The costumes to be worn by the guests at the ball will undoubtedly be, as a whole, the handsomest ever seen at a fancy dress entertainment in America and will rival, if they do not excel, those worn at the series of great fancy dress balls given at Warwick Castle. (The New York Times, Sunday Feb 7, 1897)
New York City in what Mark Twain sarcastically labelled The Gilded Age, was a tale of two cities. At the southern end of Manhattan the Lower East Side roiled with poverty, and was poignantly captured in Jacob Riis’, photographic essay ‘How the other half lives.’ The tenements, (owned by the wealthy) housed immigrants from a wide variety of backgrounds. The Irish, Italians Eastern Europeans and Chinese created a new under-class of people – which in turn spurred the development of the Settlement Houses by socially progressive women like Lillian Wald (Henry Street Settlement), Florence Kelley (Chicago and New York) and Jane Addams in Chicago (Hull House).
At the northern end of Manhattan, right up the spine of Fifth Avenue, lived the wealthy.
The uber rich of the time lined Fifth Avenue with their Beaux Arts mansions and partied like no tomorrow, thanks to the wealth generated in the industrial revolution. This era gave rise to the moniker ‘The Gilded Age’ and also to the elite names that are still alive today. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Carnegie and others too, Vanderbilt, Twain, Edison and Tesla all strode the streets of New York’s upper end.
And there is no finer example than the Bradley Martin Ball to signify the waste of the noblesse.
Held Feb 10, 1897 by Cornelia Bradley Martin the costume ball cost approximately four hundred thousand dollars for one night of revelry. (Around nine million in today’s money). Mrs Bradley Martin’s own Mary Queen of Scots costume was rumoured to be bestowed with jewels of Marie Antoinette and worth upwards of sixty thousand dollars (in the money of the day). The New York Times devoted almost an entire page to the ball outlining every costume and every attendee. Of which you can see a snippet here.
Cornelia’s justification for holding the ball at extremely short notice (around 3 weeks) was reputedly to stimulate the local economy by having guests order their costumes from the seamstresses on the Lower East Side rather than Paris. However, other sources say it was really a convenient tax dodge.
Nevertheless at 10.30pm on February 10th, 1897 the carriages lined Fifth Avenue and the invitees entered the Hotel Waldorf (the Astoria was still under construction) through then Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt’s troopers who were guarding 34th Street entrance from the eyes of the ‘also-rans’ lining the street. A supper of twenty plus courses was served after midnight and guests partied until five am in the ballrooms and parlours of the Hotel, that were, of course dressed to resemble the Palace of Versailles.
This ball features in a chapter from The Eighth Wonder.