Smoking Rooms of the Gilded Age

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

Grandeur was not the standard in American homes when Ruggles Sylvester Morse planned his Portland, Maine, show house in the late 1850s. Still Morse, a successful hotelier in New Orleans, was quite familiar with the closest things to palaces that the country had: the grand hotels of the day. From this model he cribbed the notions that his house should be filled with public spaces, utilize central heating, running water and toilets, and include a smoking room to which gentleman could repair to enjoy cigars.

That room, an exotic Turkish-style retreat with Moorish arabesques and strapwork fresco painted in vivid red and green, is considered the country's earliest existing domestic smoking parlor. Morse built his home, now called Victoria Mansion, on the cusp of an era that would produce scores of the world's most princely residences, nearly all of them embracing the newfound conceit of a separate enclave for smoking, drinking, leisure pursuits and man talk. Through the efforts of preservation groups across the country, many of these American castles are being maintained and may be visited by aficionados eager to vicariously experience almost incomprehensible luxury.

This era of conspicuous spending that spanned from the 1870s until just before the First World War was called the Gilded Age, after the title of a contemporary novel co-authored by Mark Twain. Great wealth was consolidated among a fortunate few, who thought of themselves as "nature's noblemen." Outside the fold they would be referred to as "robber barons." Whatever the spin, aristocratic metaphor was not unfounded, as these men built temples to themselves that would rival the palaces of Europe and be compared to Kubla Khan's Xanadu. Writers such as Henry James and Edith Wharton developed a love/hate fascination for these playgrounds that the author Louis Auchincloss would later describe as "crudely crammed with gold."

While Morse's Italianate mansion hardly approached that scale of building, he and a few others were popularizing lavishly ornate interior decor and the idea of the male smoking retreat for private residences. Located in a second-floor tower (fashion would later place the typical smoking parlor on the ground level), the room was small (10 feet by 10 feet) but dazzling. A divan and two ottomans made of cherry wood were upholstered in the same silk-and-wool Islamic weave that was used for the curtains and valances. Imported from England, a five-light gasolier, which was suspended by a system of weights and pulleys that allowed it to be easily raised and lowered, might have been used for lighting cigars as well as illumination.

The room would have easily performed the social function of separating the genders--it was, after all, a time when smoking in the presence of a lady was considered extremely impolite. But Morse's intent was probably much greater. "My sense of how he wanted the whole house to be was an advertisement for the way he made his money," says Donna Ridewood, director of Victoria Mansion. Contemporary newspaper reports indicate that the self-made man was also heralding his triumphal return to the state of his birth.

Helping Morse advance the cause of the smoking parlor was Gustave Herter. The German-born Herter was one of the first professional interior designers in America and highly renowned in the world of luxury hotels, where he more than likely met Morse. He would go on, in partnership with his brother, Christian, to form Herter Brothers, a name synonymous with the opulent style of the Gilded Age. It was Herter who directed the ornamentation of Victoria Mansion and constructed the smoking room's furniture. He probably chose the motif because of the fine tobaccos (and possibly more exotic smoking materials) that came from Turkey, and the style (also called Islamic or Moorish because of other Near Eastern influences) epitomized the first smoking rooms in the United States. One practical design consideration was the use of pocket doors, which in the absence of good ventilation, were meant to trap the smoke within the room. In later homes, improved air circulation would be the strategy for dealing with tobacco fumes.

The Civil War would prevent Morse from making regular use of the mansion, which was completed in 1860, until 1866, as he was a slave owner and Southern sympathizer. When peace came he returned to Portland to escape New Orleans' heat and yellow fever.

Because Morse left few personal documents, nothing is known of the cigars that were smoked at Victoria Mansion. This is true of most of the old smoking dens. Apparently, cigars were such an accepted part of life that few bothered to make note of them.

After Morse died in 1893, his wife, Olive, sold the house to J.R. Libby, a local department store owner, who used it as a winter residence. Since his family was connected with the temperance movement, says Ridewood, they didn't use the smoking room nor Morse's wine cellar for their intended purposes.

