Victorian New York

by Linda Francis Lee (a 2001 Write Byte)

I fell in love with history while standing in the courtyard at the Governor’s Palace in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I had just read a romance novel about a couple who had survived the siege on the palace. I was moved to be standing in the actual historical location that had been so vividly recreated in my mind.

]]> Support our sponsors That love grew when I stood next to a massive, craggy cottonwood tree in El Paso, Texas and realized it was one of the same trees that Don Juan de Onate had stood next to four hundred years before as he passed along the river to reach the north. I was looking at something a conquistador had looked at centuries before me. I was amazed.

My love solidified when I moved to Boston, a place where you have to do little more than walk to Beacon Hill to imagine what the town was like a hundred years ago. Each of these experiences made me feel like I had traveled back in time. And I loved it.

Now I live in New York City, a place where it seems impossible to find the past. The streets are cluttered with millions of people and modern, glass and metal buildings that rise into the sky as far as the eye can see. Wall Street hums with the sound of ticker tape and electronic trading. But there are times in the early morning, just before the sea of yellow cabs take to the streets and the sun is barely on the horizon, when you can squint your eyes just so and see the New York of long ago. You can see back to the past when New York City was little more than the island of Manhattan, thirteen and a half miles long and two and a half miles wide. Some things are still the same, others are not. But I love to imagine – I love to imagine a Victorian New York.

Mrs. Astor began her infamous list of New York’s Four Hundred in this gilded age. The four hundred most important people in New York City. They attended extravagant balls and multi-course dinners, dressing up in lavish gowns that cost more than most men of the day made in a year. It was a time of extravagant displays of wealth. A time when Americans did their best to imitate the very country from which they had shed blood to get away. We fought for our independence only to imitate England a century later.

The Gilded Age and Mrs. Astor’s Four Hundred, in some ways was America’s response to England’s ton of the Regency time period. A finite list of people, all important, all connected, all attending lavish gatherings.

Like England, America had its social season. But while the British season was born out of that time of year when a nobleman traveled to court to pay homage to his king or queen, the purpose of the American social season was created solely to meet and interact with other important people. To further their connections. There were no political meetings followed by gala events. There were only the gala events.

Americans might have followed in England’s footsteps, but this new breed of people were proud and competitive. As a result, they attempted to do everything bigger and better than their ancestors across the Atlantic had done before them. As a result, when Queen Victoria began an era of strict propriety and modesty in her country, Americans followed suit. Only they did it better. They were stricter and more modest until not only could a lady not show a leg, neither could a table. Proper women began to cover their furniture from covered backs to wooden legs. And God forbid anyone call a person’s leg, or even a table’s, anything other than a limb.

But for all their modesty, the women of Mrs. Astor’s New York spent their days showing off the very things they kept so well covered. Many loved to pay social visits, and many more loved to shop.

By mid-morning of a typical shopping day, elegantly gowned women began arriving at Madison Square Park. They pulled up in magnificently enameled Victorias, light rockaways, and five-glassed landaus driven by liveried men with top hats and polished boots. The women in their carriages made a few preening turns around the park before heading south down Broadway on the famous stretch of shops known as The Ladies Mile.

“From Eight Street down, the men are earning it. From Eighth Street up, the women are spurning it! That is the way of this great town!” Or so it was said about the wealthy business men who worked in the financial district of Lower Manhattan to make enough money to pay for the goods their wives bought on the famous stretch of shops between Twenty-third Street and Eighth Street on Broadway. Tiffany’s was there, as was Lord and Taylor, and Brooks Brothers. Familiar names at which we can shop at today.

The writer O. Henry became quite well known during the Gilded Age. Always a champion of the underdog, he wrote prolifically about the contrast between the excesses of the rich in New York, and the wretched poverty just beyond their doors. He wrote that Mrs. Astor might have her list of four hundred, but in truth it was New York’s four million that were the ones worth knowing. And those four million didn’t own five-glass landaus or bright yellow carriages with shiny black fenders. Most New Yorkers used mass transportation. Even back then.

Traffic in Victorian New York was very nearly as bad as it is today. Intersections such as Broadway and Fifth Avenue required a staunch constitution and a great deal of nerve. Carriages of all sorts, dray wagons, hired hacks and horsecars all vied for right-of-way. Simply merging with traffic onto Fifth Avenue meant very nearly taking one’s life in one’s hands. If there was a right-of-way, no one knew who had it. Everyone just went, bullying their way through the intersection, the largest and most daring making it through first. No, things haven’t changed all that much since then.

In the early part of the 1800s, New Yorkers took omnibuses-lumbering carriages quite similar to the stagecoaches of the west. The cost was ten cents and the carriages were slow and overcrowded. Relief came in the form of the horse railroad, or horsecars. The horsecar was an arched-roofed wooden bus with high spoke wheels drawn by a team of horses over smooth metal rails laid down the middle of many streets. The long carriage was lined with two long benches that faced each other, and the fare was a much more reasonable nickel.

Another means of transportation was to hire a hack. The two-wheeled carriages lined up around the city, including a popular stretch along Fifty-ninth Street at the southern edge of Central Park. This same line of carriages lines that street today in front of the Plaza Hotel for leisurely trips through the park.

But then came the “El.” The New York Elevated Railroad. The elevated trains ran on a massive structure of ironwork railings a couple of stories high above the grid work of Manhattan streets. By 1871 the New York Elevated Company ran their trains as far north as Thirtieth Street, before extending their routes further north in 1878. By 1880, the “El” had reached the Harlem River, making it possible for a passenger to by-pass the congested streets altogether and take the elevated steam-engine train for a nickel.

I think it is safe to guess that Mrs. Astor’s four hundred didn’t frequent the “El.” But they did love the restaurant, Delmonico’s.

Delmonico’s began as a small café on Williams Street in 1823. After nine moves, the establishment arrived at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-forth Street. Once the popular eatery became known as one of the finest restaurants in the world, one was as likely to run into an upstart Vanderbilt or a prominent Astor as they were a “turf boss” dressed up in his gaudy finery with his latest moll on his arm.

Delmonico’s closed their doors not so long after the death of Queen Victoria. A new era had begun. Skyscrapers came into being when the city realized they had to build up because they had no more room to spread out. And as I look up into the heights today, after the sun has risen and the yellow cabs have taken to the streets, I remember that New York of the past is gone. For now. But as long as there are buildings from years ago to remind me, there will always be that time just as the sun is rising, before New Yorkers have come out to the streets in mass, when I can still travel back. I can experience the past in some small measure. I can travel back in time to that place in American history which has become known as the Gilded Age.

Don’t miss Ellen Micheletti’s articles on the Gilded Age and Newport in the Gilded Age

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