February 29, 2024 | Sarah Ng

How Rich People Spent Their Money In The Gilded Age

Too Filthy Rich For Their Own Good

During the Gilded Age, the rich had so much money, they didn't know what to do with it... so they spent it on the craziest extravagances imaginable.

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The Most Outrageous Dinners

In New York City, there was one restaurant where the rich dined to be seen—and that was Delmonico's. The dining experience was so extravagant and drawn out that the parties would often last late into the night, and even the next morning.

Delmonico's NY- 2016Shinya Suzuki, Flickr

An Indoor Lake

One show at Delmonico's boasted a lake that cost $10,000 to build, as well as a fully landscaped garden—and all of this was indoors. The cherry on top was undoubtedly the swans that peacefully floated atop the lake while diners dug into their sumptuous dishes.

White swans swimming on the lake.Christophe Guillemeau, Pexels

A Royal Pet

Mrs Stuyvesant Fish also threw an unforgettable dinner party in honor of her beloved dog. For the event, she blinged out her dog with a shocking $15,000 collar.

Photograph of Marion Graves Anthon Fish, wife of Stuyvesant Fish.Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons


Eating On Horseback

To the rich, it didn't matter if something was 100% ridiculous—if it was a lavish expense, it was worth doing. This was certainly the case with Cornelius KG Billing's horseback dinner. Yes. Eating a meal on horseback. Brilliant.

Party on horseback given by C. K. G. Billings - 1903Byron Company New York, Wikimedia Commons

A Horse Lover's Dream

The millionaire Cornelius KG Billings was a horse lover who'd built a $200,000 stable. It contained enough space for two families, 33 horses, 20 carriages, a trophy room, and a gymnasium. 

He decided to commemorate its completion with—you guessed it—an unforgettable horseback dinner.

C.K.G. Billings with his horse Lou Dillon after winning the Webster Cup in 1903Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

The Ballroom Had Real Birds

Billings invited 36 lucky guests to a New York City restaurant called Louis Sherry's. This 12-story building was trussed up to the nines—horse-themed from top to bottom. The ballroom even boasted live birds and beautiful flora. But the dinner itself was wild.

Photo of the ballroom at Sherry's (Louis Sherry) restaurant in 1898.James R. Osgood and Company, Wikimedia Commons

Champagne Saddlebags

There was no table in sight for Billings' horseback dinner. Nope. Guests ate their meals atop horses arranged in a circle. Dinner plates were mounted on the saddles while everyone used straws to suck up champagne from their saddlebags.

The bill came to a whopping $50,000.

Harness race horse and rider (C. K. G. Billings) - 1903Alexander Pope, Wikimedia Commons

They Drove A Species To The Brink Of Extinction

During the Gilded Aged, insanely wealthy people often only thought about themselves, especially when it came to fashion. In one case, this drove one beautiful species to the brink of extinction.

Paris Hippodrome dress style - 1900s.Université de Caen Basse-Normandie, Picryl

A Feather Obsession

Feathers were a big accessory for women during the late 19th century—and the snowy egret produced some of the most gorgeous feathers around. This was bad news for the snowy egret.

Snowy Egret, Port Royal, South Carolina - 2023Judy Gallagher, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons


A Selfish Pursuit

To get the best feathers, hunters had to get their hands on the snowy egrets during breeding season. Sadly, this often left the birds' young babies without anyone to protect them. But the rich didn't care.

Snowy Egret, Port Royal, South Carolina - 2022Judy Gallagher, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

In The Name Of Fashion

These feathers were used in dresses, home decorations, hats, and fans. The demand for snowy egret feathers almost wiped out the animal entirely. Thankfully, they had one saving grace—the Migratory Bird Act of 1913.

Model Wearing Chanticleer Hat Of Bird Feathers.Library of Congress, Picryl

10,000 Butterflies

In 1906, the socialite Mary Astor Paul threw a debutante ball that was unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. For a stunt meant to wow guests, netting trapped 10,000 Brazilian butterflies close to the ceiling. However, the grand reveal went terribly awry.

Cracker Butterfly (Hamadryas arinome) - 2019Allan Hopkins, Flickr

A Debutante Ball Gone Wrong

Unfortunately, the lamps were too hot for those poor butterflies and they didn't live long enough to see freedom. When they were finally released, their sad bodies simply dropped on top of all of the horrified guests.

Group of butterflies puddling on the ground.Matee Nuserm, Shutterstock

The Biltmore Estate

One of the grandest estates in American history was built during the Gilded Age. Originally owned by George Washington Vanderbilt II, this was the Biltmore Estate, which can be found close to Asheville, North Carolina.

