During the Gilded Age, the American traditions of New Year’s Eve started to transition from the folk celebrations of immigrants to the elaborate soirees we are more familiar with today, especially for those of a certain class.
Chicagoans in the Gilded Age celebrated New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in a similar manner to the way many Americans do today. The week leading up to New Year’s was full of entertainment, with society leaders like Bertha Palmer and Matilda Nickerson hosting grand New Year’s Eve events where guests danced in the New Year to music played by Johnny Hand’s Orchestra, Gilded Age Chicago’s favorite bandleader.
In 1890, the Nickerson’s “Marble Palace” was the site of a lavish New Year’s Eve Reception. The guest list of over sixty-five included the children of neighbors and other prominent Chicago families from both the North and South sides. The Nickersons followed the common practice of featuring elaborate floral arrangements at receptions. The marble hall was “decorated with calla lilies” and “the centre-piece on the dining-room table consisted of a bank of delicate pink carnations on a background of maiden-hair ferns.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, “Children Make Merry,” January 1, 1891).
Just as it is customary today to wear something with plenty of glitz and glamour, guests also wore fashion-forward designs in the Gilded Age to New Year’s Eve events. Men wore formal “white tie” dress with black tailcoats while women donned glamorous evening gowns often designed by the preeminent House of Worth in Paris, and received great attention in the society pages of the newspapers. According to one account, Bertha Palmer wore a “black velvet gown, the bodice studded with diamonds, and a diamond tiara in her hair” at her New Year’s Eve cotillion (“In the Society World,” January 6, 1901).
Newport, Rhode Island was home to some of the most fabulous mansions of the Gilded Age. Although initially established as a quiet summer retreat for the newly-wealthy, as the nineteenth century progressed, Newport became a center for the affluent to gather not only during the summer but also during the winter holiday season. New York society elites, like the Vanderbilts and Astors, threw lavish New Year’s Eve receptions and hosted sumptuous New Year’s Day events reflective of their newly established social status. Newport celebrations continued to rise in prominence and eventually society reporters began travelling from New York City to cover these spectacular events. While across the nation prominent families of the Gilded Age hosted exclusive and extravagant New Year’s events, Newport was one of the most popular destinations.
When attending a New Year’s Eve reception, guests enjoyed novel party favors, refreshments featuring the “delicacies of the season,” a light super (often featuring en vogue French cuisine) at midnight, and plenty of champagne.
French Champagne became a popular drink among wealthy Americans who enjoyed the perceived sophistication of the drink and its intoxicating effects. Beginning in the 1870s, Americans consumed champagne in “astonishing” large quantities and would often pay exorbitant prices for the imported beverage (champagne was subject to import taxes). In 1894, for example, Americans imported over 70,000 cases of champagne, a significantly greater amount than just twenty-five years before (Chicago Daily Tribune, “Champagne Drank in This Country,” February 24, 1894). Etiquette manuals gave advice on how to host a “bachelor” Champagne supper, and champagne was the drink of choice for celebratory toasts- including on New Year’s Eve. French Brands such as Moët & Chandon catered to the luxury market, with advertisements persuading Chicagoans that the “ablest excerpts” pronounced the brand to be “without question, far superior in quality to any other brands” (Chicago Daily Tribune, “Moët & Chandon ‘White Seal’ Champagne,” May 1, 1900).
New Year’s festivities during the Gilded Age reflected the evolving expectations of celebrations, from the lavish receptions of the wealthy to the café and dancehall revelries of the middle and working classes. Although at the time celebrating with champagne would have been reserved for society’s elite, champagne is a nearly obligatory part of New Year’s Eve rituals today. We still associate champagne with social status, sophistication, and prosperity. So when you raise your glass of champagne to usher in the New Year, you are making a gesture that is a nod to the past, while also celebrating the future New Year and all of its possibilities.
Top image: Wikipedia
Chertoff, Emily. “How Rich People Celebrated New Year’s Eve in the Gilded Age.” The Atlantic. (2012).
Glover, Ellye Howell. “Dame Curtsey’s” Book of Etiquette. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1909.
Sengstock, Charles A., Jr. That Toddlin’ Town: Chicago’s White Dance Bands and Orchestras, 1900-1950. Chicago and Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.