Cornelia Vanderbilt’s Birthday Parties: The Grandest Affairs

From the day she was born, Cornelia Vanderbilt’s birthday was recognized and celebrated on extraordinary scale, one befitting of royalty.

Birth Announcements

Named in honor of prominent members of both her mother and father’s family, Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt was born on August 22, 1900 in the grand Louis XV Bedroom in Biltmore House.

George Vanderbilt with newborn daughter Cornelia on the Loggia of Biltmore House, September 30, 1900
George Vanderbilt with newborn daughter Cornelia on the Loggia of Biltmore House, September 30, 1900

Cornelia’s birth was mentioned in the society pages of newspapers across the country, including the Asheville Citizen, which reported:

Stork comes to Biltmore

To Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt a Child is Born

“The advent of a daughter to Mr. and Mrs. George W. Vanderbilt was announced last evening from Biltmore House. The little stranger is a Buncombe baby—pretty as babies go—but with the Buncombe birthright of the mountain health its days of babyhood will dot in dimpled sweetness and the fairy lines of beauty blend in a vision fitting to its home on the grand estate.

Edith Vanderbilt with young daughter Cornelia around the time of her christening, October 1900
Edith Vanderbilt with young daughter Cornelia around the time of her christening, October 1900

And from the Spartanburg Journal of upstate South Carolina:

Biltmore’s New Star

“A new star has appeared at famous Biltmore, and the charming mistress of this most gorgeous home is smiling upon her first born, a tiny girl called Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt…”

Early Birthday Celebrations

Although we have no specific descriptions of birthday parties during Cornelia’s childhood, we do know that she had many playmates among her cousins and the children of families who lived on the estate.

Cornelia Vanderbilt with one of her family's Saint Bernards on the Front Lawn of Biltmore House, 1905
Cornelia Vanderbilt with one of her family’s Saint Bernards on the Front Lawn of Biltmore House, 1905

Cornelia Vanderbilt’s 21st Birthday Party: An Elegant Masquerade

As Cornelia Vanderbilt grew older, her birthday parties became grand events. Her twenty-first birthday on August 22, 1921 began with a surprise gathering of 250 estate workers and tenants at 7 a.m. at Biltmore House. The staff clearly had a deep affection for Cornelia, and many of their children had been her playmates since her birth.  

As part of their surprise for Cornelia, whom they had watched mature into a sophisticated young woman, the employees improvised a band that played old-time dance tunes. The group then presented Cornelia with a game-bag as a gift. Later that same evening, more than 200 guests attended a masquerade party at Biltmore House in Cornelia’s honor. 

Employees gathered to celebrate Cornelia Vanderbilt’s 21st birthday, August 1921
Employees gathered to celebrate Cornelia Vanderbilt’s 21st birthday, August 1921

The Asheville Citizen-Times published the following account of the occasion:

“Miss Vanderbilt is accorded honors on reaching majority; masquerade party given on Monday at mansion.

Miss Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt reached her 21st birthday Monday and was accorded honors becoming the lady of Biltmore mansion. Monday night a large masquerade was given and guests were present in large numbers.  

The social calendar for the week started with one of the most brilliant of the season’s entertainments, the fancy dress ball, given the Monday evening at Biltmore House by Mrs. George Vanderbilt in honor of the birthday of her daughter, Miss Cornelia Vanderbilt. Dancing was enjoyed in the sunken garden where masses of ferns and palms made a pleasing and charming background for the two hundred or more fascinating and gorgeous costumes of the guests. The Garber-Davis orchestra from Atlanta provided the dance music. Late in the evening supper was served in the banquet hall. A special feature of the entertainment was that the assemblage of the guests, at the commencement of the evening, a closed sedan chair was brought in by four attendants, and as the curtains were drawn, Miss Vanderbilt stepped forward in a most attractive costume of a page of the period of the French Renaissance.

Cornelia Vanderbilt’s 25th Birthday Party: An Open-Air Ball

Cornelia’s birthdays continued to be stunning occasions, even after she married the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil in 1924. 