Styles would change and smoking parlors would enlarge as they took on dual functions as billiards rooms, libraries or hunting rooms, but Herter had helped to describe a new direction in which interior designers could make a statement. When the Gilded Age began in earnest, the male den was one of the few roomss where highly proscribed rules for decoration did not exist, according to Paul Miller, curator of the Preservation Society of Newport County.

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.

The amount of cash sunk into erecting Newport "cottages" was simply staggering. Whereas Victoria Mansion cost the then-princely sum of $100,000, by 1892 William Kissam Vanderbilt, son of William Henry and grandson of the Commodore, had built Newport's Marble House, based on the Petit Trianon at Versailles, for $11 million. By the end of the century, the owners in Newport seemed to be playing what Warburton describes as a game of "my palace is bigger than your palace," and the homes showed it in every detail.

Among the eight properties that may be toured in Newport, dating from 1748 to 1902, are four of these revivalist mansions: two built by Vanderbilt heirs, one by the steamship owner Hermann Oelrichs and the other by coal magnate Edward J. Berwind. They represent only the tip of the iceberg, however. At one point there were as many as 50 mansions there.

More modest, but still breathtaking, are two houses from the middle part of the century, one done in Gothic and the other in Victorian style.

The Gothic-style Kingscote, which was built in 1839, was sold to William Henry King, a trader with China, in 1863. Though King was committed to a mental hospital in 1866 (where he enjoyed imported cigars), his nephew, David, continued his uncle's tradition of decorating with pieces and artwork imported from China. He began upgrading the rustic house to the new formality of Newport, adding a parlor-full of overstuffed Turkish furniture from the New York design firm of Léon Marcotte in 1878. He later commissioned a three-story addition by Stanford White, the architect who, with his partners McKim and Meade, would do much to define the Gilded Age.

Newport's preservation society is also custodian to Chateau-Sur-Mer, a Victorian home built in 1852 for William S. Wetmore, who also made his fortune in the China trade. His son, George Peabody Wetmore, who would later be governor of Rhode Island, commissioned Richard Morris Hunt in 1871 to renovate the house, reflecting fashionable European design. Hunt would go on to design 25 mansions and cottages in Newport and several along New York's Fifth Avenue. Among the added rooms was a French salon designed by Ogden Codman, a cousin of William Wetmore's, who wrote, with novelist Edith Wharton, The Decoration of Houses, a treatise on interior design that laid out the precepts of Gilded Age decor with its notions of restrained elegance, echoing European styles. In the mansion there are two pieces of particular interest to smokers: a Chinese-style lacquer cigar box made in the 1840s, emblazoned with the Wetmore coat of arms, and an owl-shaped humidor.

Given the scale of the truly great mansions of Newport, only a few architects were up to the task of designing them. Miller calls the change in American homes "a transformation so radical you wonder how one could have achieved it." They did it, in part, by employing the same designers over and over. Hunt became almost the family architect to the Vanderbilts, and McKim, Meade and White, cigar smokers all, picked up much of the rest of the business. White would play another role in the history of U.S. society when he was shot dead in 1906 by a jealous husband. The trial for the murder would provide pages and pages of scandal fodder to the yellow press of the era.

As the revivalist trend took over, the smoking room began to appear as a dual-purpose room, incorporating billiards, hunting motifs, or the library into the concept of the male domain. By the time Wharton and Codman inveighed against the clutter of the Victorian style, in 1897, they would have this to say about that compartment:

"The smoking-room proper, with its mise en scène of Turkish divans, narghilehs, brass coffee-trays, and other Oriental properties, is no longer considered a necessity in the modern house; and the room which would formerly have been used for this special purpose now comes rather under the head of the master's lounging-room or 'den'..."

