By the early 1860s, much of Central Park had opened, particularly the miles of drives meant for recreational carriage rides.
But with only five percent of city residents able to afford a carriage, these drives were mostly used by the very richest New Yorkers—who established an afternoon high-society ritual called the carriage parade.
In what could be considered a foreshadowing of our current celebrity-obsessed culture, poor and middle-class residents often turned out to watch, gawk, and critique the procession day after day.
“The great, fashionable carriage parade—so rightly considered one of the notable ‘sights’ of the city—took place between the hours of four and five,” wrote Lloyd R. Morris in Incredible New York.
“To view this, crowds gathered along the walk that bordered the east carriage drive from Fifty-Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue to the Mall.”
“In the continuous procession of equipages you saw everyone who counted: the aristocracy, the new smart set, the parvenus, the celebrities, the deplorably notorious.”
“When taking the air in the Park, many of them preferred to be concealed in their broughams, but some had progressed to public exposure in a landau.”
“Their horses were huge, fat, and slow; their coachmen and footmen, soberly liveried, were elderly; their carriages were funereally black.”
Not everyone was impressed by the spectacle of the new rich and their older counterparts on display in $12,000 carriages. One account had it that German schoolkids through rocks at the carriages.
Walt Whitman “found the carriage parade ‘an impressive, rich, interminable circus on a grand scale, full of action and color,'” wrote Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar in The Park and the People.
“[But] as he peered through the windows of the richest carriages, he saw ‘faces almost corpse-like, so ashy and listless.'”
For more information on the building and beginning of Central Park, check out New York City in 3D in the Gilded Age.
[Top and second photo: MCNY Collection; third: NYPL Digital Gallery; fourth: MCNY Colletion]