A Classification of American Wealth
History and genealogy of the wealthy families of America - Sponsors


 Part 1 : Colonial and Mercantile America  Part 2 : America in the Gilded Age
 Part 3 : America in the Twentieth Century  Encyclopedia of American Wealth

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Comments to the Social Classification list "Mrs Astor's 400" of 1891

"Mrs Astor's Four Hundred'' evocates the drama of American Society at the height of the Gilded Age, when New York's society was shaken by the arrival of ever increasing numbers of new rich, mining bonanza kings, railroad barons and industrialists, who ascended to unimaginable wealth, during the economic transformation triggered by the industrial revolution. Allegedly derived from the capacity of Mrs Astor's ballroom, the "Four Hundred" represented the epitome of New York Society during the last quarter of the 19th century.

Caroline Webster (Schermerhorn) Astor was the self crowned queen of New York (and Newport) Society, who set herself the task, to regulate society and keep the new rich of the Gilded Age out. Assisted by social arbiter Ward McAllister, she started in the winter season of 1872-73 to build up her list of socially prominent New Yorkers, therefore designating twenty five patriarchs, who would define society, by inviting to each ball of the season, four ladies and five gentlemen. [Equilibrium would obviously require the opposite] In addition to the thereby convened 250 people, an undefined number of visiting guests, prominent people from other cities, and debutantes would be invited directly by Mrs Astor.

The Patriarch Balls held at Mrs Astor's mansions would go on until 1897, whereas Ward McAllister would organize them only until 1892. Of the last of these balls, held in the winter season 1891-92, Ward McAllister gave a list to the New York Times. For the first time after many years of guessing, the public was shown the official list of Mrs Astor's 400  and thereby the names of society's sacred inner circle.

The New York Times list actually contained just 309 names, which included spouses and still unmarried young ladies and men. The substance of arrived gentlemen and society matrons, whose claim to social prominence was supported by essentially inherited wealth and ancestry, was thus considerably less. In our list, the author has so far identified 100 of these people and related them to the wealthy families of Gilded Age America. These socially prominent people were mostly rich heirs or heirs-to-be. The latter have been qualified by the rough estimate of $100'000 or $200'000 fortunes, which represent possible allowances (for unmarried) and dowries (for married people).

The 1891 list obviously differs quite a bit from the original Four Hundred, in as far as it contains, besides the Astors and in-laws, equally numerous members of the Vanderbilt family, shunned by Mrs Astor until the mid 1880's. The most prominent, Alva Vanderbilt is absent from the list. Since she was not yet a divorcee at the time, this absence can only mean, she was traveling abroad. Also absent is William Waldorf Astor, Mrs Astor's wealthy nephew, which obviously witnesses the rift between the two branches of the Astor family, that eventually led him to resettle in England. Of the original twenty five patriarchs, only four (William Astor, Ward McAllister, Lewis Morris Rutherfurd and Benjamin Welles) remained, the others being mostly deceased, but many still represented by some of  their descendants. Also "the Four Hundred" may obviously not be summed up in a single list, as the concept covered the regular guests to Mrs Astor's balls over a period of twenty five years. During that time society changed, as obviously did Mrs Astor's guest lists.

Browse and read more about the subject at "A Classification of American Wealth" :
               AW Social Classification List " Mrs Astor's 400 " (abt 1891)
               The original list of Mrs Astor's guests to her ball of February 1892
                (as revealed by Ward McAllister  to the New York Times)
               The original twenty five patriarchs (of 1872/73)
               AW profile of Caroline Webster (Schermerhorn) Astor
               AW profile of the Astor family
               Chapter 4 of A Classification of American Wealth : " Landlords of New York City "

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