The years between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century were a time of rapid industrialization and technological advancement, fueled, in large part, to the overworked and underpaid Americans and newly arrived immigrants who filled the country’s factories and growing cities. Most of the working class lived below the poverty level, while a handful of industrialists reaped the financial benefits, becoming unimaginably wealthy.

During this era of opulence in America, known as the Gilded Age, the “new money” families who recently came into their riches, and the “old money” establishment constantly found new ways to flaunt their wealth, often in attempts to climb the social ladder, or retain their position at the top of high society.

While the Gilded Age upper crust largely consisted of white families of western European descent, like the Astors, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, there were also small-but-thriving communities of Black elite families like the Guignons and Whites in New York City, and the Eastons in Cincinnati, as well as wealthy Chinese Americans, like the Hing family in California.

But regardless of where these well-to-do families lived, when it comes to Gilded Age homes and the objects that filled them, it was a case of “more is more,” says Gary Lawrance, an architect and historian specializing in the Gilded Age, and co-author of Houses of the Hamptons, 1880-1930. “People could never have enough.” Here are 11 objects that shed light on what life was like for the Gilded Age elite.

1. Opera Glasses

During the Gilded Age, the opera was the place to see and be seen, with patrons often more concerned about social climbing than the music. To complement their formal attire, attendees completed their outfit with a pair of opera glasses. “The wealthier a person was, the more diamond-encrusted [their opera glasses] were,” Lawrance explains. “They were made with gold and other rare materials, just like any other piece of jewelry.”

2. Walk-In Silver Safe

Any Gilded Age family of means had silverware on their table, Lawrance says, with the wealthiest households opting for sterling silver from Tiffany & Co., Black, Starr & Frost, or similar manufacturers. Given the high cost of sterling silver, it was common for mansions of the era to contain walk-in safes to house silverware and other valuables. “The safes were mostly used to house the family silver used for entertaining, as well as papers that needed to be protected from fire or other damage,” says Linda Rocke, a spokesperson for the Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum in Lenox, Mass.

But having a substantial silver collection was about more than impressing guests with needlessly large place settings. “Many of these objects weren’t just symbols of wealth themselves,” says Lawrance, who regularly shares images of the era on Instagram. “They were also about having the money and the servants necessary to maintain them.” In this case, it meant having the staff required to keep the silver polished and tarnish-free.

3. Parlor Palms

A drawing room with parlor palms, circa 1894.
The Print Collector/Getty Images
A drawing room with parlor palms, circa 1894.

With botany all the rage among American and British upper classes, estates on both sides of the Atlantic often featured lavish gardens, as well as greenhouses and conservatories designed to showcase the family’s collection of exotic plants. But that wasn’t enough: the Gilded Age elite also wanted to incorporate greenery into their interior decor. 

This was easier said than done, though, as the heavy drapery fashionable at the time made these homes quite dark on the inside. Ultimately, this led to the popularity of one houseplant in particular: the parlor palm. “Parlor palms can survive without much light or much care,” Lawrance explains. “You’d see them all over the house: on plant stands with marble tops, on the mantle, on landings.”

4. Light Bulbs

Filament light bulbs, dating to around 1900.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Filament light bulbs, dating to around 1900.

Though we take it for granted today, during the Gilded Age, electricity was a source of both excitement and fear. While some people, including financier J.P. Morgan, saw limitless potential in the emerging energy source, other well-to-do New Yorkers were skeptical about whether it could be safely tamed. 

Beginning in 1881, early adopters like Morgan wasted no time electrifying their residences and offices using private steam-powered generators, and according to Lawrance, those who had electricity wanted to flaunt it. “Sometimes in pictures [of Gilded Age home interiors] it looks like they haven’t yet put lampshades on light fixtures, but that was intentional,” he says. “Light bulbs were expensive objects, and if you had them, you wanted to show them off to impress people.” 

5. Châtelaine

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum Collection
A châtelaine dating to 1891 from the collections of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Often described as the “Swiss army knife” for women of the Victorian era, châtelaines were popular accessories for women across different socioeconomic classes. “Châtelaines were decorative belts with hooks or clasps worn at the waist, with a series of chains suspended from it,” says Locke. “Each chain holds a useful household item, such as keys and scissors.” While maids and seamstresses wore châtelaines that were strictly utilitarian, the ladies of the house who employed them wore ones made of silver and gold that they purchased from a jeweler as a fashion accessory. 

