When I was doing research for my dissertation at the New-York Historical Society, a giant repository for every historical event to ever happen in New York, I realized that the 19th century was so freaking hot. Everything we know, everything we’re used to, emerges in some small way from something that happened in the 19th century.
There’s almost nothing more 19th century than the old Waldorf=Astoria hotel. It’s big, opulent, and if you were seen there, you were definitely somebody, or at least pretending to be somebody. I got interested in the Waldorf because I wanted to understand why humans build such outrageously expensive and visually sumptuous spaces. Isn’t less more? These are the palatial mansions you read all about when you studied Edith Wharton, Balzac, Theodore Dreiser, and Henry Hames as a Comparative Literature major at a liberal arts college.
When it opened, right in the spot where the Empire State Building stands, the Waldorf was so fabulous that it set the international stage for American luxury and hotel service. In a lot of ways, the whole point of the hotel was to steal the image of luxury away from France, which, as some historians have argued, had made the pursuit luxury a national issue since at least the 17th century. The original Waldorf was so fabulous that the hotel outgrew itself in no time and had to add an addition, the Astoria, and in 1897 the whole place was rechristened the Waldorf=Astoria. This time it was even more opulent.
By all accounts, there had never been a place so glamorous on American soil. Adding to the spectacle of it all was a nifty little hallway called Peacock Alley, named after the A-list, reservation-only restaurant inside the hotel. You know how people in “it” circles joke about being “on the list” at restaurants and clubs or whatever? Well, Peacock Alley was so chic that at 7 p.m. the host put down a velvet rope, and the only way to get in for dinner was if you were it. Even our everyday pretenses have a history.
Peacock Alley was mirrored, and it went the length of the building. Couches lined the walls on either side so that people could just sit there, with a bit of tea, and watch all the glamazons show up in the hottest horse drawn carriages and saunter down the alley in the latest fashions. It was one of the first places that was built specifically for people to go see-and-be-seen in.
This might not sound like a big deal today, what with the proliferation of bottle service clubs and rented limos and party busses and celebrity photography and the instantaneousness of spectacles upon spectacles. But imagine being a 19-year old in 1897, seeing this giant hotel go up, which for a while was the tallest thing on the block, and seeing first hand all of these new innovations, being able to experience certain spectacles in fundamentally new and exciting ways.
Pictures of Peacock Alley are few, but that’s part of the fun of being in the archive: you’re given all these facts and intricate details, but you have to kind of piece everything together and imagine what it must have been like at the time. I imagine being a sassy black gay standing at the top of the Alley with whoever Joan Rivers was at the time and asking people, “Who are you wearing??”
What made the 19th century so great — I mean, except for plagues, slavery, lynching, voting rights and all of that type of stuff — was that it was the beginning of modern life, something I think we take for granted now. We expect to get in cars and drive on highways and shop at department stores and use cameras without realizing that all of those things are relatively recent.
I’ve always loved the 19th century because it seems like everything happened then. Sure, now we have iPads and Grindr and the Internet and what not, but a glass building built by a renown starchitect today can’t hold a stick to the opulent precision of a Gilded Age building like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Some other things the 19th century invented that we probably couldn’t live without:
- Sewing Machines
- Haute Couture
- Morse Code
- Safety Pins
- Traffic Lights
- The Telephone
- Toilet Paper
- Metal Detectors
- Cash Register
- Contact Lenses
- Vacuum Cleaners
- Gas Lighting
- Light Bulbs
Can you imagine what was it like to see the first light bulb go off, to ride the first roller coaster, to ride the first bike?