Revenge of the Arrivistes!

Vanderbilt mansion, corner of 5th Ave. and 57th St.,built 1883, demolished 1926, the largest private residence ever built in NYC

In the years following the American Civil War, industry roared to new heights of unbridled, unregulated glory, creating unimaginable wealth for its captains in an era that Mark Twain dubbed the Gilded Age. The men who amassed these fortunes are generally referred to as robber barons for their often unscrupulous business practices and the brutal conditions under which their employees labored. Once their fortunes were made, the robber barons and their wives were determined to enjoy life to the fullest. This new money crowd loved nothing better than to display their wealth in the most ostentatious manner possible and there was no better place to do so than New York City, the beating heart of American industry and commerce. They built enormous mansions on Fifth Avenue, dressed splendidly, and put themselves forward in the most vulgar displays at every opportunity. They gave every appearance of being socially prominent, but the true arbiters of New York society, the old money New York crowd led by The Mrs. Astor, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, was supremely unimpressed.

Edith Newbold Jones, daughter of an old money family and later the novelist Edith Wharton, expressed it this way, “I wish the Vanderbilts didn’t retard culture so thoroughly. They are entrenched in a sort of thermopylae of bad taste from which apparently no forces on earth can dislodge them.”[1] The old money folks and some acceptable others, a.k.a. Mrs. Astor’s 400 (subject of April 15 post), had always determined who counted in the social hierarchy. These arrivistes were simply too vulgar for one to “know.”

Just as parents the world over hope and pray for desirable marriages for their offspring, so did Gilded Age parents. And if one was a family of means, that meant marrying one’s child to a suitable person of equal or better social standing. This was especially true for families with daughters. A girl, of course, was a financial liability until she married, then she became her husband’s problem to support and provide for, hopefully in the style in which she was reared. The biggest obstacle for many of the arriviste new money folks was that they themselves lacked social standing, which rather limited their daughters’ choices of husbands among New York’s social elite. For those parents barred from Mrs. Astor’s 400 and their Patriarch Balls and Academy of Music box seats, there arose another option for gaining social viability and status. If one’s daughter was an accomplished, charming, beauty of infallible style and grace, one might look to her for social advancement, thus giving rise to the daughter as social weapon. The field of battle, however, spread far beyond New York’s limited arena. America was not the only place where one might find eligible men. Just as American fortunes were on the rise, those of English and European aristocrats were in decline. Titles could be acquired just as one did one’s latest ball gown. What better way to advance one’s social position than to be able to say, “Have you met my daughter, the Countess of… the Marchioness of… the Duchess of…?”

Of course, American girls had always married abroad, some of them acquiring titles with their new husbands. Beginning with Elizabeth Barbé-MarboisMarquise de Barbé-Marbois (née Elizabeth Moore) on 17 June 1784, records indicate approximately 50 American women gained titles through marriage prior to the Civil War. 1865, however, was a turning point where the occasional became almost commonplace. Between 1865 and our present day, the number of American heiresses who married into the titled nobility, peerage, and royalty is staggering.[2] For American mothers bent on elevating the family’s social status through marriage, the best titles were to be found in Great Britain. Between 1870 and 1914, 102 American women are documented as having married British peers.[3]

So exactly how did an ambitious mama go about getting her girl the right introductions so that she could meet these titled gentlemen? American women had an advantage over their English counterparts beyond their daddy’s fortunes. These girls held an appeal for Englishmen due to the way they had been brought up. They were not like the subdued, oppressed, ignored, under-educated girls who populated English country houses and London ball rooms. Instead, these American girls were reared to believe that they mattered. They were given good academic educations along with lessons in the visual and performing arts and social graces. They were vivacious where the English girls were quiet. The American girls were confident in most situations where the English girls might seem shrinking violets. When they entered a room, they glittered. Englishmen, including the Prince of Wales, found them enchanting and irresistible.

Prince George of Wales, Duke of York, c1890-c1893. The future King George V (1865-1936) (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Such qualities were not lost on the social mavens of Great Britain, especially those who were American women already married into the aristocracy or gentry. These women helped their fellow countrywomen and friends with the right invitations and introductions. In addition, there were also sponsors for hire. Americans might advertise for a “chaperon.” Well-born gentlewomen fallen on lean economic times might place a discrete advertisement in the social pages of newspapers offering their services for the courtesy of a “loan” in a stated amount. However the introductions came about, once the flow began, American heiresses and their fathers’ money flowed east with the North Atlantic Drift in ever-greater numbers. For the most fortunate, a court presentation was great compensation for their efforts. Doors opened wide for these most fortunate of husband hunters.

Enter the Buccaneers. Future posts will share the lives of some of the Americans who married titles, including the British family that has benefited the most from cross-Atlantic alliances.

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  1. De Courcy, Anne. The Husband Hunters: Social Climbing in London and New York. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2017, 15.
  1. De Courcy, 38.

Other Sources