After the Civil War ended in 1865, Americans enjoyed a robust economy driven by the rapid growth of banking, railroads, and industry—a period referred to as the Gilded Age. A few investors, sometimes called "robber barons," used their fortunes to build such notable New York institutions as the American Museum of Natural History (1869), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1872), and the Metropolitan Opera House (1883).
The social importance of opera-going plays an especially significant role in The Age of Innocence. Wharton notes that New York City's Metropolitan Opera House was intended to "compete in costliness and splendor with those of the great European capitals." It became the hub of a world in which the type of carriage waiting outside signified the owner's wealth and social position. Traveling in a private brougham, a landau, or a Brown coupé can be compared to driving a luxury sportscar, a minivan, or a jeep—the mode of transport indicating economic status and family size as well as personal taste.
During the Gilded Age, social classes in New York City became increasingly stratified. Money mattered, but the way a family made its fortune—and how long they had possessed it—counted most of all. In the 1890s, social adviser Samuel Ward McAllister and society matron Caroline Astor created "the Four Hundred," a list composed of a carefully selected group of upper-class families deemed the social elite.
A strict dress code applied to both men and women for evening engagements. For gentlemen, getting "dressed for dinner" meant changing from a suit into a tuxedo. For women, even the colors and textures of their dresses were coded. Ellen Olenska's clothes and accessories reflect her unconventional European taste. At the opera, she wears a diamond headdress and a dark blue velvet gown with a clasp under her bosom. This "Josephine look" or Empire waist contrasted with the plunging necklines covered by lace that most fashionable American women wore.
Divorce in the late nineteenth century was rare, expensive, and difficult to obtain. Despite a political philosophy based on one's "pursuit of happiness," an American marriage could not be dissolved for so subjective a quest. Divorce was illegal in many states; others allowed it for adultery only. Some courts would grant a divorce in cases of abandonment or abuse—usually after a prolonged interval. Remarriage, sometimes even for the innocent spouse, was seldom granted. Property laws, lack of education, and diminished work opportunities discouraged many women from seeking a divorce. The social price was high. Slander and alienation were costs not to be taken lightly in a society such as Old New York, where a respectable name was one's most valuable asset. Still, from 1889 to 1906, the United States had the highest divorce rate in the world.
In December 1908, Teddy Wharton told his wife that he had embezzled $50,000 from her trust funds and had purchased a Boston apartment where he was living with a mistress. It was not until September 1911 that Edith Wharton left America permanently, entrusting her husband to sell their Massachusetts home, The Mount. Even then, her fear of the social repercussions kept her from immediately seeking a divorce. But Teddy's increasingly manic-depressive behavior ultimately led her to petition the French court for a divorce on grounds of adultery in 1913—after twenty-eight years of marriage.
Wharton's own courage is reflected in several of her female protagonists, and her fiction consistently takes up the subject of marriage and divorce, including the cost of divorce for children in The Custom of the Country (1913) and The Mother's Recompense (1925). But nowhere is it more at the center of the drama than in The Age of Innocence (1920), as the Mingott-Archer-Welland families push lawyer Newland Archer to take the case of the Countess Ellen Olenska. As Newland somewhat ironically tells a family member, "European society is not given to divorce: Countess Olenska thought she would be conforming to American ideas in asking for her freedom." Whatever cruelty Ellen may have suffered from her husband, the family believes that nothing is worse than a scandalous divorce. The novel's final dinner party demonstrates how far one New York family will go in the 1870s in order to remain ostensibly innocent.
"Our ideas about marriage and divorce are particularly old-fashioned. Our legislation favors divorce—our social customs don't."
—Newland Archer to Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence