New York's Elite: From Mrs. Astor's 400 to the Real Housewives

In anticipation of tonight's finale of "The Real Housewives of New York City," I did a little digging in the archives of social exclusivity.

Around 1872, Caroline Webster Astor and a lawyer named Ward McAllister devised a list of New York's social elite -- necessary fixtures at any of her events. McAllister is rumored to have quipped that "only about 400 people in New York society" mattered, and, coincidentally, Mrs. Astor's ballroom could only accommodate about 400 guests. As a result, Mrs. Astor's 400, the social register of these worthy guests, was created. It was comprised of old money names; no new money millionaires who'd profited from the recent Industrial Revolution were included. In particular, Mrs. Astor is said to have "shunned" the Vanderbilts.

McAllister was the savvy party planner behind Mrs. Astor's legendary Patriarch Balls. In 1892, he offered The New York Times a copy of Mrs. Astor's 400 -- it listed only 309 names. Of course, we can't assume that the list remained static from the 1870s to the 1890s; after all, people got married, died, moved and fell from social grace.

People were clamoring to get on this list, and it even served as the template for Louis Keller's Social Register. Keller had been a publisher in the tabloid industry before cataloguing society's bankable best with directories that premiered in 1887 for $1.75. A later-generation social doyenne, Brooke Astor, endorsed this list in its heyday: "It used to be if someone wasn't listed, you just didn't know them."

But by the late 1990s, the Social Register was passe. The New York Times quoted society mavens who made such claims as, "The Fortune 500 list is infinitely more valuable." In today's financial climate, it's a safe bet that list is outmoded, too. According to some sources, it's more fashionable these days to hide your assets. After all, the socially elite aren't tacky -- and spending your money at luxury retailers when the economy's tanking could be construed as tacky.

But I'm not thumbing my nose at you, Jill Zarin. As far as I'm concerned, you can do no wrong -- your BBC interview notwithstanding.

Go handbag shopping with Jill and learn some childcare tips, too.

More reading: Industrial Revolution How Currency Works How to Make a Million Dollars