As public historians, all of us at the Center for Women’s History eagerly anticipate new media that brings history to audiences. This was especially so with the new HBO series, The Gilded Age, with Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes at the helm and historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar serving as a co-executive producer and historical consultant. The HBO ensemble series follows—among many other characters—the newly orphaned Marian (Louisa Jacobson) who moves to 1880s New York to live with her old money aunts Agnes (Christine Baranski) and Ada (Cynthia Nixon). The show’s take on rivalries among elites and inequalities in the late 19th century combines some of our favorite topics: women’s and gender history, the history of racial and class inequality, and the history of New York City. In a series of conversational recaps, our team will share our thoughts and questions about historical accuracy, and contextualize the show’s narrative with tidbits from our own expertise as a diverse group of researchers and resources from New-York Historical’s collections, previous exhibitions, and prior blog posts. Follow along the blog each week for our discussion! This week, we discuss the first two episodes.
Is the setting believable? What was NYC like in 1882?
Valerie Paley (Sue Ann Weinberg Director of the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library): No! This is far too early for the corner of E. 61st and Fifth Avenue to be this fashionable or even this developed. It wasn’t for another 10 years that the Astors moved to the 60s, spurring other elites to follow suit and move uptown. The hotspot was still in the 50s or below, and the Old Guard, represented by the Van Rhijn sisters, would have lived farther downtown, closer to Murray Hill or in Greenwich Village around Washington Square Park. In any event, they would not have been living across the street from one another!
Anna Danziger Halperin (Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History): In the second episode, we see the Bethesda Fountain, capped by the Angel of the Waters statue, and the characters even discuss how it was recently created by a woman, Emma Stebbins. Stebbins is featured in our Women’s Voices installation, and we’ve written about how her partner, the actress Charlotte Cushman, was her model for the statue. It’s such a monumental part of NYC and also gives us a peek as well into a queer woman’s fundamental contribution to the city’s landscape.
Ksenia Soboleva (Andrew W. Mellon Gender and LGBTQ+ History Fellow): It’s funny I tend to confuse her with the sculptor Harriet Whitney Frishmuth, who is also queer, and created the “Call of the Sea” sculpture in Prospect Park, depicting a woman riding a fish.
How likely would it have been for young women like characters Marian Brook and Peggy Scott to have formed this interracial friendship?
Everyone: Not likely!
ADH: It seems like Marian is standing in for 21st century viewers: oblivious to the kinds of everyday racism and customs that would structure Peggy’s life—and also regulate Marian’s behavior as a white woman. Of course Peggy can’t board the train at the same time as you, Marian!
Nicole Mahoney (Manager of Scholarly Initiatives): Peggy seems to me a sloppy, lazy way for Fellowes to account for race alongside class and gender. But it will be interesting to see where her writing career leads—is she a fictional Ida B. Wells?
Allison Robinson (Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History): My theory is that Peggy is based on Gertrude Bustill Mossell! Like Peggy, Mossell was from Philadelphia and attended the Institute for Colored Youth, and her first job was at the Christian Recorder. A Black journalist, Gertrude Bustill Mossell was a women’s pages writer for the New York Age and the Indianapolis World in the mid-19th century to the 20th century. She started at the New York Age starting in 1885, which is close to when the show is set. As we discussed in last year’s salon, The Women’s Pages: A Hard Look at “Soft News,” we know women actively engaged in writing, often in the women’s pages, starting in the 19th century. This phenomenon reached its height in the early 20th century, but the roots of it are in the centuries before. From looking at the cast list, I see that T. Thomas Fortune is an actual historical figure who appears on the show: He ran the New York Globe, a paper in the Black press, from 1882 to 1884. I think we can see where this is going: Peggy will likely end up writing for the New York Globe. Maybe we’ll see her getting interested and excited about politics? Will this show become a venue to discuss civil rights in late 19th century NYC? In real life, Fortune would end up running the New York Age from 1887 to 1907, overlapping with Mossell from 1887 to 1889. I think she’s a good candidate for Peggy’s historical inspiration!
What do we think about the representation of Black life in NYC?
NM: With all those scenes of Central Park, will we see Seneca Village?
