This article considers what the nineteenth century can tell us about the nature of great power management under conditions of ambiguity in relation to the holders of great power status. It charts the development of an institutionalised role for the great powers as managers of international society but with a specific focus on the mutual recognition, and conferral, of status. Such a focus highlights the changing, and sometimes competing, perceptions of not only which states should be thought of as great powers, but also therefore whether the power structure of international society remained multipolar or shifted towards bipolarity or even unipolarity. The article argues that a 'golden age' of great power management existed during a period in which perceptions of great power status were in fact more fluid than the standard literature accounts for. This means that predictions surrounding the imminent demise of the social institution of great power management under an increasingly ambiguous interstate order today may well be misplaced.