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New York City

The Museum of the City of New York Presents: Gilded New York


From the Press Release…

Gilded New York exhibition

Museum of the City of New York Opens
Tiffany & Co. Foundation Gallery and
Gilded New York, the inaugural Exhibition

Exhibition showcases beautiful design objects from New York’s Gilded Age as visual markers of the city’s metamorphosis into cultural capital

On November 13, the Museum of the City of New York will unveil The Tiffany & Co. Foundation Gallery. Its design and construction were made possible through a grant from The Tiffany & Co. Foundation. The Foundation’s Excellence in Design program supports organizations that are enhancing the field of the decorative arts.

The Tiffany & Co. Foundation Gallery and the installation of its inaugural exhibition Gilded New York, are designed by New York-based William T. Georgis Architects. The jewel-box gallery located on the City Museum’s third floor will feature newly constructed, state-of-the-art display cases that evoke a Gilded Age domestic interior finished with herringbone wood flooring, decorative wallpaper, mirrored window shutters, draperies, as well as a historic chandelier and fireplace mantel from the Museum’s collections. An elegant space, The Tiffany & Co. Foundation Gallery beautifully complements the Museum’s Georgian Revival design.

Gilded New York will be on view from November 13, 2013 to November 30, 2014 and is a vivid exploration of the city’s visual culture at the end of the 19th century, when its elite class expressed their high status through extravagant fashions, jewelry, and decorative arts. Although often derided for its excess, the Gilded Age was also notable for its national aspirations in the arts and design. During these years, the United States—and its cultural capital, New York City—achieved a new level of sophistication in painting, sculpture, architecture, and the decorative arts, enabling the nation to compete for the first time on a world stage and giving rise to a golden age that was worthy of the name “American Renaissance.”

Overview of the Exhibition

Voided velvet evening gown by Maison Worth, ca. 1894
Voided velvet evening gown by Maison Worth, ca. 1894
Worn by Mrs. Stanford White
Museum of the City of New York, 46.258.2A-B

Fashionable outfits and accessories were a highly visible marker of wealth as changing styles demanded frequent and vast expenditures of funds to stay abreast of current trends. Paris couturier Charles Frederick Worth, whose “Electric Light” fancy dress gown was worn by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II to the Vanderbilt Ball, was in great demand among New York’s leading families. Worth’s stunning scarlet silk damask evening dress in chrysanthemum pattern, also showcased in the exhibition, is another example of the trend towards a glamorous look. Meanwhile, Manhattan shops provided a wealth of Parisian-inspired goods, including extraordinary ostrich, and eagle feather fans; a cigarette case adorned with sapphires; and a gold-and-diamond card case, which were the mainstays of an upper-class lady’s public costume and will be included in the exhibition. With the advent of what became known as “Ladies’ Mile,” fashion-conscious elite and middle class women were drawn to an expanse of densely packed department stores in Manhattan, delimited by 14th Street and 23rd Street on the north and south axis, and between Broadway and Sixth Avenue along the east and west. This well-lit shopping district enabled women to walk on the street unaccompanied by chaperones, where they could study and purchase the latest designs displayed behind modern, plate-glass windows.

Tiffany & Co., Pendant brooch, ca. 1900
Tiffany & Co., Pendant brooch, ca. 1900
Platinum, diamonds, sapphire
Museum of the City of New York, Bequest of Mrs. V. S. Young, 82.163.1

Complementing the increasing opulence in fashion, jewelry design reached new and dazzling heights during the Gilded Age. For decades, Americans on their European Grand Tours had purchased archeological-style jewelry popularized by designers like Italian Fortunato Pio Castellani and his son, Alessandro, but by the 1890s, they began to turn toward talented French jewelers like Cartier and others who exhibited at Paris’s international expositions. In New York City, the rise of Tiffany & Co., which sold splendid jewels such as the platinum, diamond, and seed pearl choker on view, helped to make the city an attractive and growing center for luxury jewelry. The fine craftsmanship of jewelers like Marcus & Co., evident in their multi-strand arts and crafts necklace composed of gold, demantoid garnets, natural pearls, and plique-à-jour enamel, contributed to this trend. Other New York jewelers whose work will be seen include those by the firm of Theodore B. Starr as well as Dreicer & Co., whose brilliant platinum, pearl, and diamond necklace is also on display.

“Ladies Toilette” scene
“Ladies Toilette” scene
Ingalls Photography, 2012. All objects from the Museum of the City of New York.