The two self-appointed purveyors of style preached the wisdom of practicality in furnishing such a room:

"Fragile chairs, lace-petticoat lamp-shades and irrelevant bric-a-brac are consequently excluded....Thus freed from the superfluous, the den is likely to be the most comfortable room in the house; and the natural inference is that a room, in order to be comfortable, must be ugly. One can picture the derision of the man who is told that he might, without the smallest sacrifice of comfort or convenience, transact his business at a Louis XVI writing-table, seated in a Louis XVI chair!"

Naturally, Wharton and Codman go on to argue that such a marriage of form and function is quite possible. This seems to have been the concept that informed such rooms as the neo-Byzantine billiards parlor at The Breakers, which was built in 1895 in the style of a sixteenth-century Italian palace, from a Hunt design. The room was decorated by Tiffany and Baumgarten, with portraits, a formidable desk and a billiards table, and it had a high ceiling and lofty windows, by which ventilation could easily be achieved.

Miller points out that ventilation, ease of traffic circulation and lighting (achieved by high windows and bright exposures) were a preoccupation of the design of the period. Since price was no object, heating these cavernous areas was not an overriding concern.

It is probable that in some of the other great mansions that survive--like Oelrichs' Rosecliff (1902), designed by White; Berwind's The Elms (1901), designed by Horace Trumbauer; and William K. Vanderbilt's Marble House (1892), designed by Hunt--the library may have been used for the purpose of cigar smoking. At The Elms, an alabaster humidor remains as part of the furniture collection.

Year-round residences built closer to New York City along the Hudson River and on Long Island also employed the library or an office/den for cigar smoking. Lyndhurst, a Gothic Revival mansion in Tarrytown, New York, built in 1838 on the Hudson, is an example. The home was acquired in 1864 by George Merritt, a holder of a patent for railroad car springs. He would enlarge the building, using designs by the original architect, Alexander Jackson Davis.

The library, which had originally been a dining room, was enlarged, creating an inner sanctum out of the serving bay. Called the cabinet room, it is where Merritt most likely enjoyed his cigars, as well as his books. Furnishings included a large pierced-oak Gothic Revival armchair and a marble mantelpiece. Davis designed furniture that echoed the Gothic appoint-ments of the building's exterior. Furniture from the Herter Brothers can also be found there. The original library, on the second story, became an art gallery.

When railroad tycoon Jay Gould bought the property in 1880, he added a dock suitable for his 250-foot steamer yacht to avoid using the train service of the rival Vanderbilts. He did not use the cabinet room for smoking, as he was consumptive. Lyndhurst is now part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Farther up the Hudson, in Hyde Park, is Frederick Vanderbilt's mansion, built in 1898. A magnificent example of the Beaux Arts style, it also overlooks the river, but the owner didn't require floating transportation to his home, as his family connection to the New York Central Railroad made it possible to have a station stop located directly behind his home. Inside the enormous building, Vanderbilt took his cigars either in the den just off the main hall or in the room where he kept his guns and hunting trophies. The motif was manly, with heavy wooden ornamentation. Among the celebrated guests to the mansion were his neighbor Franklin Roosevelt, various royalty, and Winston Churchill, who no doubt enjoyed a cigar or two in the den. For his own part, Vanderbilt left two humidors to the collection that has been run by the National Park Service since 1940. The service keeps a cigar in the den (not a Vanderbilt original) by way of indicating that it is probable that he always had smokes at hand.

The numerous Vanderbilt progeny put their architectural stamp on other regions of the country. Most remarkable is Biltmore, George Washington Vanderbilt's ambitious estate near Asheville, North Carolina. With 250 rooms it is believed to be the largest privately owned home in the United States. Everything from fruits, vegetables, wine, dairy products and grains to lumber, honey from beehives and wild game were among the bounty of Biltmore's 125,000 acres, which included Pisgah Forest when it opened in 1895. Once again, Hunt was engaged as the architect and Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park in New York and the Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C., did the landscaping.

