Even though America has long been a republic, without a ruling monarch, royal family or official system of nobility, there is no doubt that this eminent country has cultivated its own version of a social hierarchy.
As the United States evolved over the centuries since the Civil War and the Declaration of Independence from foreign rule, the people and social groups cultivated or gravitated toward a number of elite orders and communities.
As with many systems of aristocracy, these social groups were often an unofficial collection of those who were deemed acceptable, with everyone else either being refused entry or doing all they could to join the invisible ranks of the favoured few.
There was one notable period during the history of American high society, however, when the social system was formalised with the publication of an official list of acceptable members, a list that was known as The Four Hundred.
What Was The Four Hundred?
The Four Hundred was the name given to a list published in the New York Times in 1892 that clearly outlined which members of New York society were considered to be part of the established social elite.
Those on the list were deemed acceptable as members of the traditional upper class of New York’s high society. Those who were not on the list, or at least, not related to someone on the list, were not considered to be members of the exclusive social club.
The name, The Four Hundred, allegedly originated from a high-ranking member of this elite social order who declared that there were only 400 members of New York society who were deemed fashionable and acceptable in the traditional and established echelons of the Upper Classes.
The number may also relate to the size of many of the most popular ballrooms of the period, which were generally designed to accommodate around 400 guests during the many dazzling parties and events that were a core part of the social calendar of New York’s finest families.
While 400 may seem like a large number for an exclusive club, those not on the list faced a considerable degree of social exclusion and barriers to entry. On occasion, they may even have been publicly snubbed or boycotted, as the established members sought to close ranks and protect their vision of the traditional social elite.
The publication of an official list would undoubtedly have made it more difficult for those wishing to ascend the social ranks to become accepted as part of the established order.
At the time of the publication of The Four Hundred list, America was established as a republic, having rejected the systems of royalty and nobility that the original settlers had been subject to.
However, the release of an official list of accepted members of high society put in place a formal system of social superiority akin to the famous systems of aristocracy that evolved in Europe during the Middle Ages.
In this sense, the formalisation of the Four Hundred created a new kind of American Aristocracy. While this newly-official social order did not have the centuries of noble lineage that the European systems could boast, it was clear that so many of the restrictions and rules regarding membership were a feature of America’s modern take on ancient nobility.
The Mrs Astor & Ward McAllister
The undoubted queen of The Four Hundred was an eminent socialite called Caroline Astor – regarded as The Mrs Astor, in that she was the most important member of the Astor family, at least in terms of social acceptability within New York’s established elite.
Mrs Astor was widely regarded as the arbiter of who and what was deemed acceptable within the shimmering realms of American high society.
Along with her longtime friend and social ally, Ward McAllister, Mrs Astor had the last word when it came to who was in and who was out of the all-important lists.
For those who were in, invitations to the grandest parties and social events would be secure, yet for those not on the list, becoming a part of this American Aristocracy was likely to be a struggle, if not a complete impossibility.
Noble Tradition & Established Families
Despite America of the 19th century being fiercely and proudly independent of the old ways of royal hierarchies and noble titles, the establishment of The Four Hundred was a clear replica of the traditional values and concerns of the most ancient systems of aristocracy.
The favoured New York families were fastidious in maintaining the traditions of the established elite, with increasing wariness around so-called arrivistes – ie those who had only recently become wealthy or attained a lofty social standing.
This spirit of exclusivity was comparable to the nobilities of Europe and around the world, whereby noble lineage and established family names were regarded as the core criteria for membership and inclusion.
Famous Members Of The Four Hundred
Naturally, The Astor Family were on the all-important list, as was Ward McAllister, along with hundreds of Old Money families and members of the established New York high society.
The names of these families and individuals would likely have been well known and highly regarded at the time, yet many may not be quite so familiar today. However, there are some of the original members whose legacy and legend have endured to modern times, names that are well known within America and around the world.
One such family was the famous Vanderbilts, the descendants of the great Cornelius Vanderbilt, nicknamed the Commodore, a business titan who rose to become one of the wealthiest Americans of all time.
Like many of the members of the Four Hundred, their ancestors had created vast fortunes from industry and commerce, yet it would take a number of generations for new additions to high society to become accepted in the official lists of America’s Aristocracy.
The establishment of The Four Hundred was a defining moment in American society and one that echoed the social systems of their ancestors and the early colonial settlers. While this new social order was a uniquely American take on the old system of aristocracy, it shared many of its ancient values such as the role of lineage and the upholding of tradition.