Decorative Arts and Paintings
Wealthy New Yorkers traveled to Europe and returned with luxurious mementos that attested to their experiences abroad. Some of the items they collected were modern reinterpretations of ancient techniques, Italy being a major source of these purchases. They shipped quantities of Venetian glass—such as those in the exhibition—including drinking glasses, wine goblets and glass blown decanters. Women adorned themselves with archeological-style jewelry, popular since the 1850s, which included gold earrings and bracelets with depictions of landscapes, doves, and other subjects depicted in micromosaic settings, also on display.

Helen Virginia Sands De Lamar (Mrs. Joseph De Lamar)
Helen Virginia Sands De Lamar (Mrs. Joseph De Lamar) by Theobald Chartran

Whether bought at home or abroad, decorative objects in silver and gold were key attributes of a well-appointed life. Large and elaborate flatware services included specialized forms designed for culinary delights ranging from oysters to ice cream. Some services reached astonishing sizes, as in the case of a silver-gilt set ordered by William K. Vanderbilt from Tiffany & Co. that numbered more than 900 pieces, and from which a five-piece place setting will be on view. Silver presentation pieces marking important sporting and civic events such as yacht races – as in the handsome 1889 Goelet Prize for Sloops that is adorned with seaweed-draped mermaids – grew in size and grandeur as the century progressed. Silver and gold were also the preferred materials for personal gifts as in the case of the vessel and salver (or stand) designed by Crichton Brothers of London and New York as a golden anniversary gift from J. P. Morgan to the parents of Joseph Hodges Choate, New York lawyer and Ambassador to the Court of Saint James.

Stylish interiors also included fine furniture by Herter Brothers such as inlaid and gilded side chairs and jewelry cabinets such as those in this exhibition. New York area ceramics manufacturers also developed artistic wares that could rival those of Europe. And indeed, many of these manufacturers displayed their artistic wares at international fairs as well as in New York at luxury shops. Luxury tableware in porcelain included such items as oyster plates then growing in popularity, and seen in the exhibition. Some firms benefitted from the talents of foreign-born decorators like Edward Lycett, who in his designs for the Faience Manufacturing Company of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, imparted a richly colored and patterned style based on the exotic shapes and colors of the Near and Far East.

Theodore B. Starr, Inc., Swan-billed flask, ca. 1890
Theodore B. Starr, Inc., Swan-billed flask, ca. 1890
Cased, engraved glass, silver
Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Miss Maude Lacey, 38.13.1a-b

During this time, New York and the United States also achieved a level of sophistication in painting and sculpture that elicited comparisons to the European Renaissance and was therefore frequently characterized as the “American Renaissance.” This is evident from painted portraits of society figure Eleanor Iselin Kane (Mrs. DeLancey Astor Kane) and her son DeLancey Iselin Kane, both by Thomas Dewing, and the bronze bust of New York financier August Belmont by John Quincy Adams Ward.

Digital Photography Displays of Social Events and Architecture
Turn-of-the-century New York was marked by the sudden rise of industrial and corporate wealth, amassed by such titans and their socially ambitious wives as Alva and William Kissam Vanderbilt and Caroline and William Backhouse Astor Jr. who were eager to display their wealth and express their high status through extravagant fashions, exquisite jewelry, and no-cost-spared art and design showcased at lavish balls and other social events. Originally these parties had been limited to existing members of the old guard, but as “new money” infiltrated the city, confusion arose over who was “in” and who was “out.” The excessive quality of these functions is evident in the photograph titled “Billings Horseback Dinner at Sherry’s, 1903,” where New York’s prominent gentlemen are having dinner at a restaurant while remaining on horseback. Wealth was also displayed by the grand residences along Fifth Avenue as well as the high-end shops where women went shopping along known as “Ladies’ Mile. Photographs of these glamorous social events as well as the extraordinary residences and interiors of the era will be displayed on digital monitors outside the Tiffany & Co. Foundation Gallery.

Hyde Ball, Large Group in Garden of Versailles with Madame Rejane
Madame Rejane (Gabrielle Charlotte Reju) seated, posed with others in the “Garden of Versailles” at the James Hazen Hyde Ball, January 31, 1905.
Museum of the City of New York, Byron Collection,

All of these achievements contributed to the city’s coming of age. For the first time, New Yorkers consciously asserted themselves as international tastemakers and their city as a world capital, endowed with an ambition that has made—and remade—the city ever since. Gilded New York is organized by Donald Albrecht, the City Museum’s Curator of Architecture and Design; Jeannine Falino, an independent curator; and Phyllis Magidson, the City Museum’s Curator of Costumes and Textiles. The accompanying book Gilded New York is edited by Donald Albrecht and Jeannine Falino, with essays by them, as well as Phyllis Magidson, Susan Gail Johnson, and Thomas Mellins. It is co-published with The Monacelli Press.

