Vintage Photos: All That Glittered in Victorian NYC

Strolling along Fifth Avenue Strolling along Fifth Avenue

The Victorian era was a time of rapid economic growth, when men made great fortunes and women payed great attention to their social status.  In NYC, social climbers aspired to obtain a place on Mrs. Astor’s ’400 List’, considered to be the New York Elite.  Great opulence in everything was the order of the day.  Mansions spanning a city block were built.  Even the department stores were lavish. (Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s mansion is now Bergdorfs). 

Helmbold's Drug Store Helmbold’s Drug Store

By 1873, Mark Twain coined the phrase ‘The Gilded Age’ for the seemingly gold covered exterior face America had put on an otherwise downtrodden and suffering society that was everyone else.  Most of the nation lived in poverty.

Ladies’ Mile was the place to be seen while shopping. Above is Helmbold’s Drug Store, which extended from Broadway to Crosby Street and was said to have been a “marvel of splendor.”  Below is the Glove Parlor at R.H. Macy & Co. on 14th Street and Sixth Avenue.

R.H. Macy & Co Glove Parlor c.1885Source:  Macy’s, Inc. Photo Gallery

Henry Siegel's Department StoreHenry Siegel’s Department Store c. 1900, part of Ladies Mile at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue. Source:  Columbia University GSAPP

Parties and balls were aplenty and orchestrated by the self-appointed Grand Dame of New York Society, Caroline Astor.  But the Costume Ball held by Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt really set the reigning society on its heels.  The Vanderbilts had something to celebrate—a new French chateau style mansion at 660 Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street that overshadowed most of the other luxurious homes on the Avenue.  Invitations were hand delivered to all who had graciously stopped by their new home to wish them well.  All but Mrs. Astor, who had never visited the Vanderbilts.  Thus a quick visit by Mrs. Astor gained her a seat at The Ball and gained Mrs. Vanderbilt admittance onto the prestigious 400 List.

vanderbilt-house

Mrs. Vanderbilt dressed for the infamous Ball of 1883 Mrs. Vanderbilt dressed for the famous Ball of 1883. Source: MCNY

This was an age of horse-drawn carriages, elaborate street lamps and the beginning of the elevated railroad know as the ‘El’.  Railroad development moved goods all across the country.  This growth in industry created wealth for industrialists the likes of Henry Clay Frick, Cornelius Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie and others.

Elaborate street lamps during the Victorian Era Elaborate street signs during the Victorian Era. Photos via Ephemeral New York and Parsons History of Manhattan Street Signs project

Decadence ran rampant during this time, with entertainment like the theatre and opera, but the Gilded Age also sparked the beginning of philanthropy, with many of the wealthy looking for a way to give something back to society.  The end of The Gilded Age coincided with the Panic of 1893, and the beginning of a new Era.

The New York Philharmonic Club The New York Philharmonic Club. Source:  New York Philharmonic Archives

Continuing to foster the appreciation and preservation of the Victorian Era is The Victorian Society of New York with an interesting calendar of lectures and tours.

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