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Henry Clay Frick made a fortune in coal and coke, ingredients essential to making steel. While Pittsburgh's wealthy enjoyed comfort and leisure, the bulk of Pittsburgh's residents toiled long hours in dangerous mines and mills for paltry wages.

In 1908 Frick wanted his only surviving daughter, Helen, to have her social debut at the Vanderbilt mansion, the largest private residence ever built in New York City. He was outraged when Helen said she wanted a simple affair with old friends in Pittsburgh. As the New York party drew near, Helen and her mother boarded a train to Pittsburgh and made plans for the party that Helen wanted. She won over her father with this handwritten message on an invitation like this one.

You are Miss Katherine (Kitty) McCook, Miss Frick's friend. She attended Miss Spence's School in New York with Miss Frick. She is visiting from New York.

Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

When her parents began spending more time in New York than Pittsburgh, around 1901, Helen stayed behind at Clayton, which was filled with reminders of two of her siblings who had died.

This painting, Chagrin d'Enfant, by Emile Friant, is one such example. It hangs in the entry hall to the left of the doorway into the reception room. It reminded Miss Frick of her late sister, Martha, who swallowed a pin when she was 2 and died in 1891 at age 5 of peritonitis and septicemia.

Image courtesy of the Frick Art & Historical Center

Miss Frick had three friends from New York spend the night at Clayton before her coming out party.

This is one of three guest rooms at Clayton. It's called the Blue Room. There are also the Yellow Room and the White Room.

You have awakened and joined your friend Helen Clay Frick and her parents in the breakfast room.

Mr. Frick has come down from New York in his private rail car, the Westmoreland. He likes to tease Mrs. Frick about her age.

You may ask about Miss Frick's dog.

You may ask Miss Frick about her present.

You may ask Mr. Frick about the house in New York.

The Gilded Age medicine cabinet contained few items that would be recognizable today. Deodorant was often homemade scented powder, but Mrs. Frick kept some store-bought "deodorant powder" in her medicine cabinet.

Mrs. Frick also used tooth powder, an alternative to toothpaste, and glycerine, potentially used as a face moisturizer.


The dress

Hundreds of people attended a reception at Clayton in the afternoon of Dec. 16, 1908. The reception room was filled with ferns, palms and debutantes' bouquets. Many of the rare flowers and plants came from the Frick family's conservatory. The blossoms, which included pink rosebuds and lilies of the valley, would have filled the room with fragrance.

See what it looked the day of the party.

The Frick family hosted a reception, a dinner and an evening of dancing for their daughter's society debut. The dance card shows featured dances including the Two Step, the Waltz, the Boston, the Barn Dance and the Lanciers. The Pittsburg Orchestra, then in its 14th season, played for the reception and the dances. Frick family records show the orchestra's services cost $370.

The musicians are likely to have played here, on the veranda, although it would have been crowded.

See the Pittsburg Orchestra.

After the reception, which had been more for Pittsburgh's adult society members, the party moved to the dining room, where Miss Frick, her friends, and an equal number of young men from the proper social stratum had dinner and then a dance.

After dinner, the dining room table was likely pushed to the wall so the dining room could be used for dancing.

Young society men were supposed to be agreeable and polite at balls, and they were supposed to pay special attention to women "who are not gifted with much beauty or are not young," according to the book "Etiquette for the Twentieth Century," from 1903. Though not overtly stated, their job was also to marry young women of the proper social stratum.

You may ask about Childs Frick.

High society held parties during the winter and summer "seasons." The winter season began in mid-November and ended in February. Debutante coming out parties traditionally took place in December, as Helen's did. After Helen's debut party, many other parties were given in her honor in Pittsburgh, including bridge parties, dinner dances and cotillions at Pittsburgh's then most exclusive venue, the Pittsburgh Golf Club. One newspaper reported parties for every hour of every day for two weeks that Christmas season. A day might include skating in the morning, a luncheon, tea, a reception, and a dinner, dance or theater in the evening.

You may ask about Miss Frick's present from her father.

After making her debut, Miss Frick could host her own parties, be the guest of honor at parties hosted by friends or family and also travel alone. She was free to pursue her own social life.




Writing: Marylynne Pitz
Script: Laura Malt Schneiderman
Design: Dan Marsula
Photography: Modern-day photos of the mansion exterior and rooms: Julia Rendleman. Many historic images and images of objects inside the mansion courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives in New York and the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh. Other photo credits as noted.
Online implementation: Laura Malt Schneiderman, Zachary Tanner
Audio mixing: Laura Malt Schneiderman

Special thanks

The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives and Associate Archivist Julie Ludwig and the Frick Art & Historical Center and Director of Education Amanda Dunyak Gillen, for many images, research and insight.

Character voices

Miss Frick: Clarece Polke · Kitty McCook: Rebecca Droke · Mr. Frick: Daniel Majors ·
Mrs. Frick: Virginia Kopas Joe · Miss Coyne: Samantha Bennett


"Helen Clay Frick: Bittersweet Heiress" by Martha Frick Symington Sanger, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008
"Savory Suppers & Fashionable Feasts" by Susan Williams, Pantheon, 1985
"The Social Mirror: a character sketch of the women of Pittsburg and vicinity during the first century of the country's existence, society of to-day" by Adelaide Mellier Nevin, T.W. Nevin, 1888
"An Auspicious Debut" by Charlene Campbell, "Shady Ave" magazine, Holiday 2007
"Etiquette Twentieth Century: and Up-to-Date Book for Polite Society" by Annie Randall White, 1900
"The New York Social Season," by Evangeline Holland, April 13, 2009 http://www.edwardianpromenade.com/new-york-city/the-new-york-social-season/
"The Frick Mansion: 5th Avenue and 70th Street," American Experience, PBS, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/carnegie/gallery/frickman.html
"Henry Clay Frick: Blood Pact," by William S. Dietrich II, "Pittsburgh Quarterly," Spring 2009 http://www.pittsburghquarterly.com/index.php/Historic-Profiles/article-template.html
"Daughter of Her Father-I," July 15, 1939, and "Daughter of Her Father-II," July 22, 1939, by John McCarten, "New Yorker" magazine


The pieces used in this interactive were popular dance tunes in 1908.

"First Heart Throbs" composed by Richard Ellenberg
"Artist's Life" composed by Johann Strauss II
"Merry Widow Waltz" composed by Franz Lehar