About the Tiffany & Co. Foundation

Since its inception in 1837, Tiffany & Co. has been guided by the belief that a successful company has a responsibility to the greater community. The Tiffany & Co. Foundation was established in 2000 to focus the company’s philanthropic endeavors. Please visit to learn more about The Tiffany & Co. Foundation’s work.

About the Museum of the City of New York

Founded in 1923 as a private, nonprofit corporation, the Museum of the City of New York celebrates and interprets the city, educating the public about its distinctive character, especially its heritage of diversity, opportunity, and perpetual transformation. The Museum connects the past, present, and future of New York City, and serves the people of the city as well as visitors from around the world through exhibitions, school and public programs, publications, and collections. Visit to learn more.

The Flatiron Building and 23 Skidoo!

Flatiron Building, c1903
Flatiron Building, c1903

I haven’t already noticed, I have a particular fondness for slang. Though the phrase “23 Skidoo” was popularized in the 1890s, it is indelibly associated with the strong draft of wind that whistles around the corner of the Flatiron Building (or Fuller Building) at 23rd Street. Meaning to scram, to get away, to hightail it out of there, its association with this particular corner is characterized in this account by Sir Phillip Burne-Jones, in Dollars and Democracy, his travelogue of the United States in the early 1900s:

One vast horror, facing Madison Square, is distinctly responsible for a new form of hurricane, which meets unsuspecting pedestrians as they reach the corner, causing them extreme discomfort. I suppose the wind is in some way intercepted by the towering height of the building, and forced down with fury into an unaccustomed channel. When its effects first became noticeable, a little rude crowd of loafers and street arabs used to congregate upon the curb to jeer at and gloat over the distress of ladies whose skirts were blown into their eyes as they rounded the treacherous corner. Hanging about this particular spot soon became a recognised and punishable offence, and any one loitering there more than a few moments is now promptly “moved on” by the police. A lawsuit is also at this moment pending against the owner of this building, brought by a neighbouring tradesman whose shop-window has twice been blown in by the newly created whirlwind.

This video from October 1903 shows how strong the winds were!

Your Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free: Ellis Island


An Immigrant Ship nearing New York, 1892Gilded Age America saw not only a boom in millionaires, but a boom in immigration. During this era, approximately 10 million immigrants entered the United States,  hungry for religious freedom and greater prosperity. The most striking of these immigrants were Eastern European Jews fleeing the brutal pogroms of Imperial Russia between the years 1881-1924. The surge in population witnessed in America’s major cities created a number of conflicts, particularly in politics and government, as witnessed with the strong hold Tammany Hall held on New York City long after the death of Boss Tweed. Yet, this new power in numbers did little to protect these new Americans from exploitation and betrayal from power- and money-hungry politicians and robber barons. Troubles came not only from “native” Americans angered by the threat immigrants had to their jobs, but from exclusionary laws passed to keep “undesirable” minorities–like the Chinese–from entering the country to work for wages even lower than those garnered by European immigrants.

To stem the influx of peoples seeking asylum and citizenship, the U.S. Federal Government built Ellis Island Immigrant Station in 1892, about half a mile from the Statue of Liberty, to replace the state-run Castle Garden Immigration Depot (1855–1890) in Manhattan. The first immigrant to pass through the gates of Ellis Island was Annie Moore, a 15 year old from Cork County, Ireland. During that first day, 700 immigrants were processed, and in its first year, Ellis Island processed almost 450,000 immigrants. Disaster struck soon after, for on June 13, 1897, the original wooden structure burned to the ground, destroying all administrative records for Castle Garden, and most of the records for the Barge Office and Ellis facilities. Fortunately, copies of the passenger lists were held by the Customs Collector and abstracts were held in Washington, DC. The station reopened in 1900 and was built of red brick and more importantly, was fireproof. This new building was also much larger in order to accommodate the 5000+ immigrations streaming through the island daily. Immigration peaked in the years leading up to WWI–1907 processed a record of 1,004,756 peoples, and April 17th of 1907 witnessed and all-time daily high of 11,747 immigrants.