Unlike in Newport, the North Carolina retreat was informed by a male sensibility. An area called the Bachelor's Wing was set off from the first floor through a doorway from the banquet hall with a separate entrance through a porte cochere from the stable courtyard. The wing comprised a smoking room, with library, and a gun room and was adjacent to a billiards room, where ladies were welcome. Above the wing were rooms for unattached male guests.

Harry Keiner, the estate's archivist/historian, draws a picture of life at Biltmore as something like being, a grand hotel. The banquet hall sat 64, and the house could receive at least 30 overnight visitors. This meant employing a staff of 50 people. Vanderbilt, who had ties to the Teddy Roosevelt White House, hosted many politicians, so it is conceivable that high-level decisions were made over cigars.

Keiner believes that the usual routine was for gentlemen to retire to the smoking room until quite late at night, after the ladies had retired. He adds, however, that the Victorian boundaries between ladies and smoking had broken down somewhat by the end of the century and that upperclass women were known to smoke, although it's not clear if they smoked cigars or the new-fangled cigarettes that had recently begun to be produced in the area.

Keiner feels "a lot of bad information" is assumed about the social strictures of the day. But through examination of old photos historians are able to determine, for instance, that women came to the billiards room or fished in the estate's prodigious streams. "Times change," he notes.

Another misconception he points out about Gilded Age customs is the image of men dressed in elaborate smoking jackets and fezzes to take their cigars. "There is no evidence of the whole idea of smoking wardrobes," he says. The concept, he thinks, is one that lingers from British society. "Englishmen could affect some of the craziest notions, but they didn't translate well across the Atlantic." Those articles of clothing may have been used in the United States around the 1850s, as ways to protect clothes and hair from smoke.

Like Ruggles Morse, Henry Flagler went from building hotels to outfitting his own house in grand style, except in his case it was done with much more wherewithal. Flagler made his original fortune as a partner of John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil and later almost single-handedly opened up Florida as a tourist mecca. Along the way he built railroads to carry travelers all the way to Key West and erected the hotels in which they would sleep. In 1902, he finished his own accommodations, Whitehall, in Palm Beach, giving the house as a wedding present to his wife, Mary Lily Kenan. Designed by Carrère and Hastings, architect of the New York Public Library it is a Beaux Arts masterpiece and undoubtedly the state's grandest residence. It would turn Palm Beach into the society enclave that it is today.

It is evident from the decor of most of the building, with its French salon and Louis XVI stylings, that Mrs. Flagler's feminine touch held great sway, but once again the billiard room became a place for men to be men. There Flagler had installed not one, but three tables: one for three-cushion billiards, one for pocket pool and one for skittles. There is a large Caen stone fireplace, paintings applied directly to the walls, and a much darker sense overall than the rest of the house. He also had an Italian Renaissance library that was apparently his domain as well.

The tycoon may have had to stand his ground to retain those two enclaves. In a letter to one of his designers, he wrote:

"It has just occurred to me that I haven't a cuspadore [sic] for Whitehall. I wish you would order for me one for each of the offices, two for the billiard room and one for the library. Mrs. Flagler says she doesn't want one any where else in the house.'

Jessica Johnston, public affairs director of the Flagler Museum, which incorporates the house, explains that cuspidors were probably used to dispose of cigar ends as well as for chewing tobacco. She also relates that Flagler, a great aficionado himself, kept records of cigar transactions with Braguglia & Carreño, a New York tobacconist from whom he ordered perfectos at several hundred a clip.

Flagler's cigar retreat would be passed on to a niece, who sold it, and then a group of investors turned the estate into a hotel that ran until 1959, when the building was recovered as a museum. As the Gilded Age ran its course, most of the grander homes would, alas, suffer similar fates as income and inheritance taxes and the cost of maintaining servant staffs had their considerable impact. Henry James coined the term "white elephant" to describe just such unmaintainable jewels. Newport, which once had 50 comparable mansions, now has just a half dozen that are kept as residences. We can only take solace that some remain as museums where one can gaze upon the rooms where men once went to smoke fine cigars in a style that will probably never be enjoyed again.