The Doll House: Wealth and Women in the Gilded Age

By Kevin O’Hara

The Duchess of Marlborough, circa 1903.

“It is an anxious, sometimes a dangerous thing to be a doll. Dolls cannot choose; they can only be chosen; [dolls] cannot ‘do’; they can only be done by.”[1] In the Gilded Age, a woman of high-society was much like a doll. Dressed in her finest gown, a woman would take the arm of her husband and display her family’s wealth for all the world to see. If a woman desired respect, she did not take issue with society’s requirements of her, whether those requirements included the way she should dress or the way she should speak. The use of imagery and detailed accounts in Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan’s The Glitter and the Gold emphasizes the Gilded Age’s fixation on appearing wealthy and demonstrates how women were used to affirm a family’s affluence.

The memoir’s title symbolizes how the flashy characteristics of the Gilded Age did not always indicate true prosperity. Prior to the foreword, Balsan includes the famous quote, “All that glisters is not gold.”[2] In quoting Shakespeare, Balsan connects the phrase to her book’s title, indicating that not everything is as it appears to be. During the Gilded Age, people of every class distinction worked to imitate higher powers. For example, the poor worked to live like the rich, while the rich worked to match aristocratic elites. This way of life, known as “pecuniary emulation,” indicates “those who purchased goods in order to mimic the habits of wealthier people.”[3] Living this way not only showed the greediness of people, but it also caused many to waste time and money on unneeded trinkets. Instead of educating themselves, focusing on the morals of faith and spirituality, or spending quality time with friends and family, individuals led their lives as if putting on a show was the answer to living a happy, healthy life. Hence, not all of idealized aspects of the Gilded Age were as exceptional as they appear to be, especially when the owners of such riches felt they had something to prove. Yet, while many of these people bought clothes, carriages and jewels to portray their so-called-capital, many families went beyond such means, even changing the architecture of their homes to simulate an air of majesty.

In the descriptions of her various homes, Balsan states that her mother would go about “ransacking the antique shops of Europe, [returning] with pictures and furniture to adorn the mansions it became her passion to build.”[4] It seem excessive for Balsan’s family to own multiple homes, but her use of the word ransacking also indicates a violent desire to seize the furniture, as if Balsan’s mother is conquering something by doing so. This desire for rich looking furniture demonstrates the Gilded Age’s unhealthy obsession with possessing and emulating wealth. Additionally, Balsan and her mother had an obvious interest in the eighteenth-century court of King Louis XVI, going so far as acquiring “the beautiful… commode… made for [the king’s wife,] Marie Antoinette.”[5] To copy the lifestyle of a king and queen who were accused of living a lavish, greedy lifestyle while their subjects went hungry shows that there is a lack of understanding for the important things in life. Rather than using the money to help charity, or spending time in orphanages or hospitals, families like the Vanderbilts worried more about what people thought of their homes and lifestyles. The classical poet Du Fu realized this problem best when he wrote, “Crimson mansions reek of wine and meat, while on the road lie frozen bones. Rich and poor but a foot apart…”[6] Unfortunately, these ideals did not disappear as the Gilded Age went on, but instead flourished as elite families found new ways to display their wealth.

The control that Balsan’s mother had over Balsan’s early life illuminates how women were used to further their family’s place in society during the Gilded Age. At one point, Balsan says, “it was [my mother’s] wish to produce me as a finished specimen framed in a perfect setting, and that my person was dedicated to whatever final disposal she had in mind.”[7] The wording of this example is shocking, Balsan making it sound as if she was a doll to be dressed and manipulated in whatever way her mother saw fit. Even more, the idea that Balsan would use the word dispose to explain what her mother would do with her once she was older is disheartening. Balsan is treated like an object, practically a canvas to be painted by her mother; A mother who had been given the role of an insensitive artist, presenting her own daughter to be sold off instead of thrown away. Much like the poor overemphasized the need for baubles to look wealthy, Balsan’s mother placed Balsan’s societal worth over her feelings as an individual. This twisted idea of worth resulted in Balsan being adorned in “pearls [that had] nineteen rows,”[8] as well as wearing dresses that she referred to as costumes throughout the book, each element more excessive than the last. Interestingly enough, the ways in which families showed their lavish lifestyles was seen as normal enough to be given a name during the Gilded Age.

Thorstein Veblen, the same sociologist who coined the term “pecuniary emulation,” later created the notion of conspicuous consumption. Veblen stated that conspicuous consumption was when “particular types of carriages, clothing, or even diseases (such as gout from rich eating) served to demonstrate social position.”[9] By riding in specific coaches, wearing certain clothes and eating excessive amounts of foods, families established their rank above one another. Not only would this incite jealousy from less fortunate people, but it would also allow families to show off their fashion-forwardness. Balsan verifies this when she says that she and her husband, “elaborately bedecked in ruffles and lace, drove back and forth in stately barouches”[10] along paths in Hyde Park, London. When people saw how fashionable Balsan and her husband were, they would attempt to dress and act like them, regardless of how living that way might have affected their wallets or well-beings. Although fashion was an important component to the institution of a family’s honor, it was not the only thing a woman had to master in order for she and her family to climb the ranks of society.

