Gilded Age Wives Set Philanthropy’s Gold Standard

The Rockefeller wives at a dinner party in New York, March 1949. From left to right: Abby (Babs) Rockefeller Pardee, Peggy McGrath Rockefeller, Mary “Tod” Rockefeller, Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller, Barbara “Bobo” Sears Rockefeller, and Mary French Rockefeller. (Photo Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center)

The storied fortunes of the Gilded Age are so closely associated with the men who made them that the wives who used that money to help society are often unknown. Wealthy women in the 19th century were expected to be little more than heir-producers and society hostesses.

But women such as Louise Whitfield Carnegie, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney did not spend their days merely updating the Social Register, getting fitted for sumptuous gowns, or meeting for luxurious, gossipy lunches. They also worked hard to make sure that their families’ fortunes—all built on the backs of the less fortunate—were used to help others. Wealthy 19th century women were not supposed to work outside the home, and they certainly had no financial need to do so. But these women expanded their limited roles through charitable work and in doing so created a new public role for women.

Let’s take a look at how some women took what many felt was a limited life in a gilded cage and made valuable efforts at social improvement:

Brooke Astor, circa 1930’s. Astor once famously said, “Money is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around.”

Brooke Astor (1902-2007): John Jacob Astor built his family fortune on the early national era fur trade and Manhattan real estate. But it was his great-grandson’s wife Brooke who kept the family name and reputation alive. Appointed a member of the board of the Astor Foundation upon marrying into the family, Brooke Astor also became a prominent member of Manhattan’s wealthy female philanthropic set after her husband died. She lived according to her dictum, “Money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around.” She was a Trustee for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, served on the boards of various other charities, and in her lifetime donated at least $195 million to charitable organizations. Former New York Mayor Abraham Beame claimed that Astor (had) “done more for New York City than any other one person.” For her work, she received many accolades, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Louise Whitfield Carnegie was instrumental in creating Carnegie Hall and made significant contributions to many New York-based organizations.

Louise Whitfield Carnegie (1857-1946): Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie famously wrote in his “Gospel of Wealth” that “the problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and the poor in harmonious relationships.” He was not alone in that thinking: his wife Louise shared that sentiment and both before and after her husband’s death was committed to his philanthropic vision. Though she had signed a prenuptial agreement promising not to make any claim on his fortune in exchange for a limited annual income, she maintained significant influence over Carnegie’s philanthropic decisions. Most people have heard of Carnegie Hall, which she was influential in creating, but she also managed contributions to the Red Cross, Y.W.C.A., and many New York-based organizations.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Photo Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874-1948): Her 1901 wedding to the heir to the Standard Oil fortune, John Davison Rockefeller Jr., was splashed all over the society pages of American newspapers, but Abby Aldrich Rockefeller would soon be known not just as the wife of one of the richest men in America, but also as one of the most forward-thinking philanthropists of all time. She financed a Red Cross unit during World War I, and was instrumental in calling for and creating hotels for women. Her collection of revolutionary European and American art, including works by Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, among others, was the foundation of what would become New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Unable to contribute as much money as she wanted to due to a strict allowance from her husband, Abby stepped beyond the limited definition of the duties of a society wife to fund the creation of the museum, as she made direct solicitations to wealthy individuals and major corporations.

Jane Stanford ran Stanford University and managed an extensive building program after her husband Leland’s death in 1893.

Jane Lathrop Stanford (1825-1905): Jane Stanford suffered more than her share of tragedy. Though her husband Leland built a substantial fortune through trade and became governor of California, personal happiness did not follow material wealth. She and her husband lost his law library and other property in a fire, her son Leland, Jr. died at age 15, and she herself was murdered by strychnine poisoning. Her murder may have had something to do with the power struggles over control of Stanford University, which she and her husband founded in 1891. The university struggled following Leland, Sr.’s death two years later, but Jane took over its management and used her own allowance to keep the university afloat while Leland Sr.’s estate was in probate. She even famously, and unsuccessfully, tried to sell her fabulous jewel collection in England during Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee celebrations. After her death, the Jewel Fund was established following the sale of those jewels, and to this day provides funding for the university’s library.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney working on a sculpture, c. 1920. Her close alliance with the art world lay the groundwork for the Whitney Museum of Art’s founding in 1931.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942): Scion of the wealthy railroad and shipping Vanderbilt family, Gertrude was unlike her notoriously tight-fisted grandfather, who founded Vanderbilt University but about whose refusal to donate to charity Mark Twain once wrote, “You observe that I haven’t said anything about your soul, Vanderbilt. It is because I have evidence that you haven’t any.” That wasn’t true of Gertrude, who married into another wealthy family, the oil-rich Whitneys, and trained as an artist, most notably of public sculptures and memorials. She was a strong patron of female artists, and her immersion in the art world convinced her that modern art needed to be promoted. She eventually turned her gallery into what is now the world-renowned Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931.

These women—the wives of the world’s most prominent capitalists during the Industrial Era—are largely responsible for developing various aspects of American philanthropy. Women such as Melinda Gates, Susan Dell, and Susan Buffett, who preside over some of the largest philanthropic foundations in the world today, have certainly benefited from the work of the Gilded Age female philanthropists who established charitable organizations and networks and provided models for a new public role for women in the 19th century. They proved that women could found and run charitable organizations and establish institutions that, to this day, continue to serve society.

More Articles by Jill Silos-Rooney:

The Past, Present, and Future of Historic Preservation is Female

Harvesting Female Empowerment: Florence Reed and the Business of Food

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