The Social Register is celebrating its centennial by publishing a facsimile edition of its New York and Newport, R. I., blue-blood list of 1887--when Mrs. Astor had only recently found Mrs. Vanderbilt socially acceptable.
The Social Register was first published by Louis Keller, a former golf promoter and gossip sheet publisher who compiled his registry from the lists of guests of prominent New York hostesses. The masthead declared it was “issued under the supervision of a committee,” the membership of which was not disclosed.
Among the Excluded
The first Register contained the names of more than 5,000 people, mostly descendants of old Protestant Dutch and English families. Newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, who had recently bought the New York World from railroader Jay Gould, was the only Jew listed.
Gould and other “robber barons” and John D. Rockefeller, with his oily new fortune, were not given listings, although some of their descendants would be included in the future because of their marriages and philanthropic work.
Keller sold the little black-and-orange volume for $1.75. For $3.25 more, a subscriber got a monthly update of addresses, engagements, marriages, deaths and club elections.
Today’s Social Register covers most of the nation, still noting prominent New Yorkers but also taking notice of the descendants of California Forty-Niners and Texas Wildcatters as well as a White House crony or two. It costs $75, which includes a supplement of summer addresses and yacht names and moorings.
The Social Register is still published by a committee that maintains its anonymity, although its current owner is rumored to be Malcolm S. Forbes, chairman and editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine. One of Forbes’ daughters-in-law was an heir to the Keller family interests in the publication.
By World War I, the Social Register published 18 volumes and covered 26 U.S. cities, but the number of volumes shrunk to a dozen during the Depression and World War II. It was consolidated into one book in 1977. It now contains about 35,000 names.
The 1887 roster of New York socialites contained all the Mrs. Vanderbilts of the day, including Mrs. William Kissam Vanderbilt, who was beginning to see herself as society’s queen and who would see her daughter be married to the Duke of Marlborough. It also listed Mrs. James Bourke Roche, the American great-grandmother of the Princess of Wales.
Mrs. Vanderbilt’s chief rival, and the ruler of society’s inner “400,” was Mrs. William Backhouse Astor (who eventually dropped her husband’s embarrassing middle name). She preferred to be listed only in the Newport volume--a baffling choice for a woman who had several daughters (including the first wife of the father of Franklin D. Roosevelt) listed in the New York volume.
It was not until 1883 that Mrs. Astor, a Knickerbocker belle who had married into an old real estate fortune, called on Mrs. Vanderbilt, a Southerner whose husband’s railroading riches were considered nouveau. It was a case of the mountain coming to Mohammed.
Ocean Liners Listed
At that time, New York’s upper 5th Avenue and Park Avenue neighborhoods had not been built. Most of the 1887 listees lived between Washington Square and 59th Street. The Register carried discreet real estate advertisements, including one for an unfurnished townhouse on 59th Street for $1,850 a year and another for a furnished mansion off 5th Avenue for $3,500.
Annual migrations to Europe by ocean liner for grand tours were one of society’s badges of privilege. The Social Register listed all the major liners of the day, along with their socialite cargo. London, Rome, Paris, Cannes and Nice were favored destinations.
A summer residence in Newport also was a must, especially for such newly arrived families as the sugar-rich Havemeyers and Oelrichses and the Richard T. Wilsons. Banker Wilson got his start as a Confederate war profiteer, and family members who married into the Astor and Vanderbilt clans, thus hedging their social bets.
The Newport Register was comparatively democratic, listing vacationing families from such outposts as Cincinnati and Milwaukee. Thus was the way opened for Registers in other cities that had an aristocracy that sought recognition at home and abroad.
Some detractors have called the Social Register a glorified phone book, although telephone numbers did not appear in them until the 1890s. That description seems echoed in the preface of the facsimile edition: “The Social Register was and is a listing of certain people,” the preface states. “Among its purposes, it serves as a means of maintaining acquaintances.”