American Money

Meets British Peerage

In the mid to late 1800s, a curious phenomenon known as "Anglomania" swept across America. Several factors contributed to this obsession of Americans with England and their quest for a title.

The first was Albert Edward's (The Prince of Wales) visit to America in 1860. He came to New York after visiting Canada--the first British prince to ever do so. He was only nineteen years old at the time, but already enthusiastic about women--American women. New York society held a ball in his honor, inviting 4000 privileged few. It was the lucky socialite the next morning who could claim to have danced with the Prince.

The second factor involved the very New York society that had welcomed Albert. New York was "the" center of society in 19th Century America. It was also where one moved when one became wealthy and where one made "connections." But it was a very closed and chosen society. The old, established families did not want the nouveau riche to travel in the same circles. They did everything in their power to keep them away. This was known as a "cut direct" or a public display of dismissal and refusal of acknowledgement. Society women were skilled at this practice. It was even included in a girl's education and upbringing. After all, she didn't want to encourage inferior associations of any sort.

Mrs. Caroline Astor was the unofficial head of New York society during the late 1800's. She decided who was acceptable and who was not. Every January she held a ball. Since her ballroom could hold only 400 people, these "Four Hundred" were considered the social elite. Inclusion on her list did not guarantee a permanent position in her favor, however. One small slip, and someone could be removed from her list forever.

Mrs. Astor's list included only the old, established "Knickerbocker" families, as they were called after the founding Dutch fathers. Thus, the families who had recently made fortunes on the spoils of war--that is, railways, armaments and canned meats--would never be welcome in New York. They could do business on Wall Street, or build the largest houses in Newport, but arriviste women could never socialize with Knickerbocker women. Thus, the new wealth looked elsewhere for prestige and respect. And they looked elsewhere for revenge. If American society wouldn't accept them, then other and more prestigious cultures would. They looked across the Atlantic to Europe--to titles--to England.

The third and final factor contributing to this phenomenon was happening, coincidentally or not, in England. Like Americans, there was an entirely new class of wealthy citizens in England--the investors and businessmen who made it rich in trade, industry or the such. They too, were shunned by the peers. For in England, a title held more sway with Society than did wealth. Resentment may have been a factor in this also. The money the dukes and earls of old needed for their estates was now in the hands of the working class and tradesmen.

Peers became desperate for cash. Estates were much more expensive to run and England had fallen into an agricultural depression. Income from farms began to slide and there was an influx of imported foodstuffs with the advent of refrigeration. Appearances had to be kept up, no matter what one's financial situation was. So the beleaguered peers looked elsewhere for money. They looked across the Atlantic--to America.

So, add pushy, upstart mamas to a fun-loving Prince, mix in a bit of money desperation, and you have the makings of the phenomenon known as "Anglomania."

The ride was not smooth, however desperate each side was. Americans met with opposition, both in Continental Europe and England. While France welcomed these American heiresses, war did not. The Prussian army invaded France in 1870-1, putting a temporary halt to social events. So the heiresses took themselves off to England. Inroads were tougher there than in Paris. The Empress Eugenie had accepted the charming, rich girls into her circle, yet England's society was like New York's--born of ancient titles and very closed. Prince Albert took to the girls' cause, however. He had a soft spot for a pretty face. He couldn't court them, since he was married, but he danced with them, paid calls on their mothers and openly accepted them into his circle of friends.

And so began the inklings of a solution to the peers' problem. They could marry money and save their estates. The courting game began. But who was courting whom wasn't always clear. Eldest sons looked to the American heiresses for the income they would bring a beleaguered estate. Younger sons who had fallen from grace were willing to make an American match if it involved money. It could mean redemption with their families.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the American heiresses were just as eager to hand over their money if a considerable title or amount of prestige was associated with the match. The pushy mamas would snub their noses at the Old New Yorkers, for their daughters were not merely in the elite social set, they were in the Royal set.

That isn't to say that all marriages were strictly for money. Some love-matches happened as a result of this phenomenon, among them Jennie Jerome and Lord Randolph Churchill, parents of Winston Churchill. Nor were all matches welcomed by the parents of these transatlantic couples. Although these girls had money, they were nobodies by English standards.

The wedding ceremonies were held in any number of places. Whether it was St. Thomas' in New York, the British Embassy in Paris, or an English country estate, they all shared one trait. They were showy affairs, each one meant to out-do the previous. But they couldn't take place until that all-important contract was signed delineating the amount of money the estate would receive, as well as the annual allowances allotted to both husband and wife. Some Englishmen balked at the amount of money their wives would receive as allowance, yet the American fathers had only their daughters' future security in mind should matters turn sour.

Once wed, the American wives had to adapt to the cultures and norms of their new country. They were used to demanding, not commanding. They were used to trains and hotels rather than domestic duties and servants. They were used to fathers and brothers who worked, not men of leisure looking to fill their time with sport or game. They were used to being the center of attention.

This wasn't the case in England. Life revolved around the man of the house. And the English wife was there only to run the household to her husband's pleasure, and to entertain as he deemed necessary, and to stay out of his way. But most important, she was there to produce an heir. And because life was so uncertain, she usually provided her husband with a "spare."

Despite all these obstacles, more than one hundred American heiresses invaded Britannia to swap dollars for titles.

For more information on this topic, see To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace. This book is available through our on-line Bookstore in the Non-Fiction section.

See also Researching the Romance for a more detailed bibliography on this and other topics. 

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