This talk explores how cultural participation cemented the status of elites in late nineteenth-century America and how culture worked as an elite resource in that era. It is based on an analysis of a new database of subscribers to the New York Philharmonic including information on who subscribed to the Philharmonic between 1880 and 1910 – by many accounts a key period of upper class consolidation in the United States. The talk partly argues with the classic account of monopolization and exclusiveness of high culture, showing how over the long Gilded Age the social elite of New York attended the Philharmonic both increasingly and in more socially patterned ways. However, it also finds that the orchestra opened up to a new group of subscribers who did not share the social practices, occupational background, or residential choices of more elite patrons. These new members were a group of cultured, non-elite subscribers. Their integration was facilitated by the fact that the two groups would not mingle within the hall, and lived in different parts of the city. The talk reflects on the implications of these findings for elite theory and cultural sociology.
Shamus Khan teaches in the sociology department at Columbia University. He writes on elites, culture, and inequality and edited the journal Public Culture.