Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Here They Come!

New York City, 

The scene is still funny. Appearing in the Sunday comic section of the New York World in March 1899, the first cartoon in a series, it shows a prosperous miner from Montana named “Slagg Diggins” stepping off the ferry with his wife and daughter, ready to enter high society.1 The headline warns the city’s well-established aristocrats, popularly known as The 400,” of the arrival of this newly-minted millionaire, much to the amusement of the city’s masses who were well aware of the societal shift then taking place.

The concept of "The 400” was conceived by Ward McAllister, the self-appointed social arbiter of New York society. The idea came to him in 1888, while helping socialite Mrs. William Backhouse Astor, Jr. plan her guest list for a ball. “After all, there are only four hundred of us,” he snobbishly observed, reflecting the dynamic tension between the old-money Knickerbocker families and the nouveau riche. It was a delicate balance that could only be maintained as long as there were not too many rich people living in the city. Indeed, the social structure began to change at the turn of the century, when a new group of wealthy people appeared on the scene. These rich outsiders came at a time when the upper classes blatantly displayed their wealth to attain social status. This pattern of behavior was described as “conspicuous consumption” by sociologist Thorstein Veblen in 1899, the same year that the fictitious miner Slagg Diggins arrived in New York.2

Sherry's Dining Room & Ballroom (ca. 1900)

Ironically, the ranks of the rich were swelling as a result of a severe depression that caused many industrialists to sell their factories to larger rivals. The formation of the large trusts, also called “combinations” at the time, happened quickly. In 1898, there were twenty trusts in the country. Within five years, that number grew to a hundred and eighty-five, as thousands of American companies seemingly vanished overnight, having been merged into larger firms. Those who sold out suddenly had a lot more time and money on their hands, prompting some of them to move to large cites like New York. An elaborate menu from a private dinner in 1904 at Sherry’s, one the city’s most luxurious restaurants, provides evidence of this migration of the newly wealthy and the lavish lifestyle they adopted.

As shown above, the menu is contained in a satin-lined, leather pouch, accompanied by twelve different hand-painted covers, presumably duplicates of the other menus made for this dinner by society-stationer Dempsey & Carroll. Each individualized menu cover features the name of a diner and an illustration of a hobby, possession, or some event for which he was known. This particular menu (and leather pouch) bears the name “Mr. Love,” possibly financier Sidney C. Love who was known for his interest in horses.3 Indeed, the finely-rendered watercolor on the menu shown again below depicts an accident during a “four-in-hand” coaching event, where the driver was required to hold the reins of all four horses in one fist.

The men hailed mostly from Chicago. Some of the covers show various modes of transportation for the well-to-do traveler in 1904—a yacht, a chauffeur-driven touring car, and an old-fashion horse and buggy.

Two of the menus depict pampered pets, looking somewhat spoiled in their comically-luxurious surroundings.

These illustrate the various pleasures of having a country estate, such as breeding prize animals like financier James Hobard Moore’s blue-ribbon horse “Baby.”

Some seemingly harken back to moments of triumph during sporting events at college, ranging from a rowing competition at Harvard to a boxing match.

In this strange scene, “Mr. Hine” keeps one eye on a ticker tape machine, and the other on strange objects flying overhead.

From a historical perspective, the menu cover below is the most interesting, showing the migration path of industrialist Daniel Gray Reid. A native of Richmond, Indiana, Reid became known as the “Tin Plate King,” after combining his factory at Elwood with other companies in 1898. Moving to Chicago, he was president of the newly-formed American Tin Plate Company until 1901, when financier J. P. Morgan merged the company into United States Steel, the largest trust of all. Morgan reportedly paid $18 million for American Tin Plate, bankrolling Reid’s move to New York and his new career on Wall Street, as illustrated on this map.

Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald observed that the very rich are different; according to psychologists, one of the ways is that they are more likely to think about themselves.4 If this is true, then the personalized menus were a hit. However, the question remains as to whether “Mr. Love” had this set made as his own personal memento of a dinner that he hosted for his old friends from Chicago, or whether everyone received a custom-made pouch with a complete set of covers. In the latter case, the art department of Dempsey & Carroll would have had to paint 169 menu covers for this small dinner party for thirteen people. In 1904, the cost of this extravagance may have been nearly $1000, a considerable sum at a time when people earned $450 a year on average. Nevertheless, the figure pales in comparison to the cost of some dinners during this period. Setting the gold standard when it came to conspicuous consumption, industrialist C. K. G. Billings reportedly paid $50,000 for his famous dinner in 1903, celebrating the completion of his new stables. Conducted on horseback in Sherry’s grand ballroom, this dinner involved thirty-six men eating from trays attached to their saddles, while sipping champagne through rubber tubes.

In 1899, the World was prescient in depicting the social forces that would shape the city. The cartoons were also very funny, showing the newest members of high society as rubes from the sticks. Two weeks later, another installment appeared in their Sunday paper. This full-page illustration, entitled “Montana Miner-Millionaire in New York Society Punches a Ladies Tailor in True Montana Style,” shows Slagg Diggins taking violent offense at what he considers “unwarranted familiarity on the part of the tailor while…measuring the somewhat portly Mrs. D for an elaborate gown.”5

1. The World, New York, 19 March 1899.
2. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899.
3. After losing his fortune on Wall Street a few years later (and his socialite wife), Love moved to Oregon to seek his fortune in mining, heading in the opposite direction as our comic hero Slagg Diggins.
4. “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me…unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Rich Boy, 1926.
5. The World, New York, 2 April 1899.


Deana Sidney said...

Fabulous as always. I never knew about those covers for Sherry's dinners –– they are truly extraordinary. It was an extravagant time and those cartoons skewer them beautifully. Lipstick on a pig comes to mind.

Supposedly, the Billings dinner had silver horseshoes for menus which is why they aren't in menu collections. Too much money, not enough class... some things never change.

Jay said...

I think the "strange flying object" that Mr. Hine is keeping one eye on is a box of crackers made by the National Biscuit Co--or Nabisco, which was formed in 1901 by the merger of a number of companies. Maybe the Cracker Trust was the source of Hine's wealth!

Henry Voigt said...

Thank you for your comment Jay; it appears that you broke the code! Francis L. Hine, President of the First National Bank of New York, was an early director of the National Biscuit Company, a trust formed in Chicago in 1898, comprising over a hundred bakeries across the country. As you say, the name Nabisco was adopted in 1901. In the early years, the company’s logo was displayed at the end of the box, as shown in this illustration.