“The” Mrs. Astor

4. Peepshows and Other Optical Amusements

So what were the proper Knickerbockers of Caroline Astor’s youth amusing themselves with in the days before Facebook and Glee? Sedate “parlor amusements” such as peep shows!.

First of all… if you are going to search for this term in Google, BE PREPARED! There is a more prevalent naughty version that you’ll have to wade through to pick out these innocent ones..

Early versions of the peep show first emerged during the 1400s, as artists gradually became well-versed in the rules of single-perspective drawing. This technique mimics the way our brain decodes distance and size – all of the lines recede to one fixed point. Dramatic, realistic paintings became possible.

From about 1700, the sight of a traveling peep-show was an exciting and welcome event. A clever showman with a good line of patter could turn a good living from fairs and festivals, as villagers lined up to see the “magic” in his peep-show box. Fairy tales were a common theme. In more affluent circles, the peep show might show life at court, famous scenery, or marvels of architecture. (And yes, as you might have guessed, scantily-clad young women featured prominently in some later “coin-operated” models.)

Technology ramped up the effects a little with the “Polyrama Panoptique”… in which an intricate, yet innocent enough looking drawing became a WHOLE OTHER SCENE when backlit! These “day to night” scenes must have seemed truly magical!

Our favorite version, and one that became repopularized during young Caroline’s lifetime, is called a ‘perspective theatre’, replicating in miniature a theatrical stage (though later, ballroom scenes became popular). Intricate, well-planned drawings with careful cutouts were lined up one behind the other in a wooden box. One side was open to introduce enough light. The viewer, peeping through a lens or simple opening at the end, got a true 3-D experience! The master of these sort of boxes is considered to be a German named Martin Engelbrecht (a far safer search term than “peep-box”)


Victorian perspective theaters are often called “Tunnel Books”. They were made in an easily-storable, expandable accordion format, often with multiple viewing holes for amazingly complex scenes.

Are you super crafty? Make your own version of a tunnel book (but without the peephole) at:http://extremecards.blogspot.com/2008/08/how-to-make-tunnel-book.html

he zoetrope (1867) is a spinning cylinder with a series of slots along the outside. Fitted inside is a set of pictures, each of which varies just a bit from the one before. The spinning motion of the cylinder caused an animation effect. Most science museums (especially the children’s museums!) have some version of a zoetrope to delight their visitors. You’ve most likely seen this one yourself!

aroline Astor may well have attended a “Magic Lantern” demonstration in her youth. At first, professional showmen would use oil or paraffin – illuminated projectors to show hand-colored slides onto the wall. (Or “ghost shows” with images literally projected onto smoke!) As the cost of production of the slides decreased, it became a relatively common item for the middle and upper class to keep in their homes.

For some photos of an interesting optical toy collection, you should visithttp://brightbytes.com/collection/toys.html


3. Calling Cards


One of the responsibilities of a society woman during the Gilded Age was to pay calls to other women. The rules of these calls were strictly enforced – and to break them was very bad form (and may well paint you as a “bouncer”!)

Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt cleverly used the rules of etiquette to begin to overturn the social order in New York. She was unable to invite Mrs. Astor’s daughter to her famous ball (an event all of society was anxious to attend), becuase she had not yet received notice from her social superior, Mrs. Wiliam B. Astor. Succumbing to the subtle blackmail of Mrs. Vanderbilt’s withheld invitation, Mrs. Astor promptly sent a servant over with one of her cards, and shortly thereafter the invitation to the ball arrived.

Calling card case

The rules of calling card etiquette were very much like a ritualized dance done at the balls, certain steps at certain time, with a whole lot of formality. For instance, upon appearing at the home, the caller (or her servant) would present her card. The servant who answered the door would then bring the card to the lady of the house. Was she receiving callers? Was she out? If she accepted the call, the length of the visit was no longer than 30 minutes. If someone else appeared before the end of this, the first caller may, or may not, be introduced- but the first caller would politely end their visit.

However, if the call was being made for the very first time, it was customary to just leave a card, no visit, allowing the hostess to make the first move. And it was considered proper for a social inferior to wait for a call from the woman considered a social superior ( that’s the loophole that Alva Vanderbilt played). It was also acceptable to send a servant with a card. If a mistress was not taking callers, or really was not at home, it was polite to return the call within10 days.

There was an entire language in the folding of corners of the cards: If the upper right corner was folded down- she came in person; upper left meant congratulations; lower right meant goodbye; lower left mean condolences were offered. A woman with grown daughters still living at home would write the names of the daughters accompanying her on her card; she would also leave one of her own cards, but two of her husbands- one for the mistress and one for the master of the home. If the family was leaving town, the woman would often write ” pour prendre congé” or simply “PPC” which would mean, ” to say good bye.” When they returned, the card calling dance would begin anew.

