 diamond collar—which would be worth more than $384,000 in today’s dollars.

Indoor dinner on horseback

Gas magnate C.K.G. Billings once hosted an elegant black-tie dinner on horseback for 36 people. Sherry’s restaurant in New York put dirt on its ballroom floor and decorated it to look like a forest. The guests ate from dinner trays attached to the horses’ saddles and drank champagne through tubes as they trotted around the ballroom. The price tag for the event was $50,000, or more than $1.2 million in today’s dollars.

A “movable mansion”

To compete with the luxury available on steamships, railroads began offering first-class sleeper cars complete with high-end dining rooms, bars, and observation decks. However, New York industrialist August Corbin commissioned the Pullman Rail Car Company to build him a “moveable mansion.” His private rail car, the Oriental, was modeled after a Parisian apartment—complete with staterooms, a formal dining room, a veranda and a lounge. The decor rivaled any home of the era and included extravagant touches such as mahogany paneling, tufted velvet furniture, silver hat hooks, and elaborate grill and glasswork.

What examples of extraordinary wealth have you seen in historical documents? Share with us!

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