More than a Hostess: Honoring Edith Vanderbilt

At the age of 25, Edith Vanderbilt married the nation’s most eligible bachelor and assumed her role as lady of America’s Largest Home®, responsible for ensuring the comfort and entertainment of Biltmore’s many guests. And yet, she was so much more than a hostess.

Let’s take a look at some of Edith Vanderbilt’s most incredible efforts and achievements.

School of Domestic Science students
Students of the Biltmore School of Domestic Science, ca. 1901

Biltmore School of Domestic Science

In 1901, Edith Vanderbilt established the Biltmore School of Domestic Science, which trained young Black women in professional housekeeping. The intention behind this initiative was two-fold: to help satisfy the increasing demand for efficient domestic service in the area at the time, and—more importantly to Edith—to help women with socio-economic challenges to become gainfully employed.

Coursework covered the duties of a maid, waitress, laundress, cook, and housekeeper; if a student showed a preference for a special line of work, she was given the necessary training to develop that skillset. Additionally, the school created a network to increase its graduates’ prospects of finding work:

“The graduating classes form a society for houseworkers. The purpose of this society is mutual help, by raising the respect of the general public for such work and workers…Any positions that are vacant if in good families will be reported, and an effort be made to fill them from among the members of the society.” 

The Home Science Magazine, Volume XX, October 1903March 1904

Archival documents of Biltmore Estate Exhibition
Archival list of 1906 Biltmore Estate Exhibition prize winners and first and second prize ribbons

Biltmore Estate Exhibition

In order to nurture a sense of community among estate employees and their families, Edith organized the Biltmore Estate Exhibition, also referred to as the annual fair, in 1905. She distributed seeds as needed to all of the employees to ensure everyone could participate in the competitions.

Some of the initial categories included vegetables and herbs, field crops, domestic products such as breads and preserves, needlework, and baskets. Categories later expanded to include flowers, hogs, and poultry as well as a miscellaneous category to include eggs, honey, and various other items. Prizes included ribbons and a variety of garden books.

Though Edith was in London during the 1907 event, estate superintendent Chauncey Beadle wrote to her: 

“Not another day shall pass without a full report to you of the Exhibition, which was celebrated in the grove above the Farm Cottages yesterday afternoon with the most auspicious weather that it was possible to have. The attendance and exhibits were very satisfactory, and, I believe all who participated enjoyed the day, the social intercourse and objects which were displayed.”

Thanks to oral histories, we know that the fairs continued into the 1940s.

Biltmore Dairy Moonlight School students
Students of the Biltmore Dairy Moonlight School, ca. 1920s (Photo courtesy of the McCarson Family)

Biltmore Dairy Moonlight School

In 1914, Edith founded the Biltmore Dairy Moonlight School to teach illiterate estate workers how to read and write. Her larger intention was to attack the underlying causes of economic inequality and disenfranchisement. Classes were taught by Columbia University interns and graduates, who were receiving arguably the best teacher training in the nation at the time.

Edith Vanderbilt personally selected the textbook used at the school and even taught a class from time to time:  

“It is an interesting picture: one of the world’s richest women… teaching dairy workers how to read and write in a horse barn in the mountains of North Carolina.”

– “Aristocracy and Appalachia: Edith Vanderbilt and Her Moonlight School” (2011) by Wilkie L. Whitney

While Biltmore’s was certainly not the first moonlight school, the model Edith pioneered was so effective, it inspired the foundation of many similar programs across North Carolina—all with the support of Edith as their most vocal advocate.

Edith Vanderbilt and Red Cross
Edith Vanderbilt (second from right) and her fellow Red Cross volunteers, ca. 1917–1919 (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress: American National Red Cross Collection)

Red Cross Efforts during the Great War

When the United States became involved in the first World War, Edith Vanderbilt was splitting her time between Biltmore and Washington, DC—but no matter where she was, she always found ways to support the Red Cross during this turbulent time.

While in Asheville, she sponsored a golf tournament to raise funds for the Red Cross.

The trophy was the gift of Mrs. Edith Vanderbilt, the rules providing that all entrance fees went to the Red Cross, and that no trophies should be given unless donated.

– “Carolina Mountains Having Great Season,” The Times Dispatch, 19 August 1917

While in Washington, DC, she volunteered with the Red Cross as part of a Canteen Unit, which provided hot coffee, light refreshments, and mail services to troops at railroad junctions. True to form, Edith was recognized for going above and beyond at her Canteen’s encampment:

“Mrs. George Vanderbilt is quite wonderful, so cool and collected and executive. She took her motor and went off shopping, bought some extra equipment, a table for the tent to hold the telephone, some camp chairs, a rake to rake up the trash, a pump to pump the water into the cauldron, a mail bag, stamps, wire baskets; besides, she organized the post-office.”  

Presidents and Pies: Life in Washington 1897–1919 (1920) by Isabel Anderson

Edith Vnaderbilt State Fair
Edith Vanderbilt arriving at the first State Fair during her tenure as president, ca. 1921

First Female President of the North Carolina Agricultural Society

In 1920, Edith Vanderbilt was elected the first female president of the North Carolina Agricultural Society as well as the 60th State Fair. Her first address in the role was one for the books.

“Anti-suffragists who have feared woman’s entrance into politics found themselves happy today when Mrs. Edith Vanderbilt made about the smartest 15-minute speech to a joint session of the general assembly heard within the historic walls of the state house in a long time…explaining in the outset that it would be like the modern skirt, to the extent that its length would cover the subject and its brevity attract attention. She was right.”