Balsan’s marriage to the Duke of Marlborough displays the ways in which women were expected to act in order to assure their family’s prominence in society. After Balsan gave money to workers without jobs, Balsan says that the Duke “resented such independent action and that had [she] committed lèse majesté [treason] it could not have been more serious.”[11] The fact that Balsan’s husband disliked her charitable deed so much as to compare it to treason speaks volumes of the Gilded Age’s views on women stepping out of their so-called-places in society. Nowadays, doing service is something that is looked at positively, regardless of gender. Back then, the idea of a woman distributing finances and conducting operations outside of the home not only seemed ludicrous to men, but it also embarrassed them. This truth is plainly evident in the Duke’s response to his wife’s generous donation. However, the Duke putting Balsan in her place comes as no surprise considering the fact that both his family and her own made it clear that her only duty was to fill and ensure a prosperous household. For example, right after the Duke and Balsan were married, “both sides of the family were evidently equally concerned with the immediate necessity of an heir to the dukedom, and were infecting [Balsan] with their anxiety.”[12] As if having gotten married at the age of eighteen and moving across the Atlantic wasn’t stressful enough, Balsan was immediately pressured into consummating her marriage and giving the Duke an heir. Especially during a time in which sex and the human body was not readily discussed, it is not shocking that Balsan was uncomfortable. Furthermore, it is ironic that once Balsan finally gave birth to two sons, she was given no “more than the accredited hours an English nurse allows a mother the privilege of her children’s company.”[13] So, not only were women like Balsan kept from doing male-oriented work, but they were also reserved from taking care of the very jobs they brought into the world. Thus, elite women went through life not only looking like dolls, but they also played the parts of a doll. Much like their porcelain counterparts, women could not move unless instructed, nor speak unless given voice. Such truths make it understandable as to why Balsan separated from the Duke of Marlborough as soon as she could.

The productive life that Balsan lead after her divorce from the Duke of Marlborough proves that the Gilded Age’s emphasis on achieving wealth, as well as the pressure women faced in attaining such riches, was trivialized by what women accomplished once they were able to act independently. After realizing “how precariously [women’s] lives depended on their husbands,”[14] Balsan went to work and was said to have “done more to advance the cause of female suffrage in Britain than the violent combined efforts of the militant suffragettes.”[15] Balsan’s work with suffragettes reveals how a woman could be amicable, well-respected and dignified while going out and making changes in the world. Once Balsan was freed of her husband’s oppression, she was able to use her sociability in a productive and progressive way. Instead of organizing a dinner party, picking out the finest dress, or worrying over what her husband would think of what she had done, Balsan kicked down the walls of society’s metaphorical dollhouse and lived a true, full life. Moreover, Balsan proved the capabilities of well-educated, enlightened women when she prepared a lecture “based on medical facts and public health statistics which took [her] three weeks to write and an hour to read.”[16] Women like Balsan who made successful advancements in society during the Gilded Age are few and far between, but there is something to be said for the fact that Balsan was able to make an impact upon a world that was otherwise very afraid of feminine power. By working hard, having courage and being kind, Balsan proved that women are not just dolls to be dressed up and put on display. Women were never meant to be manipulated and put on the symbolic shelf once men were done playing with them. Women were, and still are, an intelligent and powerful group that should have never been placed beneath men’s wealth and society’s expectations.

In conclusion, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan’s illustrious descriptions and perspectives in her memoir The Glitter and the Gold verifies how people of the Gilded Age were absorbed in appearing wealthy. Furthermore, her discussions expand upon how women were unfairly objectified in exhibiting their family’s fortunes. It is important to recognize how wrong people were to place quantity before quality, often treating their families as dolls to be ogled at. No human should ever be treated in such a manner, nor be forced to do anything they don’t want to do. Those kinds of games should remain a part of childhood, locked away within the gilded rooms of elaborate dollhouses, while real life should be celebrated and the mistakes of the past should be taught as lessons to be learned from.

 

[1] Rumer Godden, “Quotes About Dolls,” Goodreads Inc., 2016, 6 December, 2016. http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/doll

[2] William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (Act II, Scene 7), quoted in Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, The Glitter and the Gold (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1953).

[3] Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age” 1865-1905 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 111.

[4] Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, The Glitter and the Gold (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1953), 6.

[5] Balsan, The Glitter and the Gold, 9.

[6] Du Fu, quoted in Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age” 1865-1905 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 113.

[7] Balsan, The Glitter and the Gold, 21.

[8] Balsan, The Glitter and the Gold, 57.

[9] Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age” 1865-1905, 111.

[10] Balsan, The Glitter and the Gold, 79.

[11] Balsan, The Glitter and the Gold, 107.

[12] Balsan, The Glitter and the Gold, 61.

[13] Balsan, The Glitter and the Gold, 107.

[14] Balsan, The Glitter and the Gold, 150.

[15] Balsan, The Glitter and the Gold, 180.

[16] Balsan, The Glitter and the Gold, 189.

About Stephen Norris