Biltmore Estate - 2006Unknown Author, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

An Unbelievable Amount Of Property

The Biltmore Estate is mind-bogglingly large, stretching almost 11 miles—and with a main building nearing 200,000 square feet, the construction process was unbelievable.

Biltmore House, with reflecting pool in the Biltmore gardens Esplanade (1900).John H. Tarbell, Wikimedia Commons


They Needed A Village

To build the Biltmore Estate, a village was created just to shelter all the workers and supplies. As well, in order to transport all the necessary materials to the site, a railroad spur had to be constructed. Over 1,000 workers made this dream a reality.

Biltmore Village Depot, Biltmore VillageWarren LeMay, Flickr

It's Open To The Public

Today, the Vanderbilts still own the Biltmore, making it the biggest privately-owned residence in America. Because the cost of upkeep is so expensive, it's been opened to the public. Visitors can pay a ticket price to tour the estate. 

Biltmore House, Biltmore Estate, Asheville, NC - 2019Warren LeMay, Flickr

The Evergreen Estate

The Garret family made their riches in the railroad industry—and in 1878, they purchased the unbelievable Evergreen Estate. However, the stunning home in Baltimore, Maryland wasn't quite extravagant enough for them.

Evergreen Mansion in Baltimore, Maryland. - 2011Frederic C. Chalfant, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Unreal Renovations

The Garrets began renovating the Evergreen estate to make it even more luxurious than before. For instance, they built a functioning theater to put on shows. It even had a ticketing booth, full-blown seating, and a stage. But that wasn't the craziest addition.

Empty theater hall - 1907University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Picryl

A Golden Bathroom

Most famously, they added a glittering, golden bathroom. Believe it or not, 23-carat gold leaf envelops the entire bathtub. Moreover, it reportedly boasts the only golden toilet seat in the US.

Evergreen Museum in Baltimore, MD. (golden bathroom) - 2022Ɱ, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Had Different Beauty Standards

Beauty standards were a little different during the Gilded Age—and some of that can be attributed to the appetites of the filthy rich.

Portrait of LadyEmily Caroline Sydney - 1877British Museum, Picryl


They Loved To Eat

You see, it was perfectly acceptable for wealthy men and women to have wider waistlines and robust figures. Two such notable elites were James Brady—or Diamond Jim—and the actress Lillian Russell. These two loved their food.

Lillian Russell portrait - 1895Library of Congress, Picryl

Their Diets Were Wild

Reportedly, restaurant owner George Rector claimed that James Brady was "the best 25 customers I ever had". The financier's exorbitant diet was enviable.

Diamond JimLibrary of Congress, Picryl

The Delicacies Were Unmatched

For lunch, Brady would indulge in such delicacies as lobster, beef, crabs, oysters, and clams. But dinner would even more of an occasion: multiple ducks and lobsters, vegetables, terrapin, and sirloin steak.

However, Brady wasn't a drinker, preferring to pair his meals with an unending supply of delicious orange juice.

Lobster dinner at plate - 2013public-domain-image.com, Picryl

Wealth Was A Competition

Being a part of the elite during the Gilded Age was downright cutthroat. Even brothers were in competition with one another. For instance, Cornelius Vanderbilt tried to outdo his brother, William K Vanderbilt's stunning Marble House.

Cornelius Vanderbilt between 1844 - 1860Produced by Mathew Brady's studio, Wikimedia Commons

The Marble House

William K Vanderbilt designed his Marble House for one express purpose: to "outstaff, outdress, and outparty" other wealthy businessmen, including his own brother.

Marble House, William K. and Alva Vanderbilt mansion - 1895Child, Frank H., Hunt, Richard Morris, Wikimedia Commons

A Showhome Competition

The competition surrounding these showhomes became fierce. After all, they were often written about in the local papers. One paper divulged jaw-dropping details about Vanderbilt's Marble House.

Marble House, Newport RI - 2016xiquinhosilva, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Wanted To Make The Papers

According to the Newport Mercury, the construction of the Marble House had exquisite paneled walls, as well as some walls covered in 22-carat gold leaf. It's construction had also required 500,000 cubic feet of imported marble.Entrance Hall, Marble House, Newport, Rhode Island, United States - 2022Billy Wilson, Flickr

Unforgettable Costumed Balls

The rich loved to throw their money at parties during the Gilded Age, especially themed and costumed events. However, there was one unforgettable ball that has gone down in history.

