The favorite way the Gilded Age elite enjoyed Central Park in the 1860s

Central Park was conceived as a respite from the noise and pollution of the industrial city—a tranquil landscape where New Yorkers could relax and refresh in a natural environment.

But in the first years of the park’s existence in the 1860s, it was the wealthy who enjoyed it the most. After all, in the early Gilded Age, they were the ones who had the leisure time to spare and the vehicles to bring them to this green space far from the center of the city.

So how did they use the park? By driving—or being driven. With fancy carriages and a coachman or two handling the road, New York ladies and gentlemen spent late afternoons traversing the park’s many drives. Sometimes a Gilded Age sportsman would take the reins on his own trotting horse.

“Another notable feature of former days was the driving in Central Park,” according to the book Fifth Avenue, from 1915. “Here might be seen old Commodore Vanderbilt, driving his famous trotter, ‘Dexter’; Robert Bonner, speeding ‘Maude S.’; Thomas Kilpatrick, Frank Work, Russell Sage, and other horsemen driving to their private quarter- or half-mile courses in Harlem; leaders of society or dowagers in their gilded coaches; and even maidens of the ‘Four Hundred’ driving their phaetons.”

[Image: Currier & Ives after Thomas Worth]

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14 Responses to “The favorite way the Gilded Age elite enjoyed Central Park in the 1860s”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    I remain saddened that the circular drive in Central Park remains mostly off-limits to vehicular traffic. I miss the nice drive through – and it was also on occasion a good alternative to trying to negotiate one’s way up- or downtown on the aveues.

    • David Handelman Says:

      While I agree it was a beautiful drive, the tradeoff – as someone who bikes and walks the park – is worth it. Less danger, less noise, less fumes. The banning of smoking and cars makes the park more of the respite from the city it was designed to be.

  2. Sean P Carlin Says:

    When I went to Hunter College, I used to love walking across the park — particularly during the snowfall just after sundown — to the train station at Lincoln Center.

  3. velovixen Says:

    Many of the early public green spaces– like Central and Prospect Parks, Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, Montreal’s Mount Royal Park and the public gardens of Pau, France–were intended as places for leisure, in the old high-society sense of the word. You were driven by carriage or mechanical incline to the “greens” while you wore your “Sunday best.” Aerobic fitness wasn’t de rigueur among such people, so, I believe, they would have been scandalized by runners and cyclists in training gear–or by anyone breaking a sweat for any reason.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I sometimes wonder what old New Yorkers would think if they saw the activities contemporary city residents enjoy—biking, running, working out. I think they’d be totally puzzled!

  4. Ricky Says:

    The horses in the illustration do look like they are out for a leisurerly ride in the park where the owners can see and be seen. It looks more like a day at the races!

  5. Thomas Comiskey Says:

    None other than John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil Co., became an avid trotter in Central Park after he moved to 4 West 54th Street in 1884.

  6. Edward Says:

    HBO’s “The Gilded Age” is an 1880s wonderland of NYC sights and sounds, and is a very well-done and detailed picture of the city at the tail end of the 19th Century. I’m usually on top of shows like that, ready to pick apart any details that shouldn’t be there, and over five episodes I haven’t spotted one mistake. They had scene with a carriage ride in Central Park that made me want to travel back in time and go for a ride myself.

    • David Handelman Says:

      Yes no expense was spared. But I hope people weren’t as cartoonish and lacking in subtext back then.

    • Edward Says:

      With so much going on in the world, most of it awful, I kinda like the old-school, breezy, soap opera way “Gilded Age” plays out. If I want death, war, incompetent politicians and petty squabbles, I can turn on CNN.

  7. countrypaul Says:

    For a birthday a while back, my wife gave me a carriage ride and dinner at Tavern on the Green. I married the right lady!

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