This 1840 spectacular costume ball started it all

The elegant Brevoort mansion (left, in 1912), which stood at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street for an astounding 91 years, doesn’t look like the kind of place that hosted serious partying.

But inside these walls was the city’s first extravagant costume ball, credited with launching the fad for the blowout spectacular balls beloved by society throughout the 19th century.

The story of the ball begins with the story of the mansion, commissioned in 1834 by Henry Brevoort. He was a descendant of the Brevoort family—wealthy landowners who trace their Manhattan lineage to the 17th century.

Fifth Avenue at the time was little more than a dirt road. But fashionable New Yorkers were moving to Washington Square, and Henry Brevoort decided to build a Greek Revival house (below, 1915) and surrounding gardens nearby.

It must have been a bucolic home in those early years, a place Brevoort could entertain literary friends like Washington Irving (below left).

After hosting several smaller parties, the Brevoorts had a bigger plan. In winter 1840, they sent out invitations for a costume ball like the ones taking Europe by storm at the time. (This image below, from Demorest’s magazine, gives an idea of these balls).

It wasn’t the first costume ball in New York, but it was the one that dazzled Gotham and pushed the city into ball fever.

“The fashionable set are remarkably well off just now in the possession of an inexhaustible topic of conversation in Mrs. Brevoort’s bal costume, costume a la rigueur, which is to come off next Thursday evening,” wrote former mayor Philip Hone (below right) in his diary days before the affair.

“Nothing else is talked about; the ladies’ heads are turned nearly off their shoulders; the whiskers of the dandies assume a more ferocious curl in anticipation of the effect they are to produce; and even my peaceable domicile is turned topsy-turvy by the ‘note of preparation’ which is heard.”

The lucky invitees showed up at the mansion on February 24. Hone, dressed as Cardinal Wolsey, and his family arrived at 10 p.m.

“Soon after our party arrived the five rooms on the first floor (including the library) were completely filled,” wrote Hone.

“I should think there were about 500 ladies and gentlemen . . . many who went there hoping each to be the star of the evening found themselves eclipsed by some superior luminary, or at best forming a unit in the milky way.”

Such great interest in the ball didn’t go unnoticed by James Gordon Bennett, the canny publisher of the New York Herald. With Brevoort’s consent, he sent a reporter in costume dressed as a knight to report all the details of the ball—perhaps the city’s first celebrity gossip coverage.

Among the costumes were a fox hunter, a peasant, a German miner, an “Arab boy,” a “Dutch girl,” “Spanish muleteer,” and Greek gods and goddesses like Diana.

The ball was a great success, ushering in the era of famous balls given by Mrs. Astor, the Patriarch balls at Delmonico’s, and of course the city’s most notorious ball of all, Alva Vanderbilt’s costume gala at the other end of Fifth Avenue in 1883—so important that it changed New York society.

The Brevoort mansion remained until 1925—a lone reminder of wealth and society in the antebellum city (above in 1903).

[First and second photos: MCNY; third image: NYPL; fourth and fifth photos: Wikipedia; sixth photo: MCNY]

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3 Responses to “This 1840 spectacular costume ball started it all”

  1. Elliott Bettman, MD Says:

    “We’ve got the Biggest Balls of them all.”

  2. David H Lippman Says:

    Given that the Brevoorts moved Broadway, that figures.

  3. A 19th century mayor’s fascinating social diary | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] He took excursions to the country suburb of Hoboken, died at friends’ estates in Manhattanville, West Farms in the Bronx, and Flushing. He and his adored wife and children went to many “fancy balls.” […]

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