– “Woman Makes First Address to Legislature,” The Charlotte Observer, 3 February 1921

Under her leadership, the State Fair focused more on agriculture as opposed to sideshows. Edith traveled and wrote widely to promote the event and help attract exhibitors. She also led initiatives to improve the fairgrounds.

She would ultimately be re-elected to lead the 1922, 1923, and 1924 fairs, and then continued to serve on the executive committee following her tenure as president.

Edith and Cornelia Vanderbilt
Edith Vanderbilt (center) and her daughter Cornelia (left of center) greet guests arriving in Biltmore Village, ca. 1924

More than a Hostess

Beyond her duties as wife, mother, and lady of the house, Edith Vanderbilt felt a great responsibility towards her community. She was passionate about education, agriculture, and literacy. She was active in civic affairs at the local, state, and national level. Perhaps most impressive, she used her privilege to support those in need and the causes in which she so strongly believed.

Cheers to this extraordinary woman!

Feature image: Edith Vanderbilt gathering letters from soldiers while volunteering for the Red Cross, ca. 1918 (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress: American National Red Cross Collection)

Biltmore Dairy: An Udderly Fascinating History

George Vanderbilt established Biltmore Dairy operations at his estate in Asheville, North Carolina for three main reasons: to supply dairy products to Biltmore House, to provide an example to others on how to run a successful farm, and to generate income through commercial product sales.

Imagine having a Vanderbilt for your milkman—flavoring your coffee with cream from the dairy of a multi-millionaire. It is enough to make one smack his lips and imagine the product is richer than that of ordinary dairymen.
– “A Millionaire Farmer,” St. Louis Globe Democrat, 1894

Biltmore Dairy delivery wagon, ca. 1900
Biltmore Dairy delivery wagon, ca. 1900

Beyond the dairy, original agricultural operations included sheep, hog, and poultry farms, and a substantial market garden for produce. All of these endeavors, collectively named Biltmore Farms, contributed to George Vanderbilt’s ability to fulfill the estate’s mission of self-sufficiency.

However, Biltmore Dairy was the most successful of all of Biltmore’s enterprises, providing the estate with a financial cushion that would see it through George Vanderbilt’s death, two world wars, the Great Depression, and beyond.

Cows in main dairy barn
Cow stalls in the main dairy barn, ca. 1930

The Legacy of Biltmore Dairy

Much of this success was thanks to the Vanderbilts’ prized herd of Jersey cows. Of all major dairy breeds, Jerseys produce the richest milk—high in butterfat, protein, and calcium. They also produce a higher volume of milk per each pound of body weight than other type of cattle.

The Biltmore Dairy Farms herd, believed to be the largest herd of registered Jerseys in the world, is unquestionably one of the finest and best known.
– “Souvenir Edition Annual Meeting of the American Jersey Cattle Club,” June 3, 1942

Biltmore Dairy workers, ca. 1910
Biltmore Dairy workers, ca. 1910

To ensure that the herd maintained excellent health, staff included a full-time veterinarian and a dairy bacteriologist. Dairy workers kept detailed records on the herd and conducted regular inspections to ensure their living conditions were of the highest quality.

The herd was primarily housed in the estate’s Main Dairy Barn—what is now Biltmore’s Winery. Just down the road was the Creamery, where cream was separated from the milk. Milk was then bottled and sold, while the cream was made into butter, buttermilk, cottage cheese, and, of course, ice cream.

Biltmore's Main Dairy Barn
Biltmore’s Dairy Barn (what is now the Winery), May 30, 1913 (Courtesy of Alice Marie Lewis)

The Tasty History of Biltmore Ice Cream

Biltmore’s ice cream played a leading role at estate gatherings, including Cornelia Vanderbilt’s birthday parties, Christmas celebrations, and May Day festivities. Almost every oral history interview in our archives that mentions a childhood memory on the estate also includes a reference to ice cream.

After Biltmore House opened to the public in 1930, guests could view the milking rooms and processing areas in the Dairy Barn, sample the milk, and buy ice cream. Biltmore Dairy was so successful, and its products were so well-known that it became an attraction in its own right for estate visitors.

Biltmore Dairy milkmen and delivery trucks, ca. 1935-1940
Biltmore Dairy milkmen and delivery trucks, ca. 1935-1940

It was around this time that the dairy’s delivery wagons were replaced with trucks and the fleet grew from 30 vehicles to over 400 in just 15 years. Salesmen were now able to market the products as far away as Charlotte, which at the time was a windy, wooded five-hour drive.

Unfortunately, the market shifted. With the advent of chain grocery stores came a cheaper, more efficient way to purchase milk, eventually making door-to-door dairy delivery obsolete. Biltmore Dairy and other smaller, family-run businesses were unable to compete with expansive commercial operations. In April of 1985, Biltmore Dairy was sold to Pet, Inc.

A family enjoying ice cream in the Stable Courtyard at Biltmore
A family enjoying ice cream from Biltmore Dairy Bar® in the Stable Courtyard

Enjoy Biltmore Ice Cream Today

Today, Biltmore continues to draw inspiration from Biltmore Dairy. Biltmore Dairy Bar® in the Stable Courtyard was named in honor of our agricultural heritage. Additionally, vanilla ice cream based on a delicious original Biltmore Dairy recipe is offered at both Biltmore Dairy Bar® and at the Creamery in Antler Hill Village.