High society (social class)

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Seymour Joseph Guy: Going to The Opera, 1874, Biltmore Estate, Asheville, Vanderbilt family

In American society, high society, also called in some contexts simply "society", is the behavior and life style of people with the highest levels of wealth and social status. It includes their related affiliations, social events and practices.[1] Various social clubs were open to members based on assessments of their ranking and role within high society, and in American high society, the Social Register was traditionally a key resource for identifying qualified members. For a global perspective, see Upper class.

19th century[edit]

The term became common in the late 19th century, especially when the newly arrived rich in key cities such as New York, Boston, and Newport, Rhode Island, built great mansions and sponsored highly publicized parties.[2] The media lavished attention on them, especially when newspapers devoted whole sections to weddings, funerals, parties and other events sponsored by the local high society. In major cities, a Social Register was published that listed the names and addresses of people who properly belonged. Informal identifiers appeared, such as the "upper tens" in mid-19th century New York City, or "the 400," Ward McAllister's late 19th-century term for the number of people Mrs. William Backhouse Astor, Jr's ballroom could supposedly accommodate,[3][4] although the actual number was 273.[5]

Debutantes are young female members of high society being officially presented for the first time, at debutante balls or cotillions.

Gold and silver mining, in the mid 19th century brought enormous wealth overnight to certain small towns such as Central City, Colorado and Leadville, Colorado. The new rich typically build a lavish opera house in the mining town, but then moved to a major city, especially Denver or San Francisco, where their wealth could be more suitably displayed and enjoyed.[6] When the men attended to business affairs, women generally took charge of comings and goings and doings in high society.[7]

Starting with the Stuyvesant luxury apartment house that opened in 1869, and The Dakota in 1884, affluent New Yorkers discovered the advantages of apartment living, where a full-time staff handled the upkeep and maintenance, as well as security.[8][9]


Mrs. William Astor painted by Carolus-Duran in 1890, presented at the 1894 Great Portrait Exhibition

Art in this time was almost exclusively linked to the possession of money. The art of high society focused greatly on absorbing cultures from around the world, and referencing great architecture from the past, and commissioning artists that were from Europe. The culture was to possess knowledge and artifacts from other cultures or at least replicated it very well.

Acquiring rare and valuable items was another way of high society representing its prestige. Art was also a way of representing taste level and someones ability to commission the right artist or chose the best piece to have installed in their homes.[10]


America shifted the focus from paintings of the great landscapes of America to the great portraits of America.

Portraiture became the most common art in order for people in high society to record and have evidence of their accomplishment and valuable possessions.

Commissioned portraits became widely popular due to the demand for people to represent themselves, most people wanted an artist from over seas, but later in the movement it was found that it did not matter where the artist was from. The most important aspect of the artists was how they captured the specific patron and how they catered to specific patrons likings.

The Great Portrait Exhibition was born, this exhibition was an affair that was powered by people affiliated with or part of high society, since the majority of portraits in this time were commissioned, the exhibition pieces only consisted of members within high society.

The exhibition was open to the public who could afford a ticket.

The exhibition became a place for people to see Who's Who in New York high society and focused more on the names of the people in the portraits rather than the quality of the portraits. The art community focused on portraiture, and changed art into a circle that created a tight knit between, patronage, artist, and critiques.[10]


Stanford White (1853-1906) was the most influential architect for High Society.[10] High Society was also immortalized through the building of mansions glittered in decadence and detail that were reminiscent of the renaissance, and the Victorian gothic. These massive homes were visible in dense cities like New York, they sprinkled main avenues that belonged to the wealth or middle class and stayed clear of the poor areas that were dense and littered with filth and the poor working class. Richard Morris Hunt played a large role in giving many members of High Society what they were looking for: homes that represented their cosmopolitan outlook and outshine all that was around it.[10] For more on the homes of this time era see List of Gilded Age mansions.


Members of high society depend greatly on the people and social circles they are surrounded by. In many cases an elite member can confirm status by having, servants, people who remove a task from everyday life, or artists and performers, who they can use their talent and skills at their disposal.[citation needed]

Social groups play the most important role in establishing members of high society. Members of high society are usually must attend social gatherings throughout the year while also putting together social gatherings in their own homes. The sociological distinction is the use of social capital in order to attend or be invited to certain events. Members of high society tend to be aware of the connections that should be made in order to move up the social ladder.[11]

Recent decades[edit]

High society is less visible in the 21st century—privacy is much more valued, and the very expensive housing is not as conspicuous to ordinary pedestrians as the famous old mansions. There are far fewer servants, but much more attention to security. Remote ski resorts in places like Vail and Aspen are especially popular with high society.[12] The quality of housing remains important. Moneyed society in New York looks for apartments that are:

near good schools, restaurants, museums, and all the city offers, they offer privacy, security, and stately architecture, with an almost obsessive attention to detail in the woodwork, fine wood floors, moldings, brass door handles, and many other handcrafted features.[13]

Philanthropy is a high-prestige activity in high society. As in the case of one prominent heiress, her "millions often went to supporting institutions geared toward improving life for less-fortunate New Yorkers—libraries, universities, hospitals, public gardens and conservation groups among them."[14] Sociologist Francie Ostrower states:

The wealthy take philanthropy and adapt it into an entire way of life that serves as a vehicle for the social and cultural life of their class. This is reflected in the widespread popularity of educational and cultural causes among donors.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Foulkes, Nick. High Society: The History of America's Upper Class . Assouline, 2008. ISBN 2759402886
  2. ^ Wayne Craven, Gilded Mansions: Grand Architecture and High Society (2009).
  3. ^ Mooney, James E. "Astor [née Schermerhorn] Caroline (Webster)" in Jackson, Kenneth T. (ed.), (2010) The Encyclopedia of New York City (2nd edition). New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-11465-2, p.72
  4. ^ Burrows, Edwin G. & Wallace, Mike (1999). Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-195-11634-8. , pp.962-963
  5. ^ Mooney, James E. "Society" in Jackson, Kenneth T. (ed.), (2010) The Encyclopedia of New York City (2nd edition). New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-11465-2, pp.1199-1201
  6. ^ Thomas J. Noel, "Colorado's Rush to Culture A Gold Rush Legacy." Journal of the West 49#2 (2010): 41-49.
  7. ^ Newport Historical Society Staff, "The Business Of Leisure: The Gilded Age In Newport," Newport History (1989) 62#3 pp 97-126.
  8. ^ Stephen Birmingham, Life at the Dakota (1979)
  9. ^ Andrew Alpern, New York's Fabulous Luxury Apartments: With Original Floor Plans from the Dakota, River House, Olympic Tower and Other Great Buildings (1987) covers 75 famous buildings starting in 1869.
  10. ^ a b c d Gallat, Barbara Dayer (2008). High Society. American Portraits of the Gilded Age. Bucerius Kunst Forum. Distributed by Merrell. ISBN 978-3777445458. 
  11. ^ Daloz, Jean-Pascal (2010). The Sociology of Elite Distinction. Palgrave Macmillan UK. ISBN 978-0-230-24683-6. 
  12. ^ Edward Duke Richey, Living it Up in Aspen: Post-war America, Ski Town Culture, and the New Western Dream, 1945--1975 (2006).
  13. ^ Geoffrey Lynch (2014). Manhattan Classic: New York's Finest Prewar Apartments. Princeton Architectural Press. p. 10. 
  14. ^ Susman, Tina. "Trial shines a spotlight on New York's high society", Los Angeles Times (September 16, 2009)
  15. ^ Francie Ostrower (1997). Why the Wealthy Give: The Culture of Elite Philanthropy. Princeton UP.