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Society: June 1914


In an odd twist of fate, the days of 2014 almost match the days of 1914, and exactly 100 years ago this Saturday (Sunday in 1914), the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg in Sarajevo set the world ablaze. Or, in the immortal words of British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey–“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” But let’s backtrack to the week of the assassination, when the London Season remained in full swing. Like now, society had just attended Ascot Week, the “most fashionable race-meeting in the world,” as The Sketch duly noted in its weekly issue (which hit newsstands Wednesday, June 24). The cover of this issue featured a cheeky illustration about The Midnight Cocktail made special for the Midnight Ball held at the Savoy on June 25 to benefit the National Institute for the Blind: 1/3 French Vermouth, 1/3 Italian Vermouth, 1/3 Gin, add a few drops of Orange juice and one spot of Absinthe.

Ascot - June 1914

Here are some strange fashions on display at the races!

Ascot fashions - June 1914

In threatres at the time were Pygmalion, at His Majesty’s Theatre (owned by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree–who was Henry Higgins), starring Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Eliza Doolittle. The listing says Every Evening at 8:30 punctually. Matinee Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2:30. The Merry-go-Round at the Empire, a popular music hall, shared billing with the newfangled Bioscope motion pictures. At the London Opera House, “Cinemazoo,” a “unique African Hunt and adventure film,” heralded the gradual creep of cinema houses over what were once music halls and opera houses.

Some interesting ads

Burberry overcoats

Colgate shaving stick

How to Get into New York’s Four Hundred

The Mrs Astor at the Assembly Ball of 1902
The Mrs Astor at the Assembly Ball of 1902

The Reverend Charles Wilbur de Lyon Nicholls, Governor-General, National Society of Scions of Colonial Cavaliers (an organization he founded in 1908), is mostly remembered as the author of two very snobbish tomes about the hows and whys of East Coast high society. He also chronicled the mistakes budding social climbers made in their attempts to infiltrate the clannish millionaires of society–and New York in particular–and offered advice on how to breach its citadel!

Marriage outright into the smart set is far and away the surest method of effecting an entrance into it. Another expeditious method is by means of a business deal, benefiting one or more members of the smart set—not a hard cash bargaining for social promotion, although men have been known to form business partnerships for this express object; but, to illustrate—a short time ago a railroad transaction secured admission for a family into an influential section of the ” magic circle.” There are delicate ways of conveying the expression of one’s social needs, and the ultra-smart are endowed with a fine sense of noblesse oblige, provided one is manipulating events so as to fill their purses.

An annually increasing quota of candidates for metropolitan social honors, or rather, adoption, is made up of rich — suddenly rich western people. Such a family, we will premise, is about to estabitself in a New York town house. IF you are socially ambitious, do not set up your domicile on the upper West Side, but fix your abode as near as possible to “Millionaires’ Row,” the Fifth avenue court end of Central Park—not necessarily an unduly ostentatious house which will egg everyone on to asking the dread question, “Who is who?” but letting the show-place come a few years later, after you are well placed socially. A grandiose house on a conspicuous thoroughfare, with no suitable guests to fill it, like the gigantic edifices of the Bank of Italy and Ministry of Finance in Rome, is an exclamation point strongly provocative of irony.

Your household gods suitably enshrined, employ a press agent at once, but be wary of too much publicity, for in the main, the role of inglorious obscurity is the one you will need to play, until you know the ropes better. At the same time you can afford to pay the press agent well for having it inserted in the personal columns of a big daily which caters to fashionable folk, that you sail for Europe on such a date, or have returned from your country house for the season; so that, at least, you will not be hampered by persons protesting, “I have never heard of those people.”

A particular phase of newspaper publicity to fight shy of is that involved in allowing the women of your family to become enrolled as members of certain clubs and charities, and having their names bundled out in the third-class society column of a certain Sunday paper with lists of “detrimentals”* of the first water, numbers of them turning out to be veritable mill-stones hung about the neck of social aspiration. A woman of fashion and a clubwoman are two mutually excluding entities—two totally distinct creations of Almighty God, although the latter often tries to palm herself off as the former.