Laura Mogulescu (Curator of Women's History Collections): Seneca Village was higher uptown in the 80s and on the West side, but everyone was evicted in 1857.
NM: It’s refreshing to see a portrayal of middle-class Black life in the 19th century. And I think we’re going to see more of Peggy’s mother, played by Audra McDonald in what seems so far like a strong and compassionate portrayal. She’s a huge talent to remain in a supporting role.
ADH: You’re absolutely right—I think she’s going to become a much more important character based on her star power!
AR: Peggy mentions that her parents live in Brooklyn and that she grew up there: I wonder if we’ll see Weeksville in future episodes. The Brooklyn neighborhood was a hotbed of African American life and activity in the 19th century.
Keren Ben-Horin (Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History): Yes! And Weeksville had its own newspaper and if I am not wrong, didn’t they also build the first public school in New York?
What did we think of the trip outside of New York City to Newport, RI?
KBH: The Newport scene was one of my favorites, and I am hoping that we will return to this later in the season! Newport was a resort town for the wealthiest one percent so it’s a chance to see the life of leisure they experienced there including sport activities and parlor games.
We see them play croquet, a game which provided an opportunity for men and women to socialize together. Other sports (like tennis which arrived in the U.S. during the 1880s and immediately became fashionable, or bicycling which women enthusiastically took up) allowed men and women to meet each other in public in a new, much more informal way.
And taking a fashion history lens on the scene: Men and women at the time both played sports in their street clothes, with the only difference being the stripes and the colors (here mostly white, blue, and red). It was obviously a much bigger challenge for women to participate in these games while still wearing bustles, corsets, petticoats, and volumes of fabric.
Let’s talk more about fashion! Were women’s dresses really so over the top?
AR: Regarding the women’s day wear, in a word—no. I think the clothes look more like mid-to-late-1880s, after the show is set. The high, pronounced bustle worn by the wealthy women in the show was popular later than the show is set.
KBH: It depends—there were two bustle periods in the 1880s. Like you say, earlier in the decade, bustles were softer with draped puffs of fabric over them. Bustles disappeared for a few years but then re-appeared again later in the decade, now sticking out like a shelf almost. So there is definitely a mix of some styles within the decade. But let’s be honest, the styles changed so quickly, it’s really hard to keep up!
I also think it’s accurate how even the domestic workers are shown with bustles: Women during this time period, no matter their social station, would have worn a bustle and a corset to shape their body. The maids in both households wear their clothes over similar undergarments, and for those (like me) who pay careful attention, we can see that the bustle of the “upstairs” maids is a little more pronounced than that of the cook, denoting their respective social statuses.
NM: This is fascinating! I was wondering if the maids would have worn bustles, too.
AR: Regardless, those tight, uncomfortable sleeves and high necklines—spot on!
KBH: Yes! In 1882 sleeves were really tight. But, as the decade progressed they started to puff out in the shoulder, so let’s keep an eye out for if and how the costume designer will adjust to this change.
AR: Does it seem like the Russell women are wearing evening wear during the day? Maybe that’s supposed to be a cue to their ostentatious characterization?
KBH: Yes, their costumes are very elaborate and exaggerated—I assume that’s very intentional. And Bertha in particular, I suspect, is depicted as somewhat of a fashion victim. One of the things I have noticed right away is that costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone is really building up the characters with the clothes. For example, the aunts as well as other “old guard” women are dressed in heavier fabrics, often brocades in dark colors like purple and brown. At the same time, the younger generation, like Marian, and the Russells are dressed in much brighter colors like yellow, light blue, and pink. I also loved how Marian is often shown wearing a straw hat rather than her aunts’ heavier hats, which often have very tall feathers. Like I said before, I think Bertha’s clothes are especially exaggerated, and I suspect that’s intentional. In studying fashion in this period, I’ve never come across some of the styles she is wearing, for example those elaborate diagonal designs on some of her bodices. But nevertheless, the contrast is clear between her heavily decorated clothes that reek of fashion couture to the slightly out-of-fashion style of the aunts!
That brings us to the rivalries between the “Old” and “New” elites of NYC. Were social relationships really this fraught?
VP: Absolutely, it was that bad. Although, this is also where the periodization of the series is a bit off: The Vanderbilts' rise began to change the character of the social landscape later in the 1880s and 1890s.
