How The Super Wealthy Woman Of 1903 Lived

“Free To Indulge Her Whims and Fads In Whatever Way The Gay World Of Society, And Her Own Inclination, May Lead Or Tempt Her”

Let’s say you are the wife of a turn of the century financier. How do you run your household and spend your time and money? Is there no one to teach you except your family or contemporary one percenters?

Fortunately there was a book written just for the rare woman who needed such advice.

The book which could now be slightly updated and reprinted for today’s super wealthy billionaires is called, Millionaire Households and Their Domestic Economy With Hints Upon Fine Living by Mary Elizabeth Carter published by D. Appleton & Company 1903.

Miss Carter was not a society lady, but had managed a house for the wealthy Vanderbilt family.

With chapters such as Fine Living or Housekeeping; The Hostess’s Wardrobe; The Lady’s-Maid; The House-Maid; The Parlor-Maid; The Servant’s Dining Hall-Maid; The Butler and His Staff; The Valet; Monsieur Le Chef and His Aids; Side-Lights and Shifting Scenes When The “Smart Set” Dine; the book has everything you would need to know as the grande dame running an American version of Downton Abbey.

We learn from Miss Carter that a butler is more than just a servant. She writes, “When the ubiquitous newspaper reporter appears the butler knows how to get rid of him with as little information imparted as will spare the family from false statements or ridicule. During these interviews he requires his entire stock of aplomb. He must withhold all information possible, while appearing to give it out freely.”

This book was not for the 1% that we hear so much about today. In 1903, Millionaire Households and Their Domestic Economy would apply to only o.oo5% of Americans, since there were about 4,000 millionaires out of 80 million people living in the United States at the turn of the century. Approximately half of those millionaires resided in New York State. It is safe to say this book probably did not sell very many copies. It is also important to remember how much a million dollars was back in 1903. One would need to have about twenty million dollars today to have the purchasing power of a millionaire in 1900.

Comparatively today, globally there are about 10 million people (exclusive of their home) with a net worth  of one million dollars or more and approximately 3.1 million of them reside in North America.

The book gives a complete view into the way the millionairess should conduct her household. While the advice the book offers might seem frivolous and somewhat outrageous to read today, in 1903 this was all taken very seriously.  And because it is fascinating we have decided to run some very short excerpts from the chapter “The Hostess.” 

Multitudinous claims, social, philanthropic, sensible and senseless, spring up around the possessor of large wealth. These claims are at once so varied, insistent, and perpetual, that an effort to respond to all would only result in failure to do justice to any.

The society woman soon realizes that the personal charge of her house is impossible, if she would hold her own in the world of fashion. No man of varied and engrossing business affairs would permit himself to be burdened with housekeeping. Neither can his wife or daughter, as the case may be, combine the two roles of society leader and home caretaker, and reasonably expect to succeed in  both or either. It is needless to say which of the two would suffer more from neglect; therefore the managing housekeeper has become necessary in all large and elaborate establishments, if they are to be conducted with propriety. Her presence relieves the hostess from the general superintendence as well as from petty details, and leaves her free to pursue a routine of entertaining and being entertained, to enjoy herself when and where she pleases, to travel at will, or indulge her whims and fads in whatever way the gay world of society, and her own inclination, may lead or tempt her…

…A hostess conversant with the proprieties, who, therefore, knows how to conduct herself in her own house, enjoys immunity from hampering household cares. She need never know when changes occur in the servant department, unless the change be among those with whom she comes in contact. Even then, she need only be informed of the new servant’s name, and may be as free to enjoy herself as any one of the guests at her endless dinner and house parties. Even when she requires a new personal maid, all the care of finding one, and of looking up her references, will be done for her. She has only to see a desirable applicant, and decide the final question of engaging. It is a case something analogous to holding forth the sceptre when the presence chamber is entered. The secret, open to all, discovered by few, is, first to secure the services of an experienced and competent woman of good breeding, who is conscientious in the discharge of her duties, then leave to her the entire management, unhampered by any interference…

…But let no one suppose that the mistress of millions of money and many earthly mansions is a woman of leisure. This is very far from the case. She is often one of the hardest worked members of the community. It must be confessed — this is chiefly her own choice, and not a matter of compulsion, unless devotion to pleasure be regarded as compulsory. That she seldom gets any old-fashioned ” beauty sleep ” is owing to the constant round of entertainments in which she takes part, either as hostess at home or guest elsewhere. However, the skillful masseuse — the complex ion renovator is as regularly employed as the manicure and hair-dresser. Wrinkles are out of date for all who will pay to have them rubbed out scientifically.

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