Archives For Holidays

During the Gilded Age, the American traditions of New Year’s Eve started to transition from the folk celebrations of immigrants to the elaborate soirees we are more familiar with today, especially for those of a certain class.

New Year’s Eve in Chicago and at the Nickerson Mansion

Chicagoans in the Gilded Age celebrated New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in a similar manner to the way many Americans do today.  The week leading up to New Year’s was full of entertainment, with society leaders like Bertha Palmer and Matilda Nickerson hosting grand New Year’s Eve events where guests danced in the New Year to music played by Johnny Hand’s Orchestra, Gilded Age Chicago’s favorite bandleader.

Johnny Hand conducting his orchestra. Chicago Daily Tribune, “Round About Chicago: Johnny Hand,”. September 15, 1910. The paper noted, “Nobody that was anybody could think of  giving a party until they knew if they could get Johnny Hand to play.”

Johnny Hand conducting his orchestra. Chicago Daily Tribune, “Round About Chicago: Johnny Hand,” September 15, 1910. The paper noted, “Nobody that was anybody could think of giving a party until they knew if they could get
Johnny Hand to play.”

In 1890, the Nickerson’s “Marble Palace” was the site of a lavish New Year’s Eve Reception. The guest list of over sixty-five included the children of neighbors and other prominent Chicago families from both the North and South sides.  The Nickersons followed the common practice of featuring elaborate floral arrangements at receptions.  The marble hall was “decorated with calla lilies” and “the centre-piece on the dining-room table consisted of a bank of delicate pink carnations on a background of maiden-hair ferns.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, “Children Make Merry,” January 1, 1891).

The Chicago Daily Tribune, "Mrs. Nickerson's Party," January 1, 1891.

The Chicago Daily Tribune, “Mrs. Nickerson’s Party,” January 1, 1891.

Dressing Up for New Year’s Eve 

Just as it is customary today to wear something with plenty of glitz and glamour, guests also wore fashion-forward designs in the Gilded Age to New Year’s Eve events. Men wore formal “white tie” dress with black tailcoats while women donned glamorous evening gowns often designed by the preeminent House of Worth in Paris, and received great attention in the society pages of the newspapers.  According to one account, Bertha Palmer wore a “black velvet gown, the bodice studded with diamonds, and a diamond tiara in her hair” at her New Year’s Eve cotillion (“In the Society World,” January 6, 1901).

Left: Cover of Ladies Home Journal from January 1901 Right: Bertha Honoré Palmer. From Address and Reports of Mrs. Potter Palmer, 1894.

Left: Cover of Ladies Home Journal from January 1901 Right: Bertha Honoré Palmer.
From Address and Reports of Mrs. Potter Palmer, 1894.

New Year’s Eve at the Mansions of Newport

Newport, Rhode Island was home to some of the most fabulous mansions of the Gilded Age.  Although initially established as a quiet summer retreat for the newly-wealthy, as the nineteenth century progressed, Newport became a center for the affluent to gather not only during the summer but also during the winter holiday season.  New York society elites, like the Vanderbilts and Astors, threw lavish New Year’s Eve receptions and hosted sumptuous New Year’s Day events reflective of their newly established social status.  Newport celebrations continued to rise in prominence and eventually society reporters began travelling from New York City to cover these spectacular events. While across the nation prominent families of the Gilded Age hosted exclusive and extravagant New Year’s events, Newport was one of the most popular destinations.

Celebrating With Champagne

When attending a New Year’s Eve reception, guests enjoyed novel party favors, refreshments featuring the “delicacies of the season,” a light super (often featuring en vogue French cuisine) at midnight, and plenty of champagne.


Chicago Daily Tribune, “Moët & Chandon,” December 16, 1901.

