In many ways, the 19th century woman held a privileged
position within our culture, as long as she was a member of the
social elite that is. Imagine
pulling up to The Waldorf Hotel on 33rd St. & Fifth
Avenue (were the
is found today) in a splendidly bejeweled coach and four, with
footman, in attendance to cater to milady’s every need.
Socialites who were proper ladies would never have
considered entering a bar, as it was then sacred territory of men.
The bars of The Fifth Avenue Hotel, The Waldorf, The
Hoffman House, and all the other top establishments were reserved
for the gentleman and most had the word “Men” in their title,
indicating that there were other rooms in the hotel more
“suitable” for the gentler sex.
The Waldorf’s bar was originally called ‘The Bull
‘n’ Bear’, but was changed to ‘The Men’s Bar’ just in
case there was any doubt about its accessibility to women.
But if you entered The Waldorf to attend one of the grand
balls give by J.P. Morgan, Mrs. Astor, the Guggenheims or the
Bradley Martins, and if you were the daughter or spouse of one of
’s movers and shakers, then a special dinner, or better yet, a
costume ball, was a social event to look forward to.
luxurious and opulent sets ever seen, created years before the
birth of the Ziegfield Follies, were erected within the ballrooms
of the great hotels and restaurants, where outstanding French
cuisine, great wines, flowing punch bowls and lavishly costumed
women, who happened to be the most beautiful and sophisticated in
the United States, took center stage.
It was just this type of event that was empowering for
women, since they took control and reinvented themselves, quickly
becoming the object of desire at social affairs, the décor
serving to enhance the aura of forbidden love.
At a typical
party in the
, the great fireplace would be a blaze of roses and acacias, with
centerpieces for each of the one hundred and twenty-five
individual tables featuring a massive bouquet of American
Beauties. At another
event, hosted by Mr. Guggenheim, nightingales, blackbirds, and
canaries sang in a grove of transplanted rose trees with blooming
hyacinths and tulips. Golden
matchboxes and vinaigrettes adorned with rubies served as party
favors. It was theater
at its best and most decadent.
At the Vanderbilt Ball of 1892, Miss Anne Morgan, the
daughter of J.P. Morgan came dressed as Pocahontas in a beaded
dress made by Indians. Mrs.
Bradley Martin appeared as Mary Queen of Scots sporting a white
bodice and a headdress of ruby velvet.
For dramatic effect, at the stroke of 12 Midnight, liveried
footmen passing among the guests distributed jeweled gifts to the
ladies, a gracious American custom that would last well beyond the
The great hotels
of this century became the center f social life for women of
privilege, women who were appropriately spoiled by the men who
owned and ran these great hothouses of entertainment.
But nowhere was a woman treated with greater delicacy and
largesse than at the finest dining establishment of the time, the
restaurant that set the standard for all eateries, including those
of today, Delmonico’s.
was consummate host, a master restaurateur, and a brilliant
marketer, evidenced by the creation of his own champagne label
back in the 1860’s and the renown that lingers to this very day
for Delmonico Steak. The
name ‘Delmonico’ was legendary thirty years before The Waldorf
Hotel opened its doors, in part, because of a series of events
that were held in the restaurant located on
, known as the “Silver, Fold, and Diamond Dinners.”
These gargantuan repasts, created without cost in mind,
were marked by some of the greatest cuisine ever created and by
thoughtful little gifts folded into the napkin of each lady.
In stunning succession, prominent New Yorkers Leonard
Jerome, August Belmont (of racetrack fame) and William R. Tavers
attempted to outdo the other in order to impress the ladies.
Bracelets of silver were found in the napkins of each woman
attending the Travers dinner, a gold bracelet engraved with
“J.P.” was discovered at the Leonard Jerome dinner and Mr.
Belmont pampered his female gusts with a diamond bracelet hidden
within their napkins. From
a culinary perspective the truffle ice cream served for dessert at
the Jerome dinner made quite an impression on guests.
Lorenzo Delmonico himself was amazed and baffled at the
audacity of these men and with their challenge: “charge what you
will, but make my dinner the best.”
Never had he received a request such as this from three men
competing against each other in what can only be described as a
The gift bag of
today, handed out at upscale parties and promotional events,
descends directly from this 19th century tradition of
handing out extravagant gifts to the ladies during a dinner.
Where did it all begin? Apparently, this type of gift giving can
be raced back to a southern gentleman by the name of William
Gaston of Savannah Georgia who “always placed at each lady’s
plate, a beautiful Spanish fan of such value that they are
preserved by the grandchildren of those ladies and are proudly
exhibited to this day.” Shouldn’t every lady have a Mr. Gaston
looking out for her?