Hearts Through History Romance Writers

The Reality of Gilded Age Marriages: Title for Money

by | May 7, 2014 | 4 comments

this media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923. This may not be in the public domain in other countries.

9th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough by John Singer Sargent 1905

In Downton Abbey Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, married Cora Levinson, the daughter of a dry-goods millionaire from Cincinnati, after a whirlwind courtship during Cora’s first season in London. While it was ostensibly a marriage of convenience (Cora’s money for Robert’s title), the Crawley’s fell in love within their first year of marriage and we all have witnessed the “happily ever after”, at least in terms of their marriage.

Not surprisingly, Robert and Cora’s bliss is not based on the majority of American heiresses’ experiences, though the marriage of convenience to a British aristocrat was very much a fact of life for American heiresses of the late 19th and early 20th century. More than 100 American heiresses married British aristocrats from the latter half of the 19th century into the early part of the 20th century. The American heiresses came from families of mid-west manufacturers and western mine owners, southwest cattle ranchers as well as northeast railroad barons. They included some of the wealthiest families in the country at the time—names like Vanderbilt, Whitney, Gould, Drexel, and Colgate.

To be sure, many married younger sons of Dukes, Marquesses, Earls, Viscounts, Barons and Baronets, but a considerable number became Duchesses including, Jennie Jerome (married to the 7th Duke of Marlborough), Lillian Price Hammersley (8th Duke of Marlborough), Consuelo Vanderbilt (9th Duke of Marlborough), Consuelo Yangza (8th Duke of Manchester), Helena Zimmerman (9th Duke of Manchester) May Goelet ( 8th Duke of Roxburghe), Aimee Marie Suzanne Lawrence (9th Duke of Argyll).

Earls, like the fictional Earl of Grantham, were particularly popular with at least twenty-three American heiresses who eventually received the title of Countess. The title of Baroness went to seventeen wealthy American young women. An American born Marchioness was somewhat rarer with, by my count, only four American women being able to claim that title during the time period while an American born Viscountess was the rarest with only three American women sporting that title during this period.

The cause of these, mostly, marriages of convenience, was related to many of the issues explored in the Downton Abbey series. As we see Robert struggle with diminishing land rents so too were most of the aristocracy in Britain, caused by a flood of agricultural goods from other countries, mainly the United States. Many landed estates faced bankruptcy. Work was not an option for a British aristocrat whose culture frowned on work as beneath them, not to mention that their limited education and experience of the world had left them unprepared to do so.

It is hard to imagine in 21st century America where working for your wealth has always been held up as the ideal (though inherited wealth in the United States is outstripping wealth creation at present). In Britain the exact opposite was true. Those who did not have to work for their wealth were exalted.

Add to this the fact that estates had to be passed down to the eldest male heir, regardless of the number of children, male or female, a Lord had. We see this problem in Pride and Prejudice where Mr. Bennet has been blessed with five girls but no male heir to inherit. The flip side of this is that the male member of the aristocracy who inherited the land and perhaps a castle or two, could not easily find a female member of the British aristocracy with a sizeable enough dowry to save his land and castles precisely because a British woman could not inherit her family’s estate. The responsible nobleman had to think not only about his needs, but about preserving the estate for the next generation as this was his sole purpose in life.

In America, things were very different. America was in the throes of the Gilded Age. Railroads needed building, goods were required for ever expanding horizons, gold and silver were being mined to an astonishing degree. Land was plentiful and there for the taking by most anyone. While it wasn’t easy to get rich, many people were getting rich. And many were leaving their fortunes to their daughters since women could inherit in America and there was, initially, enough money to divide up estates so that a daughter could get her fair share from a doting father.

What many of these newly wealthy American families did not have was the respect of American high society, or Mrs. Astor’s 400. High society was anchored in New York by the original Dutch families and those who had settled before or shortly after the Revolutionary War, families like the Asters and the Stuyvesants, and they were not letting anyone in, particularly flashy nouveau riche.

Money was not what matter. What mattered was what family you came from and how long it had maintained wealth. What was a Vanderbilt or Gould to do to gain entrance to this society? Building behemoth houses didn’t do it. Going to the best places like Saratoga or Newport didn’t do it. What was the benefit of having money if you had nowhere to show it off? What would trump “Old New York” families? The answer was the British Aristocracy.

And so seasons in Saratoga