ellis islandThe great number of immigrants of the “new immigration” era–that is, emigrants from southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, as opposed to “old immigration” from Western Europe–caused many native-born Americans to grumble that the United States had become a “dumping ground” rather than a “melting pot.” To make matters worse, these immigrants appeared to bring the fears of native-born Americans to fruition: they were dirty, foreign, prone to crime, refused to learn English, practiced weird customs, sent good American money back home rather than spending it in the US, and otherwise wreaked havoc on the sedate, Anglo-Saxon lives of “true Americans.” To combat this, Congress passed a series of immigration laws which at various times excluded, restricted, or refused emigrants from particular countries. In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, and in 1907, the Dillingham Commission tightened the medical requirements for admission, dividing physically and mentally “defective” immigrants into three classes: idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, the feeble-minded; the insane; and those subject to tuberculosis or a dangerous disease. The average wait on Ellis Island was about two to five hours, but for those whom health inspectors held back, the island became “The Island of Tears” or “Heartbreak Island.”  Many spent months in quarantine ,or were held in the detention quarters, before the immigration officials rejected their application for entry and deported them back to their homeland.

Ellis island examinationMedical examination centered on the “line,” which became shorthand for the set of techniques and procedures that medical officers used to examine thousands of immigrants quickly:

After an arriving ship passed the quarantine inspection in New York Harbor, Immigration Service (IS) and United States Public Health Service (PHS) examiners boarded and examined all first- and second-class passengers as the ship proceeded up the harbor. Upon docking, PHS officers transferred steerage or third-class passengers to Ellis Island by barge. Proceeding one after the other and lugging heavy baggage, prospective immigrants entered the station and moved slowly through a series of gated passageways resembling cattle pens. As they reached the end of the line, they slowly filed past one or more PHS officers who, at a glance, surveyed them for a variety of serious and minor diseases and conditions, finally turning back their eyelids with their fingers or a buttonhook to check for trachoma. PHS regulations encouraged officers to place a chalk mark indicating the suspected disease or defect on the clothing of immigrants as they passed through the line: the letters “EX” on the lapel of a coat indicated that the individual should merely be further examined; the letter “C,” that the PHS officer suspected an eye condition; “S” indicated senility; and “X,” insanity.

The procedure was intimidating, and, indeed, between 1891 and 1930 nearly 80,000 immigrants were barred at the nation’s doors for diseases or defects. Yet the vast majority were allowed to enter the country—on average, fewer than 1 percent were ever turned back for medical reasons. Of those who were denied entry, most were certified, not with “loathsome and dangerous contagious diseases,” but with conditions that limited their capacity to perform unskilled labor. Senility (old age), varicose veins, hernias, poor vision, and deformities of the limbs or spine were among the primary causes for exclusion. That so few of the more than 25 million arriving immigrants inspected by the PHS were excluded sets into bold relief the country’s almost insatiable industrial demand for cheap labor.

Detention roomImmigration through Ellis Island slowly trickled to a halt during World War One, but there was a post-war boom that Congress once again severely curtailed through a series of immigration acts: the Emergency Quota Act in 1921, followed by the Immigration Act of 1924, which was aimed at further restricting the Southern and Eastern Europeans who had begun to enter the country in large numbers beginning in the 1890s. The latter act placed a quota on European immigration, allowing no more than 2% of the 1890 immigrant stocks into America. In addition, Congress had already passed a literacy act in 1917 to curb the influx of low-skilled immigrants from entering the country.

Despite the laws, the conflict, the harassment and the disappointments many immigrants faced when attempting to enter America, they nonetheless continued to journey to the shores of Ellis Island, weary but rejoicing eyes turned towards the Statue of Liberty–and after the installation of the plaque in 1903, its sonnet by Emma Lazarus:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Further Reading:
American Passage: The History of Ellis Island by Vincent J. Cannato
Island Of Hope: The Journey To America And The Ellis Island Experience by Martin Sandler
Forgotten Ellis Island: The Extraordinary Story of America’s Immigrant Hospital by Lorie Conway
On the Trail of the Immigrant‎ by Edward Alfred Steiner
“Immigration and the Public Health,” Popular Science Monthly, October 1913 by Dr Alfred C. Reed
“Going Through Ellis Island,” Popular Science Monthly, October 1913 by Dr Alfred C. Reed

Further Viewing:
Emigrants landing at Ellis Island – 1903
Arrival of Emigrants at Ellis Island – 1906