“What Would Mrs. Astor Do?: The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age” by Cecelia Tichi— Looking Back at America’s Gilded Age

Tichi, Cecelia. “What Would Mrs. Astor Do?: The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age”, NYU Press, 2018.

Looking Back at America’s Gilded Age

Amos Lassen

 Between 1870 and 1900, the United States’ population doubled, there was unparalleled industrial expansion, and a tremendous explosion of wealth. Mark Twain called this  period from 1870-1900, The Gilded Age. America was the foremost nation of the world, and New York City was its heart and brain. There, the richest and most influential people such as Thomas Edison, J. P. Morgan, Edith Wharton, the Vanderbilts, Andrew Carnegie, and more. They became icons, whose comings and goings were breathlessly reported in the newspapers of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. It was an era of abundance and also bitter rivalries, at work and at play. Those with old money found themselves besieged by New Money interlopers who were eager to gain entrée into the aristocracy’s formal balls, debutante parties, opera boxes, sailing regattas, and summer gatherings at Newport.

Caroline Astor was  an Old Money heiress of the first order, was firmly convinced that she was uniquely qualified to uphold the manners and mores of Gilded Age America. Wherever she went, Mrs. Astor made her judgments, dictated proper behavior and demeanor, codes of dress, acceptable patterns of speech and movements of the body, and what and when to eat and drink. The members of high society took note. “What would Mrs. Astor do?” became the question every social climber tried and sought to answer. An invitation to her annual ball was a golden ticket into the ranks of New York’s upper crust.

This book serves as a guide to manners as well as an insight to Mrs. Astor’s personal diary and address book. In it we have  everything from the perfect table setting to the of outfits the elite wore at the time. Cecelia Tichi channels the queen of the Gilded Age herself and gives us a portrait of New York’s social elite, from the schools to which they sent their children, to their lavish mansions and even their reactions to the political and personal scandals of the day.  This is a book that is fun a read and remains that way every time you read it.

 Caroline Astor was “the ultimate gatekeeper” and society maven. Tichi channels her as a breezy authority that keeps the pages turning and makes you want to do whatever she says. (This is where someone from the south would probably say, “Bless her heart” but of course, Southerners would do things however they wanted and did not need her). 

“Everyone followed the rules that Mrs. Astor laid down from the number of courses to be served at dinner to the appropriate time to arrive at the opera.  This was a society founded on exclusivity, with floods of tears from those who didn’t receive an invitation to Mrs. Astor’s annual ball.

 “What Would Mrs. Astor Do?” covers an eclectic group of topics on the etiquette and norms of the wealthiest New Yorkers during the Gilded Age. We see, through an inside view, how one achieved social status during this period and what the consequences of such status could be. The book makes it clear that acceptance into the elite group of wealthy New Yorkers (Mrs. Astor’s list of 400) required much more than simply money and wealth. While money was a prerequisite for the list, that was only one of the requirements! Even if one had money, it had to be the right type of money— “old money”. And once again, that alone would not be enough if one did not then subscribe to the absolute rules, etiquette, and acceptable norms of behavior. Mrs. Astor was considered the ultimate authority and arbitrator on the rules and not simply table manners but rules that cover almost every aspect of life from the proper way for a gentleman to walk down the street, to how to approach your box seat at the opera, to the final test of good taste, one’s funeral.


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