How Rich People Celebrated New Year's Eve in the Gilded Age

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Why we drink champagne on the holiday, and other curiosities

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The dining room at Marble House, one of Newport's Gilded Age mansions (Library of Congress)

For many people around the world, New Year's Eve was (and still is) a rustic holiday. Homely traditions include running outside with luggage, if you want to travel in the new year, and exchanging money or tokens to bring wealth. In many cultures, it's a day for predicting who you will marry -- in some countries, by casting lead or wax and reading the resulting shapes.

But during the Gilded Age, the New Year's holiday, like other elements of American social life, transformed. What was once a folk celebration became, for a certain class, a soignee wealth-fest -- one that still influences how we celebrate the holiday today.

Many of America's most extravagant New Year's Eve parties took place not in cities but in summer resort towns. By the peak of the Gilded Age, Newport, Rhode Island, may have been most popular of all. Newport began its life as a refuge for Southern planters fleeing the scorching summer heat. The Northern WASP elite later rented or bought homes there, giving the town a sought-after but relatively low-key social cachet.

The newly rich took note. By the second half of the 19th century, New York tycoons like the Vanderbilts and the Astors had begun to build lavish residences there, hoping to capture a little old-money legitimacy. (Edith Wharton's novel House of Mirth is a portrait of this social scene.) As the exclusive town grew in popularity, families began opening their houses during the winter holidays, or leaving them open year-round, rather than closing them for the year at the end of the summer.

By the end of the 19th century, Newport's New Year's parties attracted so much of the New York (and Boston, and Philadelphia) elite that the New York Times sent society reporters to the town to cover the parties there. "Newport is getting to be quite lively in winter," one writer noted in January 1890.

As early as 1885, the paper reported on an opulent New Year's Eve ball at the Newport Casino, which the owners had opened just for the holidays. A gala at a summer resort in the middle of winter appeared to provoke some cognitive dissonance in the reporter, who repeatedly mentioned the ball's summery atmosphere. (The weather in Rhode Island at this time of year hovers close to freezing.) "The display of fine clothes, diamonds, flowers, and pretty women has seldom been equaled at Newport," he wrote, "and a person looking upon the scene would scarcely realize that it was Winter instead of Summer." A reporter sent to cover Newport in 1890 noted a "profusion" of "tropical plants" among the holly and wreaths of that year's ball.

The ball of 1890, held at Newport's Masonic Hall, required guests to purchase tickets. This made sense at the time. Only a relatively small group of people came to Newport for the holidays. But as the society colony continued to expand, subscription parties may no longer have been considered exclusive enough. By the turn of the century, it appears that more families hosted their own private parties. Guests did not purchase tickets but were invited to the parties, which often involved a full sit-down dinner in addition to dancing. Women wore elaborate, corseted evening gowns from the House of Worth and other fashionable Parisian couturiers. Men dressed in white tie, often with a waistcoat.

Servants at Newport mansions prepared days or even weeks in advance for the New Year's parties. The food of choice? Heavy and time-consuming French cuisine, which Americans -- in a vogue for all things Continental -- considered particularly sophisticated. The Newport Historical Society, in a report on life in the servant's quarters at the Chateau sur Mer, describes the lead-up to a Newport dinner party, which could consist of eight courses. The days of labor that the Chateau's cook and two assistants put into a party might have taxed Julia Child:

A creamy sauce veloute was whisked and coddled to the perfect consistency. Chilled, it became a sauce chaud-froid to coat a ham or a boned and stuffed fowl, which was elaborately decorated with artistic cutouts from vegetables. One of the girls probably labored for hours over the kitchen mortar and pestle grinding chicken meat to a fine paste for quenelles. The quenelles also required making a panade, a pastry-like mixture into which eggs were thoroughly beaten, by hand in this case. The combined paste and panade was seasoned, then carefully formed into small ovals and gently poached. Another sauce would be prepared for the quenelles, then the last step before serving was to carefully glaze the finished dishes with a red-hot salamander. A delicate sponge paste would be prepared to make ladyfingers for an architecturally composed Charlotte for dessert. The soft dough had to be carefully piped onto sheets and baked to a delicate, pale gold color.

Table service had changed by the turn of the century, partly to reduce strain on the waitstaff, but the dinner service still had to be precise. Frequently, the footmen brought the courses to the table already plated, in the "Russian style," while the butler decanted wines -- or, at the New Year, uncorked champagne.

Even the Ancient Romans drank on New Year's Eve. But the custom of drinking champagne at the holiday came, again, from France, where it became the choice beverage of the aristocracy once the French revolution had ended. (Drinkers considered it more delicate and elegant than the traditional French wines, like Burgundies, that peasants also quaffed.) Over the course of the 19th century, the European bourgeoisie developed a taste for it, and by the second half of the 19th century, the American wealthy had begun to drink it as a mark of sophistication. (Plus, turns out it really does get you tipsy faster than regular wine.) Given its association with prosperity, it became a drink of choice at American New Years' Eve parties.

Newport may have been the most popular winter destination, but resort towns like Tuxedo, New York -- which gave the evening garment its name -- had similar parties. And some people chose to stay in the city for the holiday: A social bulletin from 1901 lists three New Year's Eve apartment parties in Manhattan.

By the Jazz Age, New Year traditions had changed and, like all social events, become less formal. Buffet-style meals were becoming the norm for large galas, and dress codes began to relax. Ultimately, though hosts still lavished money on their New Year's celebrations, the parties themselves grew more and more casual. This may have helped democratize a number of New Year's traditions, like the drinking of champagne (or sparkling wine), that many Americans follow today.

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Emily Chertoff is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's National channel.

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