What Would Mrs. Astor Do? The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age

Cecelia Tichi. New York Univ, $24.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-4798-2685-8
Vanderbilt University professor Tichi (Jack London) delivers a crisp survey of New York’s upper-class world in the late 19th century, using society maven Caroline Astor as the guide. Tichi entices readers to “imagine themselves to be New Yorkers of a bygone era” who nevertheless bear a resemblance to today’s wealthy. The Gilded Age’s rigid social code provided stability during the tumultuous post–Civil War era, when new fortunes were made in rebuilding and expanding the country, creating new millionaires whom old-money New Yorkers found gauche and grasping. To stave off the infiltration of nouveau riches into established social circles in the 1870s, the wealthy Georgian Samuel Ward McAllister created a list of properly pedigreed Americans who comprised “society.” He persuaded Astor to serve as the ultimate arbiter of “the Four Hundred,” and the duo devised rules for proper behavior in everything from managing servants to choosing appropriate outfits. Tichi also delves into how the upper crust spent its time: on shopping, dining, traveling, entertainment, and various leisure activities. Astor’s presence is fleeting throughout, though her influence is unmistakable, especially in making divorce socially acceptable. Presented with a breezy authority that keeps the pages turning, Tichi’s book will captivate those interested in a light look at America’s fashionable gentry of eras past. Illus. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 08/27/2018
Release date: 11/01/2018
Genre: Nonfiction
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