Collection on New York City Society, mid-19th century to the present (bulk 1880-1910)

Extent: 10 boxes, 4 oversize drawers
The Museum of the City of New York’s “Society Collection” brings to life a time when gentleman dined at their “club,” ladies lunched with the various charitable and church associations they belonged to, and New York’s “four hundred” attended fancy dress balls on a regular basis.  While the majority of the collection focuses on New York City’s “high society,” the collection contains a small portion of objects related to the social events of the middle class, as well.  This collection includes approximately 2500 ephemera and manuscript objects related to balls, social clubs, religious groups, celebratory dinners, and weddings; and primarily dates from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Scope and Content
Among the most graphically engaging objects in the “Society Collection” are the invitations, dance cards, and menus for balls.  The collection holds invitations to the annual “Assembly Ball,” which was hosted by 50 patronesses, who were allotted nine invitations each to be distributed at their discretion.  Toward the late nineteenth century, interest in these balls waned as the high society families of New York began building homes with ballrooms large enough to host their own parties; the Museum’s collection likewise holds materials related to the private balls that began to take the place of annual subscription balls.  Some invitations are very formal in style, while others, such as those for masquerade balls truly capture one’s imagination with their fanciful illustrations.  The collection also holds realia from less extravagant affairs, such as benefit balls for various fire companies, charities, and arts societies.  Among some of the highlights from this portion of the collection, you will find a list of invitees to an Assembly Ball; a program to a benefit ball for the Americus Fire Company, of which Boss Tweed was a member; an invitation to a Beaux Arts Ball; an invitation and ticket to Truman Capote’s Black and White Dance; and materials associated with the Bachelor’s Balls.

The “Society Collection” also holds invitations, place cards, menus, and programs from social events held for a specific purpose, such as weddings, bat mitzvahs, events to honor military leaders, debutant parties, and dinners held for visiting dignitaries.  Weddings documented in the collection include those of society leader John Jacob Astor; Alice Roosevelt, eldest daughter of Theodor Roosevelt; and poet Edward N. Pomeroy.  The wedding invitations also include those of Cornelia [Bradley] Martin to the Earl of Craven, and Consuelo Vanderbilt to the Duke of Marlborough; documenting the trend of wealthy Americans to seek a title when making a marriage match.  The collection also holds materials related to the Children’s Educational Theater, hosted by Mark Twain; an invitation to a dinner in honor of Mayor and Mrs. DeWitt Clinton; several different events honoring the Prince of Wales during his visit; and an invitation to dine in the home of Cyrus W. Field, the driving force behind the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable.  The events mentioned above were held both in private homes as well as establishments such as the Waldorf-Astoria, Sherry’s, Delmonico’s, and the Hotel Commodore.

New York’s society also sought social engagement outside of the balls and dinners held multiple evenings each week.  This collection holds programs and menus from social clubs such as the Manhattan Club, Metropolitan Club, Colony Club, Union League Club, and Coaching Club.  For those looking for groups that served a purpose other than just pure camaraderie, we have materials from the Electric Club, Greenwood Literary Club, and Lotos Club.  While religion itself might not have played a very large role in society, the church one belonged to certainly did.  The “Society Collection” holds materials related to Trinity Church, St. Paul’s Chapel, Congregation Emanu-el, Grace Church, and Church of the Epiphany, to name a few.

For more information, contact research@mcny.org.

Related Collections – Collection of Special Event Menus

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