French Champagne became a popular drink among wealthy Americans who enjoyed the perceived sophistication of the drink and its intoxicating effects. Beginning in the 1870s, Americans consumed champagne in “astonishing” large quantities and would often pay exorbitant prices for the imported beverage (champagne was subject to import taxes).  In 1894, for example, Americans imported over 70,000 cases of champagne, a significantly greater amount than just twenty-five years before (Chicago Daily Tribune, “Champagne Drank in This Country,” February 24, 1894). Etiquette manuals gave advice on how to host a “bachelor” Champagne supper, and champagne was the drink of choice for celebratory toasts- including on New Year’s Eve. French Brands such as Moët & Chandon catered to the luxury market, with advertisements persuading Chicagoans that the “ablest excerpts” pronounced the brand to be “without question, far superior in quality to any other brands” (Chicago Daily Tribune, “Moët & Chandon ‘White Seal’ Champagne,” May 1, 1900).

Alphonse Mucha, Menu, c. 1899, The Richard H. Driehaus Collection. For more information on this work by Mucha, visit L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters, opening February 11, 2017.

Alphonse Mucha, Menu, c. 1899, The Richard H. Driehaus Collection. For more information on this work by Mucha, visit L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters, opening February 11, 2017.

New Year’s festivities during the Gilded Age reflected the evolving expectations of celebrations, from the lavish receptions of the wealthy to the café and dancehall revelries of the middle and working classes.  Although at the time celebrating with champagne would have been reserved for society’s elite, champagne is a nearly obligatory part of New Year’s Eve rituals today. We still associate champagne with social status, sophistication, and prosperity. So when you raise your glass of champagne to usher in the New Year, you are making a gesture that is a nod to the past, while also celebrating the future New Year and all of its possibilities.


Top image: Wikipedia

Chertoff, Emily. “How Rich People Celebrated New Year’s Eve in the Gilded Age.” The Atlantic. (2012).

Glover, Ellye Howell. “Dame Curtsey’s” Book of Etiquette. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1909.

Sengstock, Charles A., Jr. That Toddlin’ Town: Chicago’s White Dance Bands and Orchestras, 1900-1950. Chicago and Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

By: Tasia Hoffman

Last December, Time magazine published an article on the psychology of gift-giving, addressing the questions that plague us each year as we search for the perfect gift for the perfect—or not-so-perfect—person in our lives.

For the Sake of HumanityThe questions, paraphrased: If I don’t know what to give my significant other, do I not know him or her well enough? What if I find just the right gift for a family member, only to find that he or she doesn’t like it? Is there anything wrong with an unsentimental gift? Am I bad for only buying gift cards? What about re-gifting?  With a new holiday season upon us, I turn to a Gilded Age-era writer at The New York Times for answers—a self-proclaimed expert in the fields of gift selection and reception.

My author declares his respect for the practice of gift-giving, citing benevolent roots, “Charitable people gave food to the hungry and trousers to the ragged, as the best way of celebrating the Christmas season.”  He takes issue, however, with the “unnecessary and purely complementary” notions of gift exchanges.  Now, the Gilded Age was a historical period shaped by a newly wealthy class interested in visual splendor and lavish displays of finance, which means that, to assert his views on gift exchanges as boldly as he did, my author was a brave man.

…or perhaps he simply had a dry and clever wit.

The main issue with Gilded Age gift-giving, according to my author:

“Men give their wives gifts that the latter do not want, and they themselves fail to receive the things which they need… There are men who like to receive an occasional cake of delicate toilet soap, but when eleven different sisters, sisters-in-law, and cousins are simultaneously struck with the happy thought of giving Mr. Smith a cake of toilet soap, the excess soap begins to wear the look of an objectionable practical joke.”

Shop EarlyHow, then, does one select the ideal gift, a present that elicits a desirable response from the recipient?

My author believes it improbable—a misuse of time, energy, and money.  Instead, he proposes a New Year’s Day gift swap for a “scientific and effective” exchange of gifts.  The procedure is simple: each person purchases and gives away, on Christmas, the gifts that he or she hopes to receive.  Once all of the gifts have been opened, each family member can rejoice knowing that he or she will trade all gifts received for gifts purchased in a week’s time.  This process, in my author’s opinion, should be the future “common law of Christmas.”

