What Would Mrs. Astor Do?

Elizabeth Book Reviews, Historical Nonfiction, The Nineteenth Century Leave a Comment

Title: What Would Mrs. Astor Do?: The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age

Author: Cecelia Tichi

Publisher: NYU Press

Copyright: November 27, 2018

ISBN: 978-1479826858


Format: E-Book, 352 Pages

Genres: Historical Nonfiction, Gilded Age History Book, Biographies of the Rich and Famous, Biographies and Memoirs of Women


A richly illustrated romp with America’s Gilded Age leisure class—and those angling to join it

Mark Twain called it the Gilded Age. Between 1870 and 1900, the United States’ population doubled, accompanied by an unparalleled industrial expansion, and an explosion of wealth unlike any the world had ever seen. America was the foremost nation of the world, and New York City was its beating heart. There, the richest and most influential—Thomas Edison, J. P. Morgan, Edith Wharton, the Vanderbilts, Andrew Carnegie, and more—became icons, whose comings and goings were breathlessly reported in the papers of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. It was a time of abundance, but also bitter rivalries, in work and play. The Old Money titans found themselves besieged by a vanguard of New Money interlopers eager to gain entrée into their world of formal balls, debutante parties, opera boxes, sailing regattas, and summer gatherings at Newport. Into this morass of money and desire stepped Caroline Astor.

Mrs. Astor, an Old Money heiress of the first order, became convinced that she was uniquely qualified to uphold the manners and mores of Gilded Age America. Wherever she went, Mrs. Astor made her judgments, dictating proper behavior and demeanor, men’s and women’s codes of dress, acceptable patterns of speech and movements of the body, and what and when to eat and drink. The ladies and gentlemen of high society took note. “What would Mrs. Astor do?” became the question every social climber sought to answer. And an invitation to her annual ball was a golden ticket into the ranks of New York’s upper crust. This work serves as a guide to manners as well as an insight to Mrs. Astor’s personal diary and address book, showing everything from the perfect table setting to the array of outfits the elite wore at the time. Channeling the queen of the Gilded Age herself, Cecelia Tichi paints a portrait of New York’s social elite, from the schools to which they sent their children, to their lavish mansions and even their reactions to the political and personal scandals of the day.

Ceceilia Tichi invites us on a beautifully illustrated tour of the Gilded Age, transporting readers to New York at its most fashionable. A colorful tapestry of fun facts and true tales, What Would Mrs. Astor Do? presents a vivid portrait of this remarkable time of social metamorphosis, starring Caroline Astor, the ultimate gatekeeper.


To say that I love Cecelia Tichi’s “What Would Mrs. Astor Do?” is simply an understatement! What first drew me to this book was its design which is ornate and splendid, something reminiscent of a bygone era like the Gilded Age. The book jacket, represented in the image above, is faded crimson with golden swirls and designs. If one is to peel away the jacket, one is met with a regal cover design with a miniature portrait of the Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, the Gilded Age queen regnant of New York society. The design is something that must be acknowledged because it sets the tone for the rest of the book.

Before sharing my thoughts about the book, I will talk briefly about the author. Cecelia Tichi, PhD, is an English professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. She obtained her MA from Johns Hopkins University and her PhD from the University of California, Davis. At Vanderbilt University, she teaches courses that focus on American literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She has published nine scholarly books that cover an array of different topics but has written extensively on the Gilded Age.

When I first picked up “What Would Mrs. Astor Do?”, I thought it was going to be a book on Gilded Age etiquette. Little did I realize that this book is so much more than that. In a light and humorous way, she recounts the lifestyles and social mores of Mrs. Caroline Astor’s exclusive milieu, “the Four Hundred.” Dr. Tichi covers everything from etiquette to fashion to social events to scandals that threatened the very bedrock of New York society. Alongside the many anecdotes and stories are gorgeous illustrations from that time period. Additionally, the author included a complete list of Mrs. Astor’s “Four Hundred” at the back of the book which is a nice touch.

For a researcher like myself, this book is a treasure trove of information. Dr. Tichi writes in a delightful and engaging way, bringing the stories of these long-dead figures to life. This is bewitching and a must-have for anyone who is doing research on Mrs. Astor, her “Four Hundred,” and the Gilded Age.


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