If your early training in drawing-room deportment has been defective or wholly lacking—and as likely as not it has—place yourself at once under such a social mentor as Miss d’Angelo Bergh, the leader of the metropolitan musical smart set. Have her put the society intonation for a speaking voice into your throat, teach you easy deportment and carriage, how to enter and leave a drawing-room, how to converse with the latest society badinage, and how to give a musicale. To illustrate these points from the ranks of highest fashion: Few society women have been as close students of Delsarte as Mrs. Burke-Roche.

*A “detrimental” is a technical social term and means a person of however excellent moral character or ability, who does not blend well socially with either the conservative Knickerbocker element or the Ultra fashionables.

The next move for the social aspirant will be to cultivate the acquaintance of some fashionable woman whose finances are on the wane, but whose temperament requires the expenditure of large sums of money, and who is, moreover, a walking American De Brett and Burke, in short, a running commentary as to knowing who are the people one can receive. Conceding that introductions may be very sparingly given, her help will, in a negative way, be of much value in warding off “detrimentals,” thus saving you years of undoing and weeding out.

Form the acquaintance of an occasional visiting nobleman, if fully assured he is not an imposter, and that he is received by persons who might be made, possibly, to fall in line some way for furthering your campaigns. Minister well to his gastronomic needs, for in all probability, he has taken lodgings sans meals. But avoid making yourself unduly conspicuous in public print with these people of title, for should any one of them turn out to be a scapegrace, the satirical periodicals will show you up as a nobody caught in the flagrante delictu of snobbishness and hanging on by the eyebrows. If, on the other hand, a titled European is comfortably wealthy and persona grata at the houses of the highest fashion, do not waste much time and effort over him, for in all probability he will front you as soon as he has ascertained your exact social status. With reference to your own countrymen all along, give a wide berth to certain soi disant society folk of the upper West Side, who will get your name in the newspapers morning, noon and night and three times on Sunday, until it becomes case-hardened on the lists of the socially impossible.

And, above all, be philanthropic with your purse, although, perchance, the heart responds but feebly.

Do not, I beg of you, make a national onenight stand theatre comique of yourself and family by making the grand tour of hiring cottages at Newport, Lenox and the other ultra-smart resorts before society has given the slightest recognition to your claims. Invoke the aid of old Father Neptune; secure a yacht, as sumptuous a one as you please, and, socially speaking, if your bark sink, ’tis to another sea. If ignored or snubbed at Newport, spread sail for Narragansett Pier or Bar Harbor, felicitating yourself that the social thud is not barbed with the added poignancy of one’s having been a cottager in a place and not being received.

If you cannot master the art of war of the ultra-smart at home, study it abroad, but do not suffer yourself to be deluded into the belief that the entree into America’s exclusive set is to be secured through European social alliances or meeting fashionable Americans abroad. All such finessing, like forming ocean steamship acquaintances, is a thing of the past; but contact with the great world of Europe will ennoble your manners, imparting an air of distinction and greater confidence in approaching the fin fieur of your own countrymen’s society. Go abroad early and stay late, in the London season, stopping at the Carlton or at Claridge’s, at all events, dining and supping frequently at the Carlton. Secure the services of a high-class social promoter; such a person can be corralled by judicious advertising from the ranks of the nobility for a sufficient price.

Study the doings of society closely and which Knickerbockers are enjoying any fashionable vogue or lead up to any, will be readily apparent. Be wary and sly about it, but be willing to invest hundreds of dollars if need be in having every nook and cranny of your own and your husband’s pedigrees searched, and if you should light upon any presentable ancestry, you could confide the find as old-time history, known for generations by your family, to an occasional Knickerbocker acquaintance; but I beg of you, do not go to the extreme of hanging the walls of your dining-room with counterfeit presentments of assumed ” ancestors.” Also, do not unmuzzle yourself on the forefather claim to any member of the smart set, unless desirous of being made a laughing-stock. In general, few conversational faux pas lay bare one’s bourgeoisie social origin more glaringly than talking of one’s lineage on short acquaintance with a person, or under any circumstances with an Englishman to whom all Americans alike are commoners.