Cornelia Vanderbilt’s wedding portrait upon her marriage to John Francis Amherst Cecil, April 1924
Cornelia Vanderbilt’s wedding portrait upon her marriage to John Francis Amherst Cecil, April 1924

The Asheville Gazette reported on celebrations for Cornelia’s 25th birthday:

“On Friday, August 22, 300 employees attended a garden party and tea at 4 pm with dancing to Guthrie’s Orchestra.  Biltmore Dairy employees gave Cornelia a surprise birthday gift of a giant ice cream cake—4’ high and 2’ square at the base—made of 26 gallons of Biltmore Dairy ice cream.  It “consisted of alternate layers of chocolate parfait, Lady Ashe ice cream, and a covering of vanilla mousse.  The cake was studded with roses and lilies and also bore the inscription ‘May your joys be as many as the sands of the sea.’”

Cornelia celebrated the following evening with an open-air ball for 300 people at 9:30 p.m. Guests danced in a pavilion to the Charles Freicher Orchestra. The lawn was lit with Japanese lanterns placed in trees and shrubbery. 

Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil around age 25, 1925
Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil around age 25, 1925

The Gazette further noted that, “the beautiful array of summer gowns of the many dancers made a scene as beautiful as that of gay moths and fireflies in a fairy garden,” and a buffet supper was served at midnight.

Although we have no further descriptions of Cornelia’s birthday parties, we are sure they were often celebrated in style. From her earliest days as the “Biltmore Baby” to her life as a celebrated socialite of wealth and style, Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil exemplified the Roaring 20s and the Jazz Age that still fascinate us today.

Solving a Mystery in the Kitchen Pantry

Solving a mystery in the Kitchen Pantry at Biltmore took some detective work, but our Museum Services staff finally cracked the case!

“Among the many place settings of china in the Biltmore collection, one set had remained a mystery for many years,” said Lori Garst, Curatorial Assistant.

Solving a mystery in the Kitchen Pantry
A cup, saucer, and plate from the collection of unidentified china

While the set was often referred to as “the Christmas china” because it was used during a 1931 holiday party, or “the employee china” because it was later used by staff members, the origin of the china—and its original purpose in Biltmore House—remained unclear.

Cup, saucer, and teapot featuring George Vanderbilt's monogram
Cup, saucer, and teapot featuring George Vanderbilt’s monogram

“Most of the china in Biltmore House was chosen by George Vanderbilt,” Lori said. “He selected an elegant white china with a burgundy and gold pattern, manufactured by both Minton and Spode-Copeland. It features his monogram and was used every day for family and guest meals.”

Cornelia Vanderbilt’s china matches her father’s pattern but includes her own CSV monogram.

China featuring Cornelia Vanderbilt's monogram
While Cornelia Vanderbilt’s china closely matches the pattern her father selected for use in Biltmore House, their monograms distinguish one set from another

“We know that Edith Vanderbilt ordered Cornelia’s china in 1923,” said Lori. “And Mrs. Vanderbilt requested that Cornelia’s monogram be in the same style as her father’s.  I think it is sweet that her service blended in with the style her father had chosen.”

But what of the mysterious china collection on the shelves of the Kitchen Pantry in the Basement?

Museum Services began to look for clues about its history. While not as fine as the monogrammed Vanderbilt china, the gold-trimmed white pattern rimmed in crisp navy was definitely elegant and the amount of it suggested it had been purchased with a large number of people in mind.

Solving a mystery in the Kitchen Pantry of Biltmore House
Trimmed in gold and rimmed in navy, this china is elegant, but more sturdy than the monogrammed family china in the collection

“We began with the manufacturer’s mark on the bottom of each piece,” said Lori. “Kniffen & Demarest Co. manufactured hotel and steam ship supplies, so the china was well-made and rather sturdy to stand up to use by guests and passengers in public settings.”

Biltmore conservator shows manufacturer's mark on the bottom of a china saucer
A conservator shows the Kniffen & Demarest Co. name on a piece of the so-called mystery china

While Museum Services was researching details for our Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film exhibition, they finally discovered written references to the china in conjunction with Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil’s wedding. 

“This set was also sometimes referred to as ‘the wedding china,’ but we never knew which of its three names was correct until recently,” said Lori. “The pieces came together at last, and we realized that this was the china that had been ordered for the buffet at Cornelia Vanderbilt and John Cecil’s wedding breakfast.”

After the ceremony at All Souls Church in Biltmore Village, the wedding guests and additional reception guests (500 people were invited to the ceremony and reception; another 2500 were invited only to the reception) arrived at Biltmore House.

