Saturday, December 17, 2005
Extra! Extra! Rare Photo of Mrs. Astor!
In the nineteenth century, it was not considered proper for women to speak to reporters or appear in news articles (except for their wedding and in their obituary), let alone be pictured in a newspaper. Mrs. Astor was no exception. In 1875, however, Mrs. Astor allowed this rare photograph to be taken, for unknown reasons.
Caroline Astor was born into the old and wealthy Dutch Schermerhorn family. Her father, Abraham, owned a pew in Grace Church (see below). She married into the equally wealthy but not as old Astor family in 1853. Her husband, William Backhouse Astor, Jr. was fond of yachting and womanizing. Caroline, on the other hand, had a taste for ornate entertaining of the most lavish kind. From the early 1870's until after the turn of the twentieth century, Mrs. Astor reigned as Society's acknowledged queen. New York City then, as now, was a very diverse city, constantly on the move and by nature, socially fractionated. Mrs. Astor, with the help of Ward McAllister, was able to distill Society into a small number, about 400, according to an estimate of McAllister. Mrs. Astor's "Society" consisted of persons from families long-inhabiting US soil and with long-held wealth. Everyone else was excluded, usually with wailing and gnashing of teeth on the part of the outcasts. Although there were many Astor women, Caroline Astor insisted that only she be known as "Mrs. Astor." Society, having been originally defined by her, graciously deferred to this request.
(Photo from the Astor family album at the New York Public Library.)