Suffer the horse, too, to help you along up the social hill of difficulty. Invest in a string of racehorses and be an exhibitor at the various fashionable horse shows, provided yourself or your husband have a genuine and unaffected love of the horse.

The Ultra-fashionable Peerage of America

The Edwardian Debutante


evelyn-nesbitNo one in the Edwardian era made any bones about the fact that marriage was a woman’s sole career, and that she owed it to herself and to the family that had so far supported her, to get on with it. Where a girl was concerned, it was the duty of everyone–her mother, her mother’s friends, her chaperone and her bill-settling father–to help her achieve this ambition.

Once a young girl turned eighteen, her childhood was essentially over. The moment she put up her hair and lengthened her skirts, she was a woman. A coddled and protected woman, but a woman nonetheless. The putting up of the hair was the most important aspect of signifying one’s status as a jeune fille à marier, or a young woman ready for marriage: no man bothered to address himself with other than the merest passing courtesy to a girl whose hair hung down her back. As soon as her hair was pinned up, everything changed, and for the remainder of the young lady’s life, her hair would hang down over her shoulders only inside her bedroom or at a fancy dress ball.

An American debutante’s entrance into society was marked by the order of dresses from Paris, a ball at Delmonico’s or at home, and the most extensive leaving of cards on all desirable acquaintances. In introducing a daughter, parents seldom put her name on the card, merely sending invitations written thus:

Mrs. Walsingham
at home,
Thursday evening, February 9th,
at ten o’clock

The German At her first ball, the American debutante stood beside her mother, was presented to the guests, and was then introduced to and danced the German with the gentleman to whom her mother had selected to lead the dance—and that was it. In the 1890s, the Four Hundred attempted incorporate the chaperone from Europe, to much controversy. America at the time prided itself upon the ability of a woman to move about unmolested. The presence of a chaperone was a smack in the face to the American gentleman: were they not be trusted? The fierce independence of Americans won out in the end, and the custom of chaperonage died a quick, painless death by the turn of the century.

The English debutante’s entrance into society was marked in a few ways: the court presentation, a supper party, or a country ball. In some unorthodox families, such as the Tennants, young ladies were permitted to take part in social events as young as 15 or 16. The young men whom they might meet were always carefully inspected and discussed beforehand by their mothers, aunts, grandmothers–and indeed the whole circle of older ladies. Meetings were seldom, if ever, mere chance: daughters who might be expected to become a good political hostess were deliberately placed in the way of eligible political bachelors, and young daughters of great landed estates who would expect to live in the country were steered towards gentlemen with great landed estates. The acceptable choice was limited, but quite clear.

Gentlemen were placed into types: if the young lady met a “detrimental,” or extremely ineligible man, her female relations would gently remind her of her duty. There was less to fear from the “indefatigable,” a young man just come out or an old beau who danced indiscriminately with any and all women, or from the “indispensable,” the anxious fetcher and carrier of wraps, gloves, lemonade, fans and ices, but a young lady was introduced to as many approved and eligible men as quickly as possible.

dance cardThe French, however, were a bit more cerebral when it came to the debutante. To be considered an eligible young woman, one must have a dot, or dowry. Those who were not provided for were doomed to be spinsters or poor relations, and as a result, most convents were packed not with devout novitiates, but poor young women. Not to say there were no “love matches” amongst the French, but it was rare amongst the nobility, for whom marriage was too serious a matter to be dominated by romantic notions. After emerging from a convent school, the French debutante was introduced at a bal blanc, at which all ladies were gowned in pure white and only maidens and bachelors were expected to be present. There, the gentlemen were permitted to request to dance with a lady without having been first introduced to her, and it was considered very bad form for a young woman and young man to “sit out” a dance together or to retire to the veranda or lawn.