John and Cornelia Cecil wedding party at breakfast in the Winter Garden of Biltmore House
John and Cornelia Cecil and their attendants at the wedding breakfast in the Winter Garden of Biltmore House

The newlyweds and their attendants were served at a table in the Winter Garden, and all the other guests enjoyed a buffet in the Banquet Hall, which featured this china.

As the years passed, the Kniffen & Demarest china was still used, but its original purpose was forgotten.

Today, it’s stored in the Kitchen Pantry where it receives the same care and attention as all the other china in Biltmore’s collection.

Enjoy your own Vanderbilt china service

China pattern based on an original set used by the Vanderbilt family
Porcelain tea set from the Vanderbilt Service

Whether you prefer a tea service or an entire place setting, this beautiful porcelain serveware is based on a Sevres pattern, circa 1888, that the Vanderbilt family once used at Biltmore. The original is on display in the Oak Sitting Room, but you can now enjoy the reproduction set in your own home.

Preserving Generations of Biltmore China and Crystal

Preserving generations of Biltmore china and crystal is a delicate job.

If you have fine china or crystal handed down in your family, you can imagine the care it takes to clean and preserve all the fragile place settings and glassware in the Biltmore collection!

Generations of fragile china and crystal

Preserving generations of Biltmore china and crystal
Gevevieve Bieniosek opens the china cabinet in the Butler’s Pantry

There are three generations of china and crystal stored in Biltmore House, and much of it is more than 100 years old.

These fragile pieces of the collection are stored in glass-front cabinets in the two-story Butler’s Pantry, and a comprehensive inventory system helps our conservators keep track of each object.

A unique identification number is assigned to every dish and glass, the location of the piece is recorded, and a digital photo of it is included in an inventory database.

Cleaning generations of Biltmore china and crystal
Genevieve cleans saucers that bear George Vanderbilt’s monogram, while the floral patterned plates on the left were chosen by Vanderbilt’s grandson, William A.V. Cecil, for Biltmore’s centennial celebration in 1995

Cleaning all the china and crystal in the Butler’s Pantry is a process that takes several weeks to complete. Each piece is dusted, wiped with a mixture of ethanol and water, and dried with lint-free cloths. All the objects are inspected for unstable cracks.

“Most of the cleaning and dusting is done in the Butler’s Pantry, because the less we move such fragile pieces, the better,” said Genevieve Bieniosek, Furniture Conservator.

Preventing problems

Caring for a fragile part of Biltmore history--crystal glassware
Delicate crystal glassware with George Vanderbilt’s monogram in the Butler’s Pantry

During a recent cleaning project, the conservators noticed that some of the crystal on display was suffering from ‘glass disease.’ According to Genevieve, this is a condition where components in the glass structure leach out over time, causing the glass to appear cloudy.

“If left untreated,” Genevieve explained, “it will eventually create a fine network of cracks over the piece.”

The glasses were treated by washing them with mild soap and water, drying them with soft towels, and letting them air dry for several hours.

“By treating them now, we avoid permanent damage from the glass disease,” said Genevieve.

Improving the process of storing crystal and china

China cup with Cornelia Vanderbilt's monogram
This fluted cup and saucer bear Cornelia Vanderbilt’s monogram

In addition to careful cleaning of these fragile pieces, our conservators are always looking for ways to improve the overall process for preserving the china and crystal.

“We recently looked into different types of padding material to keep the china safer, and placed sheets of polyethylene foam between each dish. The material is very stable, so the sheets don’t break down and create chemicals that could harm the china,” noted Genevieve.

Take a behind-the-scenes guided tour

Biltmore House Butler's Pantry
The Butler’s Pantry, as seen on The Biltmore House Backstairs Tour

Plan a visit to America’s Largest Home today, and treat yourself to The Biltmore House Backstairs Tour. You’ll experience an in-depth look at servant life at Biltmore with this 60-minute guided tour, including rarely-seen areas such as the Butler’s Pantry as you hear fascinating stories of those who worked and lived on the estate in the Vanderbilts’ era.

Featured blog image: Biltmore conservators Genevieve Bieniosek and Renee Jolly clean china and crystal in the Butler’s Pantry of Biltmore House