December 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 8
Large, visibly expensive objects are a quick and convenient way of expressing wealth. Kings in the seventeenth century were surrounded by silver furniture, and while the new American millionaires of the late nineteenth century did not go quite so far, they, too, liked to see the gleam of precious metal livening up their houses. That it adorned their dining room tables goes without saying, but there was also one key piece of silver without which social life in the era was impossible: the punch bowl.
This one, with its figures and silver gilt, is typical of the appropriation of earlier styles that was then so usual. Designed to resemble a sixteenth-century Italian vessel, it was fashioned in the 188Os during the Italianate revival whose red-brick Venetian palazzi with their emphatic cornices still adorn every American city.
The two decades since the Civil War had seen a lot of fortunes made, and the millionaires who were building their palaces on Fifth Avenue were new to manners as well as to wealth; few could boast that their parents had belonged to society. Still, even if you were so raw that there was no hope of ever receiving one of Mrs. Astor’s coveted invitations, you could at least impress those who were slightly less rich than yourself.
As many of the new rich found to their distress, that meant entertaining. The day of showing off wealth in the pages of a decorating magazine had not yet dawned, so to flaunt it, you had to get people in. And that meant you had to buy a punch bowl. Punch was the almost universal drink at parties—the equivalent of today’s white wine—and the punch bowl, with its lad’e and silver cups, was set in the place of honor. In an era when consumption could never be conspicuous enough, it was an ideal pretext to show just how rich you were.
Unfortunately, amid all that splendor—the decor throughout was as lavish as the punch bowl—the parties often were dull, awkward affairs, where the hostess, in her Paris gown and diamond necklace, fidgeted uneasily and the guests felt tongue-tied and embarrassed. The novels of authors like William Dean Howells and even Edith Wharton are eloquent on the subject. Blushing, overdressed young girls, their red-faced, bewhiskered fathers clearly yearning for a spittoon, and their rigidly corseted mothers, all standing in little, often terrified groups, did not make for a lively party, but then, the next day, they could boast of their presence at the night’s event while the hostess had the satisfaction of reading all about it in the papers’ society columns.
Indeed, the new millionaires had no choice. Giving a successful ball was as important to them as belonging to the boards of great cultural institutions has become to their latter-day successors. And there were so many millionaires; the climate of untrammeled free enterprise joined to the use of steam and new machinery opened immense possibilities. It was almost easy to get rich.
Having conquered local society, the new rich usually moved to the great cities—New York, Chicago, San Francisco. Because the young adapt faster, it was often the children who pushed the parents toward the kind of social success they might not have imagined for themselves; there was no telling how well a marriageable and richly endowed daughter might do. If you were Mrs. Vanderbilt, you chose an English duke for your son-in-law; if you were less grand, then you looked for someone with a secure place in American society; but at every level, the trend was the same. And, with very few exceptions, the way to make your mark was by producing the most ostentatious display possible.
Silver itself tells the tale. In contrast with the simple elegance of the late eighteenth century, it had evolved, by the 1880s, into a look as lavish as this punch bowl. But although it became the very symbol of the new era, that symbol remained deeply ambiguous. There were, of course, silver millionaires—the men who owned the mines—but the metal itself, so necessary to social life, so essential as a sign of wealth, was also the hope of indebted farmers and underpaid workers. All through the last years of the nineteenth century, bimetallism caused bitter controversy.
It all was a question of inflation versus a stable currency: if the gold standard prevailed, then the debt holders—bankers, great capitalists—could expect to be repaid in full; if silver, which was produced in large amounts, was to serve as currency, then its greater abundance would mean that the debtors—farmers, small businessmen—could repay what they owed in depreciated dollars. In the end, of course, and in spite of William Jennings Bryan, the gold standard prevailed; when it came to monetary policy, there was no resisting Morgan.
So it was that, by the turn of the century, silver had been purged of the kind of associations that might have given some of its owners pause, but by then styles had changed as well. Art Nouveau may have been more graceful, but in its size, its solidity, its bold self-affirmation, the punch bowl of the 1880s reflected the vigor of America itself.