Skip to main content

1883 One Hundred Hears Ago

March 2023
1min read

On March 26 occurred what was not only the most expensive party ever given in America to that date, but one which may still hold the record for conspicuous consumption in a single evening. Mrs. William Kissam Vanderbilt gave a fancy-dress ball at her new house on Fifth Avenue and Fifty-third Street. It was estimated at the time that she spent at least $250,000 for costumes, flowers, carriages, hairdressers, music, food, and drink. An equivalent sum today would be about $3 million. But after all, as The New York Times observed in a headline, it did mark “the end of Lent. ”

The Times produced some excess of its own. The day after the festivities its report ran to more than ten thousand words, all but a few devoted to the elaborate costumes worn by the great names in attendance. The day before the party a long article speculated on what might be worn: “Miss Marion Langdon will soar as a golden butterfly, while one of her ardent admirers will pursue her as an entomologist.” The most cryptic sentence in this preliminary account was: “Miss Kate Bulkley will congeal into ice.”

On the night of the party, the hostess appeared as a Venetian princess and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt as the Electric Light, in white satin trimmed with diamonds; and there was “a well-known young lady who represented a Cat. The overskirt was made entirely of white cats’ tails sewed on a dark background. The bodice was formed of rows of white cats’ heads and the head-dress was a stiffened white cat’s skin, the head over the forehead of the wearer and the tail pendant behind. ” Throughout the ball, remarked the Times , music wafted from some upper gallery and, “in the words of Emerson, ‘poured on mortals its beautiful disdain.’”

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "February/March 1983"

Authored by: Alfred Kazin

The city has been a lure for millions, but most of the great American minds have been appalled by its excesses. Here an eminent observer, who knows firsthand the city’s threat, surveys the subject.

Authored by: James P. Johnson

In 1913 the Ouija board dictated a novel. Twenty years later it commanded a murder. It is most popular in times of national catastrophe, and it’s selling pretty briskly just now.

Authored by: The Editors

An all-but-forgotten San Francisco photographer has left us a grand and terrible record of the destruction and rebirth of an American city

Authored by: Richard C. Wade

A noted historian argues that television, a relative newcomer, has nearly destroyed old—and valuable—political traditions

Authored by: Edward Sorel

The decline and fall of the lamppost

Authored by: Harold Holzer

…so Lincoln joked. Actually he was eager to pose for portraits.

Authored by: Warren P. Trimm

To get started as a prairie homesteader in the 1870s you needed uncommon reserves of strength, sanity, courage, and luck. Trimm had the first three.

Authored by: Lois Dinnerstein

As painting became a respectable profession in America, artists began to celebrate their workplaces

Fifty years ago this March, Roosevelt took the oath of office and inaugurated this century’s most profound national changes. One who was there recalls the President’s unique blend of ebullience and toughness.

Authored by: Jacques Barzun

One of America s truly great men—scientist, philosopher, and literary genius—forged his character in the throes of adversity

Featured Articles

Rarely has the full story been told about how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

The world’s most prominent actress risked her career by standing up to one of Hollywood’s mega-studios, proving that behind the beauty was also a very savvy businesswoman. 

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.