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Showing posts with label edwardian era. Show all posts
Showing posts with label edwardian era. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Dollar Princesses-Social Mobility Across the Pond

It's the late Victorian Era, and the English nobility are having a rough time of things. Many of them are trapped with vast crumbling estates, huge debts, and little to no money. There's been an economic and agricultural depression, and country landlords are finding that their tenants can no longer pay rent. Things are pretty bleak, and all around the country, and ancient noble families are having to close the doors of their country homes and downsize.

Image result for jennie jerome
Jennie Jerome, later Lady Randolph Churchill. She
became engaged to Lord Randolph Churchill
within three days of meeting him. Their engagement
lasted about 4 months as their parents squabbled over
the marriage contract. Their eldest son, Winston, was
born just seven months after their wedding. 
Meanwhile, in the New World, it's the Gilded Age and things are booming! Americans have stopped killing each other, and instead they're building railroads, starting banks, opening factories, and making millions. New millionaires pop up in the mid-west every day, and as soon as they strike it rich, these millionaires move their families to New York City, home of high society. Unfortunately, upon arrival, these New Money families found that their millions couldn't necessarily buy them into upper echelons of society.

1870s New York Society was ruled by Mrs. Caroline 'Lina' Astor, and her crony Ward McAllister. Lina and McAllister were both part of the 'Knickerbockers', a stratification of New York society. To be a Knickerbocker, one had to be descended from the original Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, and be very, very wealthy. Additionally, one's wealth couldn't come from something vulgar like railroads or manufacturing. It had to come from something aristocratic, like landowning and already being wealthy.

The railroad and manufacturing magnates didn't fit the mold, and the Knickerbockers were determined to keep them out. While it was possible for a noveaux riche to gain entre to society, it was extremely difficult, and the society courting system heavily favored the daughters of the Knickerbockers. This incensed many of the noveaux riche parents, particularly the mothers, who wanted their daughters to have all the privileges and advantages they themselves had never had. In order to give their daughters these advantages, their mothers decided to skip New York Society, and do one better--they decided to marry their daughters off to members of the English Aristocracy.

Image result for consuelo vanderbilt
Consuelo Vanderbilt, later Duchess of
Marlborough, was engaged to marry Winthrop
Rutherford, a man she loved when her mother made 
her break it off. She was soon engaged to the 
Duke of Marlborough. The couple separated
after 11 years of marriage, and eventually
divorced.
Hopping across the pond was not only beneficial for the daughter's marriage prospects, but a huge 'up yours' to the gatekeepers who had kept them out of New York society. If being rich wasn't enough to make families like the Astors respect them, then a title might do the trick.

This idea was not totally unfounded. While there were still some serious ill feelings between the United States and the United Kingdom (the United Kingdom had, after all, supported the South during the Civil War, attacked the United States in 1812, and it was less than 100 years since the American Revolution), having a noble or royal title still meant something in the United States, especially among the members of New York Society. Mrs. Astor and her friends wanted to create their own sort of aristocracy, and they admired little more than actual aristocracy.²

Across the ocean, these young ladies and their iron willed mothers were surprised to find themselves received into British Society with relatively open arms. The wealth, style, and glamour of the American girl made her fascinating to the British Lords, who were used to the quiet, reserved English girls. Throw in the fact that Albert, Prince of Wales and leader of fashion, ADORED American girls, and marrying an American became all the rage.

The Prince of Wales plays a big part in the success of these American women in English society. Because Queen Victoria had largely withdrawn from society, it fell to her son to be the leader of fashion and society, and this was a role Albert reveled in. He loved big parties, heavy drinking, and lots of sex, much to the disapproval of his mother. Albert had found that the wealthy Americans were much better able to host him, and that American manners much better suited his sense of fun. He became good friends (and lovers) with many of the first Dollar Princesses, and was responsible for the introduction and popularization of most of them in society.

Image result for albert prince of wales
Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, was
the son of Queen Victoria and Prince
Albert. Even after he reached his majority
his mother kept a tight grip on her reigns
of power, leaving Albert with little
to do but party.
Marrying an American heiress wasn't just popular however, it was also very convenient, and sometimes necessary for the impoverished English Lord. Because primogeniture wasn't observed in America, American girls could expect to get an equal share in their father's estates, and many of them came with an enormous dowry. Even the smallest of American dowries could pay off an English lord's debts, and set him up comfortably for a good long time. Because of this many of these marriages became little more than business transactions--the trade of millions of dollars for a title. Extra-marital affairs, already common among the upper class of that era, were even more common in these unions. Several unions were unhappy enough that they ended in divorce, such as the case of Consuelo Vanderbilt.

For this reason, as well as a few others, marriages between society heiresses and destitute noblemen weren't incredibly popular with the American people, though they were obviously popular with the families in question. Americans, for all their love of the glitter of society weddings, did not like the idea of an arranged marriage. It was common to marry for love, or at least affection in America, and the idea that a nobleman would marry an American girl for her money and not for her personality repulsed the public. Additionally, the idea that hard earned American dollars were going into funding the crumbling institutions that had so recently oppressed them was unpopular with Americans. As the 1900s dawned the prominence of international unions led many Americans to despair that the English were stealing all the American heiresses.

Image result for frances work
Despite being included in the 'Old Money'
elite of New York Society, Frances Work
married James Burke Roche, who was
set to inherit a barony. Unfortunately, the
couple divorced before James (and Frances)
inherited the title.
For about 20 years American heiresses went across the Atlantic to find a husband. The titles grew less important, but during the reign of Edward VII the transatlantic union was still very popular. However, this all changed when his son George ascended the throne in 1911. George (the current Queen Elizabeth's grandfather) and his wife Mary didn't approve of the joviality and high spending of Edward's court. They wanted a return to traditional English values, and marrying an American slowly fell out of fashion.

The 'Dollar Princess' is a major character in fiction. From Edith Wharton's Buccaneers to Lady Grantham of Downton Abbey, Dollar Princesses figure heavily in period pieces set in the Edwardian Era/Gilded Age/Belle Epoque. In real life, the descendants of these ladies still occupy a high place in British Society. Prince William, heir to the heir to the throne³, is the great-great grandson of Frances Work, the daughter of a stock-broker. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister during WWII was the son of Jennie Jerome, one of the first Dollar Princesses.

Aside from the children they left behind, the Dollar Princesses left a huge imprint on both their home and adopted countries. Not only did their marriages induce anglomania in the United States, but it also cemented alliances between the United States and United Kingdom. Though it was not the intention, these marriages functioned much as many political marriages of the time. They essentially married two countries together, forming an alliance that, to this day, is still one of the most important diplomatic ties for each country.

¹In the North that is. The South is undergoing Reconstruction  which pushed the region into an economic slump that still affects it to this day.
² In theory anyways. In practice, most Americans found members of nobility, especially the English nobility, to be severely lacking in moral fiber.
³ It is, however, unlikely that William will ever become king, as Queen Elizabeth II is most likely immortal.

Sources
To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol Mc.D Wallace
The Glitter and the Gold by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan
A Look Back at the 'Dollar Princess'
Dollar Princesses
Topics in Chronicling America-- 'Dollar Princess'
The Gilded Age's Real Life 'Dollar Princesses'
How American Dollar Princesses Changed British Nobility
Gilded Age Heiresses