Prior to this ball, the French debutante was invited nowhere and met no gentleman, since amusements and flirtations were considered the sole province of a married woman. Young men were hampered by this restriction as well, for they were honor-bound never to court a girl without having previously asked her parents’ permission. As the slightest attention to a girl was immediately assumed to be a serious declaration, the young man was supposed to ask this permission before knowing his bride or risk being shot by her brother should he afterward decline marrying within a few weeks’ notice.

Even stricter were the lives of debutantes in Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary. The daughters of Russia’s nobility were entered into one the of the numerous educational establishments founded for the their training as early as age three, and there they remained until seventeen. At The Catherine Institution, one of the principal rules was that from the time a pupil entered the school until her sortie, she would not quit the bounds of the establishment on any plea whatsoever, ill-health alone excepted.

Relatives were permitted to visit the girls whenever they chose, and on Sundays, the pupils received any lady of their acquaintance and male relations to whom the law prohibited them from marrying (this latter rule was constantly evaded however, with many dashing suitors proclaiming themselves to be “first cousin” to a pupil and gaining admittance to visit with them). Easter was the season for the sortie of finished pupils. Prior to the reception held at the home of her parents and friends, an apartment was prepared for her within the institute to that was filled with elegant furnishings and lavish gifts from friends, and if from a distinguished family, the Russian royals.

Potsdam Imperial PalaceAustro-German court circles were tightly regulated, and none but the highest nobility could make headway (with the exception of wealthy Americans introduced by their ambassadors, and aristocrats of other nations). The imperial German court was usually held in either Berlin or in Potsdam, where the imperial family resided during its regular stay in town, which typically lasted from shortly after New Year’s until the middle of April or May. During these months the large court festivities took place at many fetes, consisting of several big court balls, at which attendance reached two to three thousand. They all open with the first “Defilir Cour,” or ceremonious reception, at which all persons entitled to presentation at court made their first obeisance to His Majesty.

Those entitled to admittance included those who by reason of birth or official station, were members of the royal family, members of all other German dynasties present in Berlin, members of the aristocracy, all officers of the army and navy, all members of the Prussian and imperial cabinets, all persons who have been decorated, court and higher government officials, and members of the Prussian Diet, the Bundesrath, and the Reichstag. All considered eligible were called “courfahig.” The debutantes of the season were presented at the initial receptions by their mothers and wore gowns with deep decolletage and train of a certain length according to their rank.

In Vienna, the “Frauenheim,” which was given at the Sofiensaale, was the ball at which young girls made their debut, dressed entirely in white “similar to a bal blanc in France. It was usually patronized by an Archduke or Archduchess.” However, these unmarried princesses, countesses, duchesses and archduchesses had a special place in society. At every ball there was a room set aside for them called the “Comtessin Zimmer,” into which no married woman was allowed to penetrate. There the girls “gossiped with their partners between the dances, keeping a jealous and watchful eye on any erring sister who ventured to overstep the bounds of the most innocent flirtation.”

Overall, a young woman’s entrance into society marked a time of transition. There was no concept of “adolescence” at the time: a female was either a child or a woman, and her treatment and behavior was precisely dictated and delineated for the sole purpose of creating a perfect “wife.” This was a time where perhaps they were to meet gentlemen on equal footing for the first time, and indeed, a number of girls thrived within this mold. But it was an interesting time for these young women: once they put up their hair, they were expected to be “adults” and were immediately accorded the respect of an adult despite possibly having been horsing around in the nursery with younger siblings just the week before their debut!

Further Reading

1900s Lady by Kate Caffrey
Princess Daisy of Pless by Herself by Princess Daisy of Pless
Etiquette of American Society by Mrs. M.E.W. Sherwood
Society recollections in Paris and Vienna, 1879-1904 by George Greville Moore
France of To-day by Matilda Betham-Edwards
Russia of Yesterday and Tomorrow by Baroness Souiny
1913: A Beginning and an End by Virginia Cowles