Ball bei Hof of the Austrian Court - 1886Wikimedia Commons, Picryl

A Housewarming To Remember

In celebration of their new townhouse in New York, Cornelius and Alva Vanderbilt threw a costumed ball. At the time, the Vanderbilts were in a bit of a pickle. 

Grayscale Portrait Photo of Cornelius VanderbiltHowell & Meyer, Wikimedia Commons

New Money Vs. Old Money

They were "new money" and had to make a proper splash in order to better ingratiate themselves into society. Alva Vanderbilt believed a party was the proper solution. She even cheekily refrained from delivering invitations certain families considered to be "old money".

Alva Vanderbilt looking at camera.Bain News Service, publisher, Wikimedia Commons

Custom-Made Costumes

The costume ball was a riotous success. The costumes were unbelievably detailed—custom-made by makers in Europe—and the theme allowed for a wide variety of looks from European history.

St. Petersburg. Participants of the costumed court masquerade ball at the Hermitage Theater - 1903Петров В., Wikimedia Commons

They Transformed A Floor Into A Real Garden

The house practically dripped with gold, silver, floral decorations, and Japanese lanterns. One floor was utterly magical—made into a real exotic garden. But the Vanderbilts weren't the only ones to throw unbelievable parties.

Marble House Dining Room - 2016xiquinhosilva, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

He Looked To The French Royal Court

The billionaire James Hazen Hyde decided to honor is niece Annah Ripley in 1905 with a ball. He could do no wrong with his theme: Louis XIV's court.

James Hazen Hyde, three-quarter length portrait - 1904Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

They Hired Professional Orchestras

Channelling the excesses of the French court, Hyde covered his ballroom in flowers and hired the Metropolitan Opera House's orchestra to provide the music. 

Sanremo - Claudio Villa canta Addio - 1962

A Fairytale Environment

Even the fare was up to scratch, with diners sipping imported French wine while enclosed in a room decorated with roses.

Man drinking wine at party - 1880Archiv Corps Suevia München, Picryl

The Railroad Industry Changed Everything

For the wealthy people of the Gilded age, the dawn of the railroad industry changed everything. Transportation became the perfect way to show off one's riches.

Track Maintenance, Locomotive - 1946Southern Methodist University's Central University Libraries, Picryl

Opulent Railroad Cars

The elite chose to travel in fashion. Once the 1870s hit, folks had begun decorating their private railroad cars with velvet upholstery. These cars were so ostentatious, they could have been rooms in their personal mansions.

Some even had running water and bedrooms.

Pere Marquette Railroad parlor car - 1910Library of Congress, Picryl

An Anonymous Prince

In New York City and Rhode Island, Marion Graves Anthon Fish had multiple residences where she loved to throw wild parties. On one memorable occasion, she magnified the anticipation surrounding one of her parties by promising the attendance of a princewhom she didn't name.

Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish ,portrait - 1902Harper's Weekly. v.46 1902, Picryl

A Monkey Wearing A Tuxedo

When the guests arrived at Fish's party, eager to meet this mysterious prince, they were shocked to discover the promised royal was actually a monkey dressed up in a tuxedo. But Fish didn't stop there.

monkey wearing a black suitsik life, Shutterstock

Playing Pretend

At another event, Fish had her friend wear an elaborate costume. Henry Lehr wielded a scepter and wore a crown, pretending to be the Czar of Russia. And when it came to entertainment Fish pulled out all the stops.

She often had athletes and fighters perform for her guests.

Portrait of Henry Symes Lehr - 1908Bain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

They Changed Their Clothes All The Time

Do you know what sounds exhausting? The way rich folks changed their clothing so often during the Gilded Age. By wearing multiple looks, they could flaunt many of their expensive garments throughout the day.

Lillian Russell, half length portrait - (1893)Library of Congress, Picryl

A Different Look For Every Meal

For instance, before lunch, they'd dress in their morning attire—suits or dresses. But in preparation for the afternoon, they'd change into something lighter. 

Lillian Russell Three Quarter Length Portrait - 1893Library of Congress, Picryl

An Outfit For Every Occasion

For dinner, they'd don their formal wear, only to change once more for any social engagements in the evening. Furthermore, if one happened to be participating in a special activity like riding or hunting, another outfit would be necessary.

Hunt ball dinner - 1905Library of Congress, Picryl

Fresh Bedding Twice A Day

The servants also had to change the bedsheets an outlandish number of times. Depending on how often the family members napped, the bedding would be switched twice per day—at minimum. And, keep in mind, everything had to be washed by hand.

Home servants doing laundry - 1900 - 1910Lancaster Historical Society, Picryl


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