Vanderbilt Ball of 26 March 1883: A Spectacular Affair

The Vanderbilt ball was an extravagant event held on 26 March 1883 by Alva Vanderbilt and her husband, William Kissam Vanderbilt. It was held as a housewarming at their newly built home located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-second Street in New York. Attendees noted that it was one of the most brilliant and elegant events ever held in New York and anticipation was high when the New York Times reporting the following the night before the event:

“The first event of the season, in importance as well as in the order of occurrence … The long-talked-of-fancy-dress ball of Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt … will take place to-morrow evening at her husband’s new residence. … To borrow a common society phrase, ‘everybody who amounts to anything,’ that is in the eyes of society itself, will be present, as over 1,000 invitations have been issued, and it is not likely that anybody who has been invited will fail to go.”[1]

Vanderbilt ball - William Kissam Vanderbilt

William Kissam Vanderbilt. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Of the newly-built mansion and decorations The Montgomery Advertiser reported:

“It is a splendid mansion, built as well as the best skill of the best architects could built it, and furnished as well as the best taste of the best authorities on interior decorations could furnish it. Since an early hour this morning florists have been hard at work arranging rare flowers and plants in a manner to make the most of their fragrance and beauty. The balustrades of the grand stairways were hidden in roses and vines … Masses or rare roses were placed in the dining room and ball room … A bower of roses was built in the ball room for the musicians. Yet the floral decorations are not as lavish as some might expect … for the mansions contains so much that is beautiful and rare that it is itself such a work of art that it was thought best not to hide anything or detract from the effect by too many flowers. … In the evening, when the great temporary canopy before the door was lighted with many Chinese lanterns, a squad of twenty-five policemen came and they did duty there until late at night. It was noticed that several quiet men in plain clothes walked around the grounds near the windows, and these were not molested by policemen. These were the private detectives who were on the lookout for that dynamite throwers who had threatened to make it unpleasant for the party goers as well as the party givers.”[2]

Vanderbilt ball - upper story of the Vanderbilt mansion

Upper story of the Vanderbilt mansion. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Other details of the event were also provided by Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, who reported:

“[G]uests began to arrive about half-past ten o’clock, and a little after eleven to strains of Gilmore’s Band, the six quadrilles, comprising in all nearly a hundred ladies and gentlemen were formed in order in the gymnasium and began to move in a glittering professional pageant down the grand stairway and through the hall. The ball was opened by the ‘Hobby-Horse Quadrille,’ a fantastic set, under the leadership of Mrs.  S.S. Howland and Mr. James V. Parker, to which by common consent the privilege was assigned … The workmen had been two months in finishing the horses. They were of life-size covered with genuine hides, and had large bright eyes and flowing manes and tails, but were light enough to be easily and comfortably attached to the waists of the wearers, whose feet were concealed by richly embroidered hangings. False legs were represented on the outside of the blankets. The costumes were red hunting-coats, white satin vests, yellow satin knee-breeches, white satin stockings. The ladies wore red hunting coasts and white satin skirts, elegantly embroidered. All the dresses were in the style of Louis XIV.

When this wonderful quadrille had been danced, the ‘Mother Goose Quadrille’ came on … Another striking quadrille was the ‘Star Quadrille,’ organized by Mrs. William Astor … Supper was served in the gymnasium soon after one o’clock, and the entertainment as a whole constituted an event which will long be remember in fashionable circles.”[3]

The St. Louis Globe-Democrat also reported on the event stating:

“The ball-room scene when the room was crowded … was wonderfully picturesque, entertaining and dazzling. Nearly all the fashionable men and lovely women of the town were there, all of them robed in exquisite colors, reminiscent of court-days, history and romance. The scene blazed with light, beauty, purpose and fine linen. There is no house in the city more perfect in its details than Mrs. Vanderbilt’s palace-house, and the room in which the guests were crowded glowed with rich stone paneled oak and tapestry.”[4]  

Just like the future 1897 Devonshire ball, the Vanderbilt affair was an event where no expense was spared and where costumes were one of the highlights of the evening. In anticipation of what was to be worn, the New York Times noted:

“What costumes will be worn, and who will wear them, form now that all-absorbing topic of conversation but, on the other hand, great care is being taken by each prospective guest to conceal from the others what his or her costume will be. … It is said that the Empress of China, Queen Elizabeth, Marie Stuart, Marie Antoinette, the Maid of Orleans, Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Pocahontas, Fair Maid of Perth, [and] Minerva … are each to be personated by ladies. Some of the historical costumes have been copied, it is said, from paintings in the Hampton Court Palace and the British Museum, while that of Queen Elizabeth is taken from a picture in the gallery of Mr. August Belmont, of this city.”[5]

