The upper classes in New York…

Caroline Schermerhorn Astor (center) at one of her gilded age balls, ca.1902. Illustration by Walter Granville-Smith.

“By 1844 the upper classes in New York were popularly called the Upper Ten Thousand, which by 1848 had been shortened to Upper Ten. The term is usually attributed to Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806-1867), an editor, author, and journalist, who in Necessity for a Promenade Drive wrote: “At present there is no distinction among the upper ten thousand of the city.” By the early 1850s the name was appearing in the press, in book titles, and presumably in popular speech as well. In 1863 Tony Pastor published a song, “The Upper and Lower Ten Thousand,” that began:

The Upper Ten Thousand in mansions reside,
With fronts of brown stone, and with stoops high and wide
While the Lower Ten Thousand in poverty deep,
In cellars and garrets, are huddled like sheep.
(𝑆𝑒𝑒 π‘“π‘–π‘Ÿπ‘ π‘‘ π‘π‘œπ‘šπ‘šπ‘’π‘›π‘‘)

E. Odell Zeisloft in The New Metropolis (1899), an influential book celebrating end-of-the-century New York, detected seven social classes in the city. The top two, “the very rich” and “the rich,” which had in common annual incomes of more than $100,000, were together, he said, roughly ten thousand in number. If his estimate was a deliberate allusion to the famous phrase, he was already too late. In 1898, Brander Matthews had a story character say, “I’ve been mostly in the society absurdly called the Four Hundred; it used to be called the Upper Ten Thousand.”
The Four Hundred itself was coined by Ward McAllister (1827-1895), the snobbish socialite and sycophant. On March 25, 1888, he remarked to a society reporter from the New York Tribune, “Why, there are only about 400 people in fashionable New York society. If you go outside that number, you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or else make others not at ease. See the point?” (McAllister’s name was sometimes fittingly punned to Mr. Make-a-lister.) City lore says that he was alluding to the limiting size of Mrs. Astor’s ballroom. But her invitation lists frequently numbered a hundred more or fewer. The number of 400 “was probably the whim of a moment, under the genial intoxication which a press-reporter always evoked in McAllister.” Yet the magic number 400 for the city’s elite had a certain establishment as early as 1860. McAllister’s predecessor, Issac Hull Brown, the sexton of Grace Church, arranged a guest list of 400 top citizens to attend the famous ball for the Prince of Wales at the Academy of Music on 14th Street. At any rate, it was the newspapers’ first use of the term in 1888 and subsequent magazine satire and cartoons about The Four Hundred and their doings in the 1890s that fixed the term in popular speech.”
— Irving Lewis Allen / The City in Slang

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s