HBO’s popular historical series, Gilded Age, recently came to a buoyant conclusion. Fans are still atwitter over the grand finale, which was served with a side of ballroom frivolity.
In the bodice-bursting final episode of HBO’s Gilded Age, our favorite social climber, Bertha Russell, exacted her revenge on New York City society circa 1883 with the precision of a guillotine. It was delicious to watch. From our vantage point in the ringside seats, HBO viewers finally got to see dancers in Bertha’s ballroom. And we learned there’s nothing as Versailles-esque as a ball thrown with pre-income-tax money.
Was Bertha’s grand-finale ball in the Gilded Age as ridiculously opulent as the ball on which it was based, produced by Alva Vanderbilt in New York City in 1883? Why yes, yes it was. At one point, men danced the quadrille in horse costumes (to give an indication). Alva’s extravagance in producing her 1,200-guest ball was well-documented: Contemporary sources estimated its cost at $250,000, nearly $6 million in today’s money, including $65,000 for champagne and $11,000 for flowers.
Alva’s ball inspired Gilded Age creator and co-showrunner Julian Fellowes, who also created the series’ across-the-pond cousin Downton Abbey, to closely recreate the details for Bertha’s party with one exception. Alva’s was a costume ball, whereas Bertha’s featured a handful of costumed dancers, while guests wore gowns and tuxedos. Fellowes said he felt costumes would distract viewers from the finale’s dramatic conclusion. (So, thankfully, no one nicknamed “Puss” wore a costume made of taxidermized cats, as happened at Alva’s fancy dress fête*.)
In the Gilded Age finale, the décor ran to excess, as it did in every other well-appointed episode of this critically acclaimed series. Now, let’s chit-chat about who’s who in the 1880s and find some GasLamp antiques like those used in the velvet-roped microculture of Industrial Revolution wealth.
SILVER TEA SERVICE
The characters of the Gilded Age often sit on the edge of their seats, figuratively and literally. Either way, there’s a tea tray in sight, whether the room is a parlor, kitchen, or bedroom. A blueblood’s snub so enrages Bertha Russell that she flings a silver tea service across her bedroom in one scene. (True story. Bertha did not come to Fifth Avenue to play.)
Being a beacon of self-invention, Bertha would have had a silver tea service rather than a silverplate set. But there’s a more economical find at GasLamp in this three-piece silverplate tea service from the Sheffield Silver Co. of England ($87.50; Booth B-109). The delicate engravings include floral wreaths tied with ribbons and bows.
Bertha’s favored habitat is perfumed drawing rooms, but she’s not yet in the “right” perfumed drawing rooms. She sips from a staggering array of crystal glasses during her hero’s journey to social acceptance. Our gal even brings her best cut-crystal flutes to the seventh episode, entitled “Irresistible Change.”
The episode’s plot marries Thomas Edison’s newfound electricity use with Bertha’s social climb. In her highly polished carriage, she takes a party of four to a public social occasion – Edison’s historic electric illumination of The New York Times building. Her footmen pour bubbly for social arbiter Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane), whom Bertha is in the process of bewitching.
Bertha’s flutes are like a set of six Waterford flutes available at GasLamp ($249.95; Booth B-210). These vintage flutes are in mint condition and were handmade in Waterford, Ireland, where lead glass has been manufactured since 1783. (Fun fact: Bertha’s ancestors emigrated to America from Ireland, a tidbit her son referenced during a dinner party.)
LOUIS XV CHAIR
Bertha Russell isn’t the only grand dame populating Gilded Age. Rivaling her taste level is Sylvia Chamberlain (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a fine art collector whose salon is filled with works by French Impressionists Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne and Claude Monet. Naturally, Louis XV-style gilt furniture also populates Sylvia’s salon, and it is from this glamorous perch that fledgling journalist Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) divulges a secret.
Adding one elegant chair to a room can infuse it with grace, especially a sinuous Louis XV bergère with trademark cabriole legs. This chair at GasLamp features cushioned armrests and curvaceous backrests ($120; Booth B-206). Its cream-colored finish gives the chair a French country look that is more rustic than the gilt finish seen in Sylvia’s Gilded Age salon, where kisses are stolen and secrets shared.
JAPANESE IMARI PORCELAIN
Bertha Russell’s freshly minted money fuels her appetite for exotic European and Asian home goods. Her style extends to her mansion’s elaborately appointed kitchen, where her staff sips from Japanese Imari teacups. (As with Julian Fellowes’ other popular series Downton Abbey, the Gilded Age includes the upstairs-downstairs dynamic between wealthy homeowners and the servant class.)
Imari porcelain can be Chinese or European in origin but was first created in Japan’s Hizen area and then shipped to the West from the port of Imari, hence the name. As with later porcelain production in France and England, Japan’s Imari emerged due to a region rich in kaolin clay. This gorgeous charger at GasLamp is an excellent example of Imari porcelain ($87.50; Booth B-109).
Upon close inspection, one sees that the kitchen of the subdued van Rhijn brownstone reflects the genteel 19th-century style of the family. This staff doesn’t sip its collective tea from exotic, hand-painted Japanese porcelain. Rather, servants can be seen eating from English brown transferware made for everyday use.
Invented by Miles Mason in the 1780s and patented by his son in 1813, transferware is made with durable ironstone. The utilitarian dinnerware emerged in England during the Industrial Revolution and was an early example of a massed-produced product. To make transferware, English manufacturers engraved a pattern onto a copper plate, applied ink and a thin paper, and then pressed – or transferred – the design onto the earthenware. This practice eventually produced many different colors and patterns, including the famous cobalt blue of the Blue Willow pattern. Currently at GasLamp, this vintage ironstone soup tureen with a ladle is a great example of brown transferware ($85; Booth B-109; no lid).
By the conclusion of the Gilded Age series, Bertha’s ball served its dual purpose. It presented her daughter to society in a ballroom filled with New York City’s fanciest folk. And it officially opened the Russell family’s French-style mansion, that glorious spectacle of conspicuous consumption, to the public.
In real life, Alva Vanderbilt’s story continued at a dramatic clip after her 1883 ball. Her strikingly beautiful daughter, Consuelo Vanderbilt, became the queen of international high society (painter Giovanni Boldini called her “divine”). Regrettably, Consuelo initially experienced what was essentially an arranged first marriage to Charles Richard John Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough, considered the most eligible peer in Great Britain at the time. Then she did the unthinkable by taking her reported $4 billion fortune (in today’s money) and divorcing him. Alva and Consuelo Vanderbilt went on to happy second marriages and supported the women’s suffragette movement. All’s well that end’s well.
But was it worth the $6 million Ava spent on that ball? Fans of costumes, antiques and frothy interiors thought so while watching the lavish conclusion of the Gilded Age.
GILDED AGE TRIVIA
*In an extreme example of gilding the lily, Kate Fearing Strong wore a peculiar cat costume to Alva Vanderbilt’s 1883 ball. Described by novelist Henry James as “youthful and precocious,” Kate went as her nickname “Puss” by wearing a costume consisting of a taxidermied cat head, an overskirt made of seven white cats’ tails sewn onto a dark background, and a ribbon tied around her neck that read “Puss.” (Isn’t there a saying about having more money than sense?)