The host, William K. Vanderbilt, represented the Duke de Guise and his costume was claimed to be first class. As to the hostess, Alva, she was reported to be dressed as a Venetian Princess. Of her charming outfit, The Morning Journal-Courier stated:

“Mrs. Vanderbilt’s irreproachable taste was seen to perfection in her costume … taken from a picture by [Alexandre] Cabanel. The underskirt was of white and yellow brocade, shading from the deepest orange to the lightest canary, only the high lights being white. The figures of flowers and leaves were outlined in gold, white, and iridescent beads; light-blue satin train embroidered magnificently in gold and lined with Roman red. Almost the entire length of the train was caught up at one side, forming a large puff. The waist was of blue satin covered with gold embroidery — the dress was cut square in the neck, and the flowing sleeves were of transparent gold tissue. She wore a Venetian cap, covered with magnificent jewels, the most noticeable of these being a superb peacock in many colored gems.”[6]

Vanderbilt ball - Alva Vanderbilt

Alva Vanderbilt dressed as a Venetian Princess. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Newspaper reporters also noted that with all the wonderful costumes it was difficult to determine which one was considered the best or the finest. The host’s sister, Eliza Osgood Seward, was there dressed as a hornet, and papers reported that the hornet imitation in brown and yellow with gauze wings was “excellent.” There was also Mrs. Pierre Lorillard dressed as a Phoenix, Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt appeared as Louis XVI in fawn-colored breeches trimmed with silver point d’Espagne, and his wife, Alice Claypoole Vanderbilt, dressed as an “Electric Light” in white satin trimmed with hundreds of diamonds.

Alice Claypoole Vanderbilt dressed as an Electric Light for the Vanderbilt ball.

On the evening of the party, there were also the following details reported about the costumes:

“[S]triking and unique costumes abounded on every hand. Many of the dresses were ordered from Worth, and foreign picture galleries were searched for models. All the fashionable customers in the city were kept busy on the designs, many of them drawn by prominent artists. Great care was taken to avoid trite costumes and over-reduplication. Descriptions of all the dresses were submitted beforehand [so that] … there should not be too many of one kind.”[7]

The costs and time associated with the creation of the costumes for the Vanderbilt ball were claimed to be enormous. For instance, one costumer and dressmaker, a Monsieur Lanouette, was extremely busy and it was reported that he “made more than 150 of the dresses worn at the ball and turned down just as many other orders. At that, he had to 140 dressmakers and seamstresses at work night and day for weeks to meet his commitments. He estimated that most of his dresses cost between $500 and $700.“[8]

There was also great conjecture about the expenses associated with putting on the costly Vanderbilt ball. The New York World attempted to calculate what the Vanderbilt’s spent and arrived at the following conclusion that “Its total came to $250,000, and included $155,730 for costumes, $11,000 for flowers, $4,000 for carriage hire, $65,270 for champagne, catering, music and other items, and $4,000 for hairdressing.”[9]  

The Vanderbilt ball was an important event that did more than just a provide a night out for the wealthy. British-American financier and author, Henry Clews, mentioned that prior to the ball the Astors dominated New York society and that they were a generation older than the Vanderbilts and held themselves somewhat aloof. Supposedly one reason Alva wanted to give the ball was that she hoped to “establish friendly relations” with the Astor family and improve her standing in society. Clews believed that the Vanderbilt ball “seemed to have the effect of levelling up among the social ranks of upper-tendom, and placing the Vanderbilts at the top of the heap, in what is recognized as good society in New York.”[10] The ball also perhaps helped Alva ensure that her daughter Consuelo would marry the Duke of Marlborough. Such a step was something that Alva considered to be a crowning achievement in her aim to have some sort of royal link to Europe’s princely class.

Consuelo Vanderbilt, circa 1900-1905. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] The New York Times, “Festivity at Eastertide,” March 25, 1883, p. 14.
  • [2] The Montgomery Advertiser, “Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Ball,” April 1, 1883, p. 2.
  • [3] Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, “The Vanderbilt Ball,” April 17, 1883, 1437, p. 107.
  • [4] St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “New York Notes,” April 1, 1883, p. 9.
  • [5] The New York Times, p. 14.
  • [6] The Morning Journal-Courier, “The Vanderbilt Ball,” March 28, 1833, p. 1.
  • [7] Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, p. 107,
  • [8] A. Tully, Era of Elegance (Lake Oswego, OR: eNet Press Inc., 2012), p. 40.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] H. Clews, Twenty-eight Years in Wall Street (New York: Irving Publishing Co., 1887), p. 366.

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