6. Servant Call System

Whether they were residing in their spacious city mansions, or their sprawling summer homes,  upper-class Gilded Age families relied on their household staff for everything from getting dressed, to getting a refreshing drink in the conservatory. To ensure these needs were met immediately, many homes had a call system for their staff. 

“There were typically tapestry pulls next to fireplaces,” Lawrance explains. “They were attached to a string at the top, so when you pulled it, it pulled a wire that would set off a button in a call box in the basement. This let the servants know that the lady of the house wanted tea in the drawing room, or in the yellow drawing room versus the blue drawing room.” 

7. Carriages

Carriages on New York City's 5th Avenue, north from 66th Street, circa 1900.

The unprecedented technological advancement of this period was perhaps most visible in the field of transportation. “In the beginning of the Gilded Age, [horse-drawn] carriages were the main mode of transportation,” Lawrance explains. “The carriage of a millionaire would certainly have been gleaming and highly polished, and would have probably had a family crest on it.”

Many families also owned private, ornately decorated rail cars for train travel; most notably, those with ties to the railroad industry, like the Vanderbilts and Goulds, he notes. The end of the Gilded Age saw the introduction of the first horseless carriages, with the first gas-powered automobile patented in 1886, and Henry Ford unveiling his first motor vehicle, the Quadricycle, in 1896. With or without a motor, carriages of this era were another way for families to showcase their wealth and status.

8. Family Portraits

Although professional photography had been around for decades, and the Kodak handheld camera was patented in 1888, sitting for painted portraits remained popular among the Gilded Age elite. “There were family portraits, portraits of the lady or man of the house—sometimes numerous portraits done of them for different rooms, different houses, at different times of their life, painted by different artists,” Lawrance explains. “Having portraits painted was a sign of wealth: especially those done by famous artists, like John Singer Sargent and Philip de László.”   

9. Ribcage Shower

A needle shower, as seen in an Ahrens & Ott Manufacturing Co. catalog in 1896.
A ribcage shower, as seen in an Ahrens & Ott Manufacturing Co. catalog in 1896.

By the end of the 19th century, there were 136 public water supplies in the United States, along with an expanding network of sewer systems in various cities, but at first, only the rich could afford to take advantage of these developments in sanitation. “In the Gilded Age, having indoor plumbing and a bathroom inside your home would have been very expensive,” Lawrance notes. 

Those who opted to convert a room into a bathroom, or add one onto their home, installed, at minimum, a sink, toilet, and bathtub (unless it was a ground-floor powder room, in which case, there wouldn’t have been a tub). Others took it a step further, adding fixtures like a bidet, sitz bath, foot bath, or dental sink. 

But those who wanted to create their own personal health resort at home invested in a standalone ribcage shower. Also known as a “needle bath,” medical experts of the time touted the many supposed health benefits of these showers, claiming that the multiple streams of water sprayed on the body could treat liver complaints, insomnia, constipation, poor circulation, fatigue, and “the enervating effects of city life.” People in good health stood to gain from ribcage showers, too, as this type of hydropathy was said to be both energizing and relaxing.

10. Pianos and Organs

At a time before television and radio, the evening entertainment in a household typically involved someone playing a musical instrument. “Pretty much every family with a daughter had a piano,” Lawrance said. “At the time, it was the job of young girls to learn how to be a good mother and housewife, and how to entertain, so many played the piano.”

Never ones to miss an opportunity to flash their cash, the Gilded Age elite owned top-of-the-line grand pianos from manufacturers like Steinway & Sons, Mason & Hamlin, and Baldwin, some of which were gilded, or had some other ostentatious adornment. “A lot of the pianos from that time had paintings of French scenes, like cherubs, or aristocrats in gardens,” he says.  

As impressive as those pianos were, the ultimate musical instrument status symbol was the pipe organ. “They were very large, and very expensive,” Lawrance explains. “These organs often had to be designed when a house was being built.” Even if a member of the family knew how to play the organ, professional organists were typically hired to play for the household, he notes, while player organs grew in popularity after the turn of the century.

11. Telephone

A young woman holds onto a telephone receiver, circa 1907.

Telephones, which were patented in the U.S. in 1876, quickly became a mainstay in the homes of the Gilded Age elite. “Most houses had a small telephone room,” Lawrance explains. “But those who were even wealthier had telephones in more rooms—mostly bedroom suites. To have a phone in the bathroom would have been very upscale.”