It was 1883 and the socially ambitious Mrs. William Kissam Vanderbilt (née Alva Erskine Smith) was determined to become part of New York’s high society and get on The List.
This was the famous list of “The Four Hundred” people who were New York’s high society of the Gilded Age. But in order to get on The List, Alva would need to go through the gatekeeper: Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, the queen bee of New York’s social hierarchy. Upholders of old money and tradition, Mrs. Astor and Ward McAllister, the self-appointed “arbiter of social taste” and creator of the Four Hundred, were the authorities in all things upper class and it was up to them to decide if your last name was respectable enough or your bloodlines were pure enough to become part of the elite.
They had deemed the Vanderbilt family unacceptable for high society because they found the crassness of nouveau riche family patriarch, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, the ambitious entrepreneur who had made his fortune in the shipping and railroad industry, too distasteful.
This did not sit well with the determined Alva, who was married to Cornelius’ grandson, and she made it her mission to bring the Vanderbilts onto the list of the 400 and into what she thought was their proper place in society.
The first thing she did was have renowned American architect Richard Morris Hunt build her and her husband an opulent French château-style mansion at 660 Fifth Avenue that overshadowed the luxurious town homes that already lined the avenue. The mega mansion was nicknamed “Petit Chateau.”
When Petit Chateau was ready, Alva decided to throw a housewarming party, but of course not the typical housewarming where a guest will bring a nice plant. She wanted a party on a much grander scale and on Monday, March 26, 1883, she hosted one of the most amazing parties that New York had ever seen.
Invitations were hand delivered by uniformed servants, young socialites had been practicing quadrilles (dances performed with four couples in a rectangular formation) for weeks, and, according to the New York Times, “Amid the rush and excitement of business, men have found their minds haunted by uncontrollable thoughts as to whether they should appear as Robert Le Diable, Cardinal Richelieu, Otho the Barbarian, or the Count of Monte Cristo, while the ladies have been driven to the verge of distraction in the effort to settle the comparative advantages of ancient, medieval, and modern costumes.”
With her access to mountains of money, Alva spared no expense and used every available resource, including the power of the press, and invited journalists to take exclusive photographs of the decorations beforehand and build the hype. Alva also supposedly used one more trick up her sleeve. According to gossip, she used good old-fashioned manipulation to gain admission to the New York 400. The story goes that like all young women of marrying age, Mrs. Astor’s daughter, Carrie, had been practicing a quadrille with her friends for weeks and was anxiously awaiting her invitation. When all of her friends got theirs and she still hadn’t, she asked her mother to find out why.
Alva claimed that since Mrs. Astor had never called on the Vanderbilt home on Fifth Avenue to introduce herself formally, she had no address to send an invitation to, so Mrs. Astor begrudgingly dropped in on Petit Chateau and left her visiting card. The Astors received their invitation the following day.
The fancy dress ball started at the stroke of 10 p.m., as the 1,200 New York socialites began arriving in carriages at the mansion. Police had to hold back crowds that had gathered to watch the event unfold and catch a glimpse of society “it” men and women in their outrageous costumes and inventive get-ups. Even Mrs. Astor and Ward McAllister attended.
Much like at the prom, the guests had the opportunity to have their photo taken at the event of the year, or perhaps the century, by Mora, a dashing Cuban refugee who was the photographer of the rich and famous.
Alva dressed as a Venetian Renaissance lady and there was Miss Edith Fish dressed as the Duchess of Burgundy, with real sapphires, rubies and emeralds studding the front of the dress. Alva’s sister-in-law, Mrs. William Seward Webb, went as a hornet, with an imported headdress made of diamonds. Miss Kate Fearing Strong went as her nickname "Puss" and wore a disturbing cat costume that consisted of a taxidermied cat head she wore as a hat, and seven cat tails sewn onto her skirt.
Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II, in one of the most dazzling costumes of the night, represented “Electric Light.” The dress, designed by Charles Frederick Worth, was made of yellow satin and gold and silver thread, and decorated with glass pearls and beads in a lightning-bolt pattern. It even had a torch that lit up, thanks to batteries hidden in her dress.
At exactly 11:30, the ball officially began with the hobby-horse quadrille, the first of five quadrilles where the young people of society danced down the grand staircase in their lavish costumes.
Dancers in the Dresden quadrille wore all-white court costumes and looked eerily like living porcelain dolls. For the Opera Bouffe quadrille, the costumes were just as elaborate. The New York Times described Miss Bessie Webb, who appeared as Mme. Le Diable, as being “in a red satin dress with a black velvet demon embroidered on it and the entire dress trimmed with demon fringe - that is to say, with a fringe ornamented with the heads and horns of little demons.”
The ball really went into full swing after the quadrilles ended. Dozens of Louis XVIs, Venetian noblewomen, a King Lear “in his right mind,” Joan of Arc and hundreds of other costumed figures drank champagne and danced around the flower-filled house, including in the third floor gymnasium that had been converted into a forest filled with palm trees, bougainvillaeas and orchids. Dinner was served at 2 a.m. by a small army of servants. The menu included hot fare of fried oysters, chicken croquettes and Maryland-style terrapin, and cold fare of salmon a la Rothschild, beef, ham and chicken in jelly, chicken salad au celery, sandwiches a la Windsor and several kinds of ices.
The dancing continued until sunrise and Alva led her guests in one final Virginia reel. Then, just like that, the grand ball was over. The fantasy world that Alva created turned back into reality, as men in powdered wigs stumbled down Fifth Avenue toward home.
Most contemporary sources put the cost of the ball at $250,000 (around $6 million in today’s money), including $65,000 for champagne and $11,000 for flowers. All of the extravagant pomp and pageantry worked: Newspapers across the country praised Alva’s tastes and classiness and reported the most minute details. There was some backlash, however. The New York Sun published an article that took issue with all of the excess when there was so much suffering in the same city:
“Some kind-minded persons argue that entertainments of this kind are both charitable and patriotic, for they cause money to circulate and give work to those whose lot it is to toil. This is sentimental rubbish. The needy American workingman and workingwoman do not make a cent by the importation of Worth’s dresses, the purchase of new diamonds at Tiffany’s or the resettling of old family jewels ... the festivity represents nothing but the accumulation of immense masses of money by the few out of the labor of many.”
But we’re guessing that all of the party revelers, especially Alva herself, gave not one whit about what The Sun thought of her extravagant costume ball because as of March 27, 1883, the Vanderbilts were on The List that was no longer limited to 400 people.
Perhaps that’s why Mora later added birds to Alva’s photo - to symbolize that she was finally flying as high as the other society elites.
You can see more extravagant ball costumes in the photo album at The Museum of the City of New York.