Skip to content

High Society Comes to Texas

In February of 1892, The New York Times published its official list of the creme de la creme of New York Society— 400 individuals, a mix of “Nobs”— old money families such as the Astors  and “Swells”—the nouveau riche including the Vanderbilts. It was the Guilded Age in New York and the city’s influence helped city directories become popular across the country.

In 1890, the Census had revealed that Dallas was the most populous city in Texas with 38,067 residents. It was followed in size by Galveston with 29,084 residents and Houston with a population of 27,557.

Texas’ largest city caught the attention of Holland Brothers Publishing, a company looking to expand its market in high society lists of major cities. Dallas seemed ripe for its own list of who’s who in society and Voila! the Red Book of Dallas, Texas was born. The volume had the distinction of being the first Red Book published in Texas. And of course, the book’s cover was red. One can only imagine the buzz this created in the city.

To fill the book’s 137 pages, in what was still somewhat of a frontier town, Holland Brothers Publishing needed lots of filler content. But let’s start with the preface from the publisher.

“In presenting the [Red Book] to the public, the publishers feel they have supplied a decided need of an important element of the community. To facilitate the requirements of social life and place persons in direct communication with the representatives of the different phases of the best local society, this directory is intended. It is here also that new residents of this city may find the names of any and all persons whom they may desire to include in their visiting list, and whom they wish to meet in any social way.”

The small volume contained a high society list of 3,245 adults and children from Dallas, supplemented by 333 from Oak Cliff. If the household had a designated day for accepting in-person visits (or calls, the proper term), that was noted. Also included were the membership lists of eight local clubs, four for gentlemen and four clubs for ladies.

Based on the Red Book, Dallas in the late 1800s appears to be a “clubby” city.

The Dallas Club for gentlemen was by far the largest and owned its own building—a handsome four story, brick and stone structure completed in 1888 for $45,000 and located at the corner of Commerce and Poydras Streets.  The Dallas Club was central to the activities of business, civic, and professional men of the city: however, ladies were allowed for special receptions and parties for visiting dignitaries.

The Idlewild Club was a much smaller men’s club — about three dozen members— founded with the purpose of giving four grand balls each season, beginning with a ball during the State Fair of Texas. It’s hard to imagine that the wives of these men didn’t provide input for the planning of these events, whether they were asked to or not.

The Ladies’ Shakespeare Club, founded in1855, was for the sole purpose of studying Shakespeare’s plays. Membership was limited to 45 members.

The thirty-two member Ladies Pierian Chatauqua Club reported its object was mutual improvement of its members, the social aspects were a side issue. Apparently a serious literary group.

Not to be outdone, The twenty-one member Quaero Club adopted as its course of study “A new method for the study of English literature, which included reading current literature and a weekly review by critics.

Two other ladies’ clubs, the Standard Club and CLMA club, also existed to study literature.

The Phoenix Club for Jewish gentleman was for the mutual benefit and mental, moral, and social advancement for its members and had sixty-five members.

The Social Ethics Club was open to any unmarried gentleman over the age of twenty-one and its purpose was to promote the social, musical and dramatic culture of its twenty-seven members.

Fleshing out the Red Book was a section on Etiquette.  While it contained much that was perhaps less relevant in Dallas than in NYC, the seven pages were—no doubt—still of interest to many Dallasites.

Here are some examples:

Regarding the handshake: “The custom of shaking hands is gradually disappearing from society.  . . .A lady is not expected to shake hands upon introduction. A gentleman has no right to extend his hand first to a lady.”

Gentlemen’s Attire: “Evening dress is always in order after dark, never in the daytime. Either white or black ties may be worn with full dress; for balls a white tie is better.” 

This advice conjured up an image for me of formally-dressed men and women dealing with Dallas’ dirt streets in the late 1800’s. While it’s true that in 1882, the city began to experiment with unseasoned wooden blocks set into some dirt streets, with no underlying support, heavy rains simply caused them to sink into the mud and created  more problems than the mud alone had. Even wooden sidewalks (where they existed) would not fully alleviate the problem of ankle deep mud! It was 1899 before Main Street had asphalt paving.

As for calling cards, the Red Book revealed special etiquette.

And it involves secret messaging that only those in-the-know, would know.

“One must remember when visiting, to turn up a corner of their calling card.

The upper right corner indicates a visit.

The upper left corner signals congratulations.

The lower right corner says adieu.

The lower left corner expresses condolences.

Turning the entire left end indicates a call on the whole family.”

Most of the remaining etiquette in the Red Book illustrates forms of invitations and proper responses for wedding announcements and invitations to special events.

What I found especially interesting about the Red Book were the advertisements.  The six story Oriental Hotel billed itself as having the largest and most luxuriously appointed rooms in the state and featured an impressive line drawing of its facility.

The Parisian Millinery Company promised the very latest in hats and bonnets in season.  And reported receiving goods, direct from New York, every week. Also a hairdressing department with one of the finest eastern hair dressers.

You’ll find ads for steam carpet cleaning, fancy groceries, the largest moving wagons in the state, fine footwear, fine commercial printing, pianos, the Dallas Natatorium, Turkish baths, dental parlors, photographers, fine diamonds and watches, druggists, banjos and violins, gents furnishings and hats, all paper and artists supplies, mineral soda pop, an ice factory and cold storage, sheet music, sewing machines, tents, awnings and mattresses, horse shoes, plumbing, wine, typewriters and rubber stamps, railroads, Havana cigars, and more.  And of course, an ad for the largest retail store in the South —Sanger Brothers—whose Dallas store ad boasts of  118,500 feet of floor space and 250 employees ready to serve you. Plus mentions their branch in Waco with 125 employees. And the convenience of mail order. The Dallas Red Book is more than a social register. It is an interesting look at some aspects of life in one Texas city in 1895.