High Style in the Gilded Age: Lily Barney


Lily Whitney Barney (1852-1946)

The Dedicated Socialite

A view from our exhibit space

Now, while the museum remains closed, I have been deepening my research into the women’s lives, preparing the 12 talks in the series, each of which focuses on one of them. Though they all lived lives of great privilege, what I found is that they were not necessarily happy, and that most were very hard workers--managing complex households, keeping up appearances, and rarely enjoying the personal freedoms granted their husbands in the seriously patriarchal society of the Gilded Age. My first talk was on Janette Ralston Chase Hoyt, who enlivened the early resort with her unconventional flair. Lily Barney is a very different type-- putting family and social standing above all else and dedicating her efforts to navigating the social seas. With a high-strung husband, two daughters to guide through Society’s rituals toward a suitable marriage, and a full calendar of A-list events, she is a social star, but stalked by tragedy.

Like her famous older brother, William Collins Whitney, who would become one of the richest and most powerful men in New York City, Lily is born in Massachusetts and probably spends most of her childhood years in the quaint New England town of Conway.

image of the Mayflower

Though the family does not have the vast fortune her brother will eventually acquire, the Whitneys are well off and Lily can boast a very proud lineage, her mother’s forebears having arrived on The Mayflower.

General James S. Whitney

Lily’s father, Gen. James S. Whitney, is for half a century a Democratic leader in Massachusetts and serves as Collector of the Port of Boston, a prime political plum, under President Buchanan. Little is known of Lily’s formative years but she no doubt receives instruction in the arts and skills that prepare a young upper-class female in the Gilded Age to make a suitable marriage.

Charles Barney

In this respect, Lily does not disappoint. With much going for her--not least her handsome and devoted brother--Lily stands out among her contemporaries on the marriage market. She soon attracts the interest of Charles T. Barney, the son of a successful Cleveland businessman who moved his family to New York City in 1857 to pursue his career at Wells Fargo and Company and is named president of the company in 1869. His son Charles, with his good looks, obvious drive, and precocious gift for finance, is expected to go far in the banking world. Lily is won over and she and Charles are wed shortly after his graduation from Williams College in 1870.

William Collins Whitney

In New York, Lily Barney is a serious contender among the city’s young matrons vying for social supremacy in the closed circle of the wealthy elite, where every social success--or misstep--is consequential, diligently reported in the society pages of the dozen or so daily newspapers. Lily and Charles, a financial genius but a reckless one, scale the social heights with the blessing of Lily’s brother William Collins Whitney.

Richard “Boss” Croker