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Smoking Rooms of the Gilded Age

Gilded Rooms Smoking Parlors Set a Style of Their Own in America's Great Age of Palaces
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

(continued from page 1)

Miller's domain, which includes some of most spectacular mansions ever built, is situated in the oceanside town of Newport, Rhode Island. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, this playground of the extravagantly rich would witness one of the most pretentious periods of competitive home building of all time, spearheaded by men such as the Vanderbilts, Astors, Stuyvesant Fish, James Gordon Bennett and Oliver Hazard Belmont. But because the owners aimed at recreating the nobility of European architectural styles of the Renaissance and the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, they left little room for creativity, except in the smoking parlor.

"In design the smoking rooms and the billiard rooms are unique in the interior scheme, in that most Gilded Age reception rooms or ground floor rooms were based on historical prototypes," observes Miller. "Given the fact that there were no historical precedents until the nineteenth century for smoking rooms, their design became all the more innovative and, in many cases, exotic. Whereas most of the Gilded Age interiors you'll be looking at--for example, dining rooms, ballrooms, drawing rooms--were based on English or French design sources, the billiard rooms became the specialty of such American decorators as Marcotte, Tiffany, or Herter."

The desire of this American royalty to imitate European design was so pronounced that in The Breakers, Cornelius Vanderbilt II's stately home, the ladies' reception room boasts an interior of Louis XVI paneling lifted from a 1776 Paris townhouse.

While the smoking parlor was spared such slavish mimicry, it was hardly devoid of protocol. Social conventions in these rarefied circles became so rigid that the taking of tobacco was often written into the rules of behavior. Miller defers to Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, a primer on the mistress' duties from the late nineteenth century, and a section titled "The Proper Conduct Upon Leaving the Dinner Table" to describe the customs:

"When fruit has been taken and a glass or two of wine passed round, the time will have arrived when the hostess...rises and gives her guests the signal to retire to the drawing room. The gentlemen will rise at the same time. The one nearest the door opens it for the ladies, all courteously standing until the last lady has withdrawn. In former times [the mid-nineteenth century], when the bottle circulated freely among the guests, the ladies retired earlier than they do at present times. Thanks, however, to the changes time has wrought, moderation is now invariable amongst gentleman and they now take but a brief interval for tobacco, talk and coffee in the smoking or billiards room before they rejoin the ladies."

For all its trappings, wealth at the time represented a kind of entrapment for ladies and gentlemen, who were expected to follow a social schedule laid out almost to the minute. In the case of Newport, social historian Eileen Warburton points out, it was "very much a female dominated environment." The season lasted through July and August, when wives would take up residence in these grand houses, which were considered something like summer cottages by their affluent owners. Husbands, too busy building empires to fully enjoy the fruits of their labors, joined them mostly on weekends.

Gentlemen who were in town might spend their day in athletic pursuits such as yachting, fishing, hunting, riding or driving horses, golfing and playing tennis. Little time was spent at home. If they wanted a cigar they probably went to the Reading Room, an exclusive men's club that remains private today, where they could engage in confabulation without fear of offending ladies either with their smoking or bawdy talk. In the evening, they were expected to escort their wives. In the absence of a husband, one of the young officers from the nearby naval college--whom Warburton describes as something like tailor's dummies meant to look good in suits--could stand in his stead.

So although these men bankrolled great smoking parlors, they spent precious little time in them. "Men didn't spend hours there, because they had to rejoin their wives in the ballroom," says Warburton, who feels that the cliché of men disappearing for cigars and brandy for the rest of the evening was a European custom that didn't travel well to the United States. "It was considered un-American to abandon your wife."

As for the conversation over cigars, Warburton thinks that not a lot of it was about business. More likely, they spoke of their sporting interests, while the women were in a drawing room discussing the likelihood of matrimony among the single population. Also, since it was a close-knit, clubby society full of men who were related or who had gone to school together, they had much in common, and might have been making decisions over brandy about shared clubs or art organizations.

One smoking anecdote that survives from that moneyed set is actually about quitting. It seems that Cornelius Vanderbilt, the "Commodore" who started the family's transportation empire, was preaching to his son, William Henry, about the woes of smoking. The Commodore asked him to give it up, offering him $10,000 for his compliance. His heir immediately acquiesced, but refused the reward. But don't pity poor William Henry. The son whom Cornelius thought would never amount to much stood to gain more than $100 million in inheritance, which he doubled before passing it on to his own children.


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