So whether you indulge in the holiday gift hunt or send out and receive mass emails in the Gilded Age spirit of buy-me-this, whether you find and receive show-stopping surprise gifts or end up collecting receipts and returning everything—remember that laughing with your eleven sisters, sisters-in-law, and cousins while opening eleven cakes of toilet soap (again) can sometimes be the most memorable and gratifying event of the season.

Toys for ChristmasHappy Holidays, from the Driehaus Museum community to your family, and thank you for sharing in this past year with us.


This holiday season, celebrate Gilded Age style.  Find information on programs and events at


-          “Christmas Giving.” The New York Times. 28 December 1881. Print.
-          Photo: “The First Christmas Card” from
-          Photo: “Shop Early” courtesy of Library of Congress
-          Photo: “For the Sake of Humanity” courtesy of Library of Congress
-          Photo: “Toys for Christmas” courtesy of Library of Congress

As the Nickerson and Fisher families looked forward to their holiday seasons, they and other Gilded Age families would have enjoyed games, toys and books in their spare time.

Post-Civil War America was a time of rapid economic growth; the middle class was expanding while industrialization allowed for increased leisure time and expendable income.  Middle and upper class children enjoyed play time, and new books, toys and games were introduced to appeal to children of the era.  Many of which still captivate the young minds of today.


A portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne from the 1860s and “A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys”

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 publication A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys marked a change in American children’s literature.  Hawthorne observed his own children at play, seeing how their imaginations shaped their games.  He wanted to write a children’s book that would capture children’s imaginations and inspire them to read outside of school.  He decided to re-write six Greek myths and to incorporate children into the framing narratives.  The book was an immediate success and sparked a new publication trend for popular children’s books.  Authors like Louisa May Alcott, Lewis Carroll, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Rudyard Kipling, and Anna Sewall created stories especially for children.  In 1885, Robert Louis Stevenson published the still beloved A Child’s Garden of Verses, which continued Hawthorne’s focus on children’s imaginative play; Stevenson’s adventure stories like Treasure Island (1881) also sparked children’s imaginations.

LifePopular children’s games included marbles, checkers, Parcheesi, and cards.  Board games were first introduced in  the early part of the nineteenth century.  Milton Bradley and the Parker Brothers began their companies after the Civil War.  In 1860, Milton Bradley designed and produced the board game Life, which was an immediate success and remains so through the 21st century. George Parker published the first Parker Company/Parker Brothers game catalog in 1885.  Parker Brothers introduced the game Office Boy in 1889.  Similar to Milton Bradley’s Life, Office Boy had players begin as office boys at a company and work at various jobs trying to become head of the firm.  The 1894 Parker Brothers catalog included the World’s Fair Game, sure to be popular with Chicagoans.

tootsie toys

A variety of toys were manufactured in Chicago.  The toys reflected Chicago’s reputation as a manufacturing and architectural center.  Tootsietoys may have been the most popular, yet unknown, manufacturer of toys in Chicago.  The company created the miniature metal toys found in Cracker Jack boxes.  The Linotype machines used to stamp the toys were originally seen at the World’s Columbian Exposition.  Charles O. Dowst saw the machines being used to stamp metal parts for machines and realized that the same machine could be used to mass produce metal toys.  Some of the toys were miniature versions of the machines or products that Chicago’s factories produced, like cars, trains, and tractors.


Two of Chicago’s best known toys were made of wood:  Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs.  Both allow children to build their own versions of skyscrapers and other buildings seen in Chicago.  Charles Pajeau invented Tinkertoys in 1914 in Evanston.  Pajeau was a stone mason by trade and set out to design and market a toy that would inspire the imagination.  John Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright, invented Lincoln Logs in 1918.  His inspiration for the toy came a few years earlier while visiting Tokyo, Japan with his father.  The young Mr. Wright observed workers building the Imperial Hotel, they used a revolutionary technique of interlocking beams John Wright later used to design Lincoln Logs.



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