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The Find

Glimpses into HBO’s Gilded Age

by Karen Parr-Moody 28 Feb 2022

It’s the 1880s, and the leading ladies of HBO’s new historical drama, Gilded Age, are poised for the socialite catfight of the Industrial Age. Meanwhile, I’m agog over those meticulously swagged drapes. Because that’s how antique lovers watch a period piece: We spy the swags while other viewers follow the plot.


HBO’s spectacularly costumed Gilded Age is cast with characters possessing pre-income-tax fortunes in New York City circa 1882. Gobs of gold fill the Upper East Side mansions – “old money” reaped by the Dutch in the 1600s fur trade and “new money” that resulted from the Industrial Revolution.

In the latter camp, social-climbing Bertha Russell, played by Carrie Coon, embodies the ridiculous wealth and opulence of the nouveau riche. Naturally, she’s the show’s most titillating character to watch as she swans about her splendid French mansion on Fifth Avenue. Here are some Gilded-esque finds from GasLamp.

Some scenes in which Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) plots her rise were shot at The Breakers, the Renaissance-style palace built by Cornelius Vanderbilt in Newport, Rhode Island. (Cornelius was the Vanderbilt for whom the term “robber baron” was first used in an 1859 New York Times article.)


The nouveau-richest couple on the block, George and Bertha Russell possess an uncanny resemblance to similar 1880s figures. One inspiration: The social-climbing Alva Vanderbilt and her husband, railroad magnate William. Under Alva’s overbearing influence, they wed their daughter Consuelo to the 9th Duke of Marlborough against her will. As Consuelo arrived at church on her wedding day, it was apparent she had been crying. The marriage ended in more tears after Consuelo gave birth to two sons (and reportedly coined the phrase “an heir and a spare”).  



French Rococo style infuses this gilt mirror.


This gilt mirror at GasLamp is a sumptuous evocation of the French Rococo style that Gilded Age character Bertha Russell adores ($175; Booth W-405; 30 inches high by 19 inches wide). Like Bertha, Alva Vanderbilt was a Francophile to the extreme. Her Fifth Avenue mansion, modeled after Louis XII’s Château de Blois, was considered garish in the 1880s. Similarly, Bertha’s furniture is an ostentatious reflection of her French taste. Note the serpentine shapes of the French Rococo furniture that fills her rooms and the gilt-bronze mounts that trim every desk, dresser and table.



Industrialist George Russell, played by Morgan Spector, lives in an elaborate Stanford White-designed mansion where he conducts ruthless business from an ornate desk. 

When examining Gilded Age scenes that include George Russell’s desk, my little eye spied a massive double inkwell.

Bertha Russell is the character most likely to own this pen holder on Gilded Age.


But during the 1880s, Bertha – who seems like a high-tech sort of gal – could have kept a newfangled pen holder for the era, like this one ($295; Booth B-234). Meticulously cast throughout, and likely French, this gilt-and-patina bronze pen holder is topped by a brilliantly feathered pheasant.



This carved French desk from the 1800s is similar to the oak desk George Russell, played by Morgan Spector, sits at in Gilded Age.


This writing table style was popular in fine 19th-century homes and was called a bureau plat desk or “dolphin” table (note the feet carved into mythical creatures with fish scales and dolphin heads). Carved lion masks, holding metal rings in their mouths, cover each corner, and French “gadrooning,” a type of carving, covers the frieze on all four sides ($1,795; Booth B-234; 40” by 30” by 30”).


Christine Baranski’s Agnes van Rhijn lives in genteel 19th-century style with her sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon). 

Let’s move on to old money, shall we? Christine Baranski’s Agnes van Rhijn is the Gilded Age character most likely to talk smack about her nouveau-riche neighbors while perched on one of her many heavily carved sofas. With the name van Rhijn, you know Agnes is as blue-blooded as any Schermerhorn or Astor. In one scene, she threatens her butler with the not-so-vague “heads have rolled for less” warning, then reminds those around her that consequences will come to those who defy society’s rules. How can we not love her?
 Unlike Bertha Russell, Agnes and her sister Ada live in a subdued style suited to Early America and England. The show’s set director, Regina Graves, said she designed the van Rhijn interiors with the Victorian style’s darker colors, heavy draperies and intricate woodwork.


An original Hepplewhite dresser, like this repro, could have easily been found in the van Rhijns’ brownstone.

While the van Rhijn family members sit on “new” Victorian sofas, they would have likely inherited some neoclassical-style furniture – perhaps items made by London cabinetmaker George Hepplewhite. His work dates from 1780 to 1810 and fits into the American Federal style of 1800s American décor, which developed from English decorative influences.
This mahogany Hepplewhite-style bow-front dresser would be at home in the van Rhijn brownstone – but the ladies would have clutched their pearls over its retrofitting! Now, it’s a bathroom vanity with a Kohler sink designed for an 8-inch widespread faucet ($1,975; Booth T-350; 46”x22”x36”). This heirloom piece is ready for any new construction, reno or restyled bathroom.


This reproduction of Major John Biddle’s portrait is so “old money.”


This print-on-board is a reproduction of painter Thomas Sully’s 1818 portrait of Major John Biddle ($450; Booth W-405). The original painting is in the Metropolitan Museum, and it is the type of portrait one would have seen in an “old money” brownstone on Central Park, just like the van Rhijns’, during the 1880s. An early Princeton grad, state representative and Detroit mayor, John Biddle belonged to the first generation of the blue-blooded Philadelphia Biddle family. (Fun fact: John Biddle’s family was friendly with Elizabeth Denison Forth, Michigan’s first female African-American landowner, who donated funds to build St. James Episcopal Church in Grosse Ile, Michigan.) 


This silverplate tankard fits into the 1800s style of Gilded Age.

Of all the van Rhijn family members, Oscar van Rhijn – Agnes’ only son and heir to the Van Rhijn fortune – would be the most likely to sip beer from a vessel like this double-walled silverplate tankard ($97.50; Booth B-109). Such silver tankards, featuring domed lids, originated during the 1800s. This one features a finial, hinged lid and S-scroll handle.
Gilded Age airs on the HBO network Monday nights at 9 p.m. Eastern Time and streams simultaneously on HBO Max. The season one finale is scheduled to premiere on March 21. As you watch the bodice-bursting ladies exchange socially nuanced insults, take a sip of champagne every time you spy a Sèvres vase in Bertha’s mansion. (You’ll be tipsy in 10 minutes.)
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