NM: These character types and situational drama seem superficial to me. Take Agnes: Does she have other thoughts in her head other than hatred for the nouveau riche? The conservatism and provincialism of the old guard is overdrawn, heavy-handed, and presented with such little context that the character seems one-note. Ada is a hysterical, spinster caricature. And Marian is the stereotypical ingénue, an endearingly (or annoyingly) innocent, stock character—although as Anna pointed out, she serves as a surrogate for today’s viewers being introduced to the world of 19th century high society.
AR: The lavish interiors demonstrate some of this context. Take the Van Rhijn house, at least: it communicates old money established pre-Civil War. The parlor is stuffed with Belter furniture, a trendy New York-based furniture producer that was actually located on the Upper East Side and was most popular in the 1840s and 1850s. The fact that their wealth is old and diminishing is captured by the interior setting: they cannot afford new furniture.
KBH: I remember visiting the Merchant's House Museum in downtown New York a few years ago, and when I look at the interior of the Van Rhijns it reminds me of that! But how likely would it have been to see such interior in upper Manhattan in the 1880s?
What do we think about the way domestic labor is portrayed?
NLM: Domestic workers go through the same motions as the servants on Downton Abbey, but their role seems so much smaller in this show. In Downton Abbey, viewers had the feeling that the “upstairs” family literally couldn’t get out of bed without a valet or maid holding their hand. Here, they feel utterly superfluous to the story.
KBH: I hope they continue to develop these characters. There was already a hint of tension between Peggy and the Irish maids who are concerned African Americans would “steal” their jobs. This hints to the very real racial tensions that existed among the working classes. Here’s what’s also interesting: The Irish maids see Peggy as socially equal to them, while she is clearly middle class, highly educated, and has much higher professional aspirations.
ADH: What about the cook? Was it trendy to have a French chef?
KBH: In the 1880s, everything French was trendy! We see it of course in fashion, but any area of life where taste was involved looked to Paris for influence (with American modifications of course!).
NM: This was true back in the 1790s, as well, as I found in my dissertation!
What about that charity bazaar in Episode 2?
ADH: It reminded me so much of the New York Metropolitan Fair we included in Women March: This fundraising event, was an opportunity for women to powerfully—yet respectably—play an important role in political and social life. Held as a fundraiser for injured Union soldiers during the Civil War, the event, organized by women, raised over a million dollars in 1864 terms. But were bazaars still happening 20 years later?
AR: The organizations are somewhat accurate: The Dispensary for Poor Women and Children was founded by Elizabeth Blackwell in 1853, though the rhe Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, which Marian also mentions, was actually the same organization—they were combined in 1857.
KBH: I am not sure how fashionable charity bazaars would have been by that time, but they have a fascinating history in the U.S.! They started most likely in the 1830s or 1840s. In these earlier decades, women of means would make home goods and fashion accessories, such as embroidered pot holders or lace handkerchiefs, to sell for causes such as helping the poor or abolishing slavery. But as the century progressed, and with industrialization and increased availability of consumer goods, women started to import manufactured goods from Europe. So while we think of it as philanthropy, what we are really seeing is women engaging in the marketplace independently of their husbands or fathers. They are effectively managing a financial operation, including soliciting money from European women, importing the goods, managing duties and taxes, and organizing the sales and the organizations they benefitted.
Karintha Lowe (Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History): Some of these items could have been imported from China! Leading up to and around this time, a lot of American and European merchants would bring fashionable European designs to Chinese manufacturers, who would reproduce (and sometimes improve upon) the design at a much lower cost. That’s a familiar story to us today, but one that got its start in the NYC trade and picked up steam over the course of the 19th century. In scene with the bazaar, the show features fans and Marian was selling handkerchiefs—those are exactly the sort of decorative items that were being shuttled across the Pacific
Given that our nouveau riche family’s wealth is from the railway industry, is it too much to hope that as the show unfolds we get more of a look into the history of Chinese immigration and inclusion? It is set in 1882—the same year as the Chinese Exclusion Act!
Stay tuned to Women at the Center for our thoughts on future episodes!
The conversation has been edited and condensed by Anna Danziger Halperin, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History