Samuel Ward McAllister

Samuel Ward McAllister (1827-1895) was a social adviser to New York's wealthy families during the Gilded Age.

McAllister was born in 1827 in Savannah, Georgia. His father and brother were successful attorneys. McAllister briefly worked at his brother's law firm in San Francisco, coordinating social functions and entertaining clients.

McAllister moved to New York City in 1852 and began attending the ball circuit. He established the Patriarch Ball, headed by 25 men from prominent families.

McAllister married Sarah Gibbons, granddaughter of steamship magnate Thomas Gibbons, in 1853. In the late 1850s, the McAllisters purchased Bayside Farm in Newport, Rhode Island. McAllister encouraged his New York society friends to join him there during the summer months.

McAllister divided America's wealthy into the "Nobs" (old money) and the "Swells" (new money). The Nobs were the intellectual elite; the Swells were the industrial elite then considered fashionable in American society.

McAllister became an expert in fashionable dress, balls, foods, wines, and dances, and advised society matrons on social etiquette. His most important client was Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, who grew into the role of New York's society matron under his tutelage.

McAllister and Astor devised "the Four Hundred," a social list comprised of a carefully selected group of upper-class families. To become a part of the Four Hundred, a family had to have at least three generations of wealthy ancestors who had not worked in the trades.

In his 1890 memoir, Society as I Have Found It, McAllister recalled the Newport dinners and picnics he organized for his wealthy guests:

"These little parties were then, and are now, the stepping-stones to our best New York society. Now, do not for a moment imagine that all were indiscriminately asked to these little fetes. On the contrary, if you were not of the inner circle, and were a new-comer, it took the combined efforts of all your friends' backing and pushing to procure an invitation for you. For years, whole families sat on the stool of probation, awaiting trial and acceptance, and many were then rejected, but once received, you were put on intimate footing with all. To acquire such intimacy in a great city like New York would have taken you a lifetime."

With the help of Ward McAllister, Newport became the summer social capital of New York's upper-class families.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, ©2001-2003