What went on at the Gilded Age ‘Patriarchs balls’ for New York society

If the 19th century Gilded Age was still with us, New York society would right now be bracing for the end of the annual winter social season.

Evenings in the boxes at the Academy of Music, French dinners at Delmonico’s, costume balls at Knickerbocker mansions—each week between November and the arrival of Lent offered an intoxicating mix of social events for Gotham’s old-money “uppertens” (aka, the richest 10,000 people in the city).

But there was one type of ball that owes its existence to the clubby exclusiveness fostered during this late 19th century era of consumption and corruption: the Patriarchs Balls.

A ticket to a Patriarchs Ball in 1892

Patriarchs Balls grew out of a group called the Society of the Patriarchs, formed in 1872 by Ward McAllister (below)—the Southern-born social arbiter who became Caroline Astor’s sidekick and gatekeeper as she put her imprint on Gilded Age society.

The Patriarch Balls, given several times in a social season at Delmonico’s, had a specific purpose. “Both Astor and McAllister lamented the ‘fragmentation’ of society and hoped to alleviate it by creating a circle of elite New Yorkers at the top of the city’s social hierarchy,” wrote Sven Beckert in his 2003 book, The Monied Metropolis.

Ward McAllister

“For that purpose they appointed 25 ‘patriarchs’—among them Eugene E. Livingston, Royal Phelps, and William C. Schermerhorn—who each could invite five women and four men to the balls and dinners organized by Caroline Astor.”

Those guests who “passed the scrutiny of the Patriarchs gained admission to the Four Hundred, a figure equal to the number of guests who could fit comfortably into [Caroline Astor’s] ballroom, where an annual ball was held on the third Monday in January,” stated William Grimes, author of Appetite City.

Delmonico’s menu for an 1897 Patriarchs Ball

What actually happened at a Patriarchs Ball? Based on the breathless coverage in the many New York newspapers of the Gilded Age, the events sound a lot like any other ball.

“At 11:30 the guests began to arrive, and dancing was begun at once,” wrote the New York Times on February 14, 1888—the last Patriarchs Ball of the social season. “Round dances only were in order in the large ballroom.” Two orchestras provided the music, and the hall and stairway were decorated with vines and palms. Roses, lilies, and tulips filled Delmonico’s dining rooms.

Coverage of a Patriarchs Ball, 1881 New York Times

“At 12:30 supper was served, and was unusually elaborate,” the Times reported. “Terrapin and truffled capons were among the delicacies.”

Patriarchs Balls continued into the 1890s. But as the division between old money and new rich dissolved and a brutal recession hit the city in 1893, the appetite regular New Yorkers had for this kind of frivolity began to wane.

Patriarchs Ball ticket, 1896

The New York Times covered their last Patriarchs Ball in 1896. In 1897, they simply reported in a small article that one Patriarch, a banker named James Kernochan, was run over on his way to a ball that year “by either a vehicle or a car somewhere on 42nd Street.” (Mr. Kernochan, of 824 Fifth Avenue, was left unconscious.)

McAllister’s fall from grace also contributed to the demise of the Patriarchs. After he published something of a tell-all in 1890, and then spoke to the press about exactly who, supposedly, was part of The Four Hundred, Mrs. Astor and her circle shunned him.

[Top image: Alamy; second image: MCNY 83.20.2; third image: LOC; fourth image: NYPL Menu Collection; fifth image: New York Times headline 1881; sixth image: MCNY 40.108.134]

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8 Responses to “What went on at the Gilded Age ‘Patriarchs balls’ for New York society”

  1. chas1133 Says:

    Great piece. I wonder if there was scaffolding on D’s then….

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Scaffolding, I doubt it! Delmonico’s just kept relocating farther uptown to keep up with their monied clientele.

  2. David Says:

    According to her NY Times obituary, Miss Justine de Peyster, whose invitation to the 1896 Patriarchs’ Ball we see above, married Howard Townsend Martin in 1906, was widowed in 1915, and died in a “motoring” crash in Illinois in 1939, age 65. So she would have been about 21 or 22 when she attended the Ball.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      One big reason for all these society balls was to introduce young people to each other so they marry into socially prominent families. Miss de Peyster may not have met her future husband at a Patriarchs Ball, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if she was introduced to Mr. Martin at some other late Gilded Age party or event. I imagine Howard Townsend Martin is a relative of Bradley Martin, who threw a spectacular costume ball at the Waldorf in 1897.

  3. Chester Says:

    Imagine – a newspaper description of some of the ladies’ toilets – – how civilized have we become, Thurston – –

  4. countrypaul Says:

    Sounds like fun if you’re rich, white and “American,” although I’m sure a few moneyed foreigners with sexy accents and royal pedigrees found their way in.

  5. velovixen Says:

    Countrypaul–I agree.

    I have to wonder how anyone could think the fragmentation of society could be alleviated by creating a new elite social class.

  6. Tom B Says:

    Sounds like McAllister’s fall from grace was similar to Truman Capote.

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