In “Mrs. Astor’s New York”, one of the books we recommended during the Mrs. Astor podcast, the following guidelines were outlined as to behavior during formal calls:

So simple a matter as paying a morning call was hedged around with complications. A male escort or female companion was not needed if a lady went in a carriage, but a gentleman was expected to accompany a lady walking on foot. It was permissible for two ladies walking together to make a call without male escort. When paying a call, female guests were expected to remain seated in chairs or benches lining the perimeter of the room, waiting for servants to pass refreshments in sequence. A hostess alone had the freedom to stand and cross the room.

Cards would be placed in a tray which was left in plain view so that subsequent callers could peek at the people who had called before them. (Some climbers might “rearrange” the cards to feature their more impressive visitors.)

Calling card tray for displaying cards in the entryway

It was some pretty complicated stuff!!


2. A Gilded Age Menu – Supper at the Ball

This is a menu from one of Mrs. Astor’s later events, held in 1898 in the house she shared with her son John Jacob IV.

The items listed as “Service Chaud” (Hot) were presented at the seated dinner held after midnight, and the cold items had been set out as a buffet for guests as they were arriving from the opera:

And here is a rough translation… you can see how much obvious effort would have been put into both the preparation and presentation of each dish:

Hot service

Bouillon served in glasses for sipping

Chicken stuffed with butter and herbs (basically, Chicken Kiev)

Beef tenderloin stuffed with wine-and-mushroom filling

(Pommes surprise could be anything from chocolate to citrus. Or this could also be a potato dish. It’s one of those titles given to a wide variety of dishes.)


Hominy made into a “pancake” with nuts, egg, and corn syrup. Though it sounds unusual, it was a very common side dish of the time, as common as mashed potaoes are today.)

Cold Service

Salmon tartare (so popular on menus even now!)

Molded mayonnaise-based salad with truffles, anchovies, legumes, peas, onions, and beef

Galantine: A hideous concoction of forcemeat covered in aspic. (photo follows.)


Here is the recipe for Chaud-froid de cailles:

Now you just need 1000 quails and 20 chefs…

Paté baked in a crust as a loaf, then sliced.

Salade Orientale – could really refer to all kinds of dishes. No way to confirm this one, but it was most likely a cabbage-based salad.

Game paté – probably venison, but boar could appear under the same name, and was era-appropriate.

Bread-and-butter with spiced duck meat, with a yummy sounding currant jelly-and-mustard sauce on top.

Bamequins (We believe this is a typo for “Ramequins” – a glamorous cheese-straw made from puff-pastry, Gruyere cheese, and Parmesan)

Rillettes de tours (basically pulled pork)

Glace fantaisies – ice cream in all kinds of crazy shapes and forms like flowers and jewels, busts of famous people, flags, whatever the chef wanted)

Fraises fondants is strawberry fudge! (Sounds better in French…)

Cherries in liquor

Marrons = chestnuts

Mandarins glacés required a brave person to dip little sections of mandarin oranges into 300 degree syrup, by hand, with no toothpick to help them

(as the juice ruins the coating)

For an article describing the clothes and attendees of the ball that evening, please see the link:



1. The Astor Family Tree

This family has a tree that would take several episodes to display- it gets complicated since everyone shares similar names. Let’s just stick to the main players in Caroline’s story :

John Jacob Astor Sr, Grandpa.

John Jacob Astor, Sr: A poverty to wealth story with accompanying pieces about his rude behavior- Family Patriarch


William Backhouse Astor, Sr

William Backhouse Astor, Sr : Real estate tycoon, and slum lord but with manners and money and a deeply bred tradition of primogeniture- which basically means the first born son gets the family wealth.


Number One Son! John Jacob Astor, III

John Jacob Astor III- first born son, scored a sure thing when he not only marries first but has the first son.

Mr. The Mrs. Astor

William Backhouse Astor, Jr: Total spare to the heir. He will live in the shadow of his brother his whole life, and he is not the most aggressive of businessmen.

And just to show off, there was another son, Henry Astor, who is all but missing from family histories as he got out of town.

The youngest brother of the three is rarely mentioned; probably because the family didn’t approve of the woman he married. Daddy, brothers and other family members pretty much wrote him off. Society gossip at the time says he was disinherited!

But we think he may have been the smartest of the family—he not only married for love (Malvina Dinehart the daughter of an employee ), but he lived his years in a house of his own design ( dream house, anyone?) and although he didn’t get a full wedge of the pie, he was technically and very quietly, one of the richest men in America. Well played, Henry!