The Vanderbilts at home and abroad

04/01/2012
Field Trip Destination

Of all the questions we receive at Biltmore, the most frequent — and perhaps most difficult to answer — are: Who were the Vanderbilts? How did they spend their time? What were they really like?

While recent additions to the house tour and audio guide have allowed us to share new stories of the Vanderbilt family and others who called Biltmore home, we are thrilled to have the opportunity to take the experience of visiting the estate one step further. 

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Beginning this spring, a new exhibition at The Biltmore Legacy in Antler Hill Village offers a chance to view rarely-seen collections close-up. The exhibition also gives a first-hand look at the Vanderbilts’ lifestyle through photos and a deeper insight into George, Edith and Cornelia’s individual personalities and their varied experiences, both at home and abroad.

Beginning with a glimpse into George Vanderbilt’s background and Vanderbilt family tree, the exhibition uses photos and diary excerpts to give a taste of what it was like to grow up in one of the world’s wealthiest families. Learn how George’s travels as a young man influenced his life and his development as a collector. Seeing the world was one of the ways that George satisfied his intellectual curiosity and exploring new cultures became a beloved past-time that he shared with his wife and daughter.

Throughout the exhibition, photos and objects illustrate the family’s extensive travels in grand style — by train, automobile and ocean liner. From the silver tea service used in George Vanderbilt’s luxurious private rail car to Edith Vanderbilt’s rare Louis-Vuitton trunk, fascinating stories of transatlantic travel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are revealed. Rare souvenirs including authentic samurai swords and armor tell the story of an American obsessed with the history and of the exoticism of the Far East, while new research reveals how the Vanderbilts narrowly avoided meeting their fate on the Titanic. In fact, the entire family was originally booked on its maiden voyage. From a more personal standpoint, the exhibition traces how Vanderbilt met his future wife Edith, sharing highlights from their courtship, marriage, honeymoon in Italy and homecoming to Biltmore. Fortunately for us, Edith’s hobby of photography gives us very personal glimpses into the Vanderbilts’ life at home as well; two of her Kodak cameras along with a wealth of photos she took are on view. Perhaps most touching is an image of George and their infant daughter taken by Edith just a few weeks after Cornelia was born in 1900.

As one might expect, entertaining both friends and family was a key part of living at Biltmore. Included in the exhibition is the Vanderbilts’ original guestbook, a discussion of the distinguished guests they often hosted, and a selection of the luxurious tableware used during formal dinners. Though the sparkle of crystal and silver is hard to top, one of the largest—and most striking—objects in the exhibition is an ornate sedan chair used by Cornelia Vanderbilt at her 21st birthday masquerade party. She sat concealed in the sedan chair while four men carried it into the Banquet Hall, stepping out to make a most memorable entrance in a Renaissance page costume. Custom-made in jet black velvet complete with shimmering crystal-encrusted buckles and a jaunty feathered cap, Cornelia’s original costume is also on display.

The exhibition also explores the resort-like atmosphere that made Biltmore the perfect escape. Showcasing some of the Vanderbilts’ saddles, guns, and other recreational equipment, the exhibit shares the family’s love of the outdoors and includes an actual historic golf ball found recently at the site of the original nine hole golf course. Research has also revealed an unexpected gift that Cornelia received for her 10th birthday. One might guess a pony, but you’d be surprised to hear what Cornelia’s parents had in store for her!

Curators also recently discovered that the Vanderbilts owned several early Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The motorcycles, however, weren’t used by the family for joyriding. Instead, estate workers likely made use of them for efficient transport, such as mail delivery across the estate. A rare 1920 model 20-J tandem seat Harley-Davidson motorcycle identical to that owned by the Vanderbilts will be on view, illustrating how eagerly the Vanderbilts embraced new technologies in transportation.

No matter your interest, The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad offers rich new insight into Biltmore Estate and a platform for exploring diverse subject matter. Ranging from Japanese samurai and developments in early transportation to geography and local and world history, the connections are limitless. Above all, the exhibition is a creative and unexpected way to approach a lesson, making your topic not only tangible, but meaningful and rooted in our shared Southeastern history.

Whether with your class or on your own, please join us for this new and memorable journey into the lives of the Vanderbilts.

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Issue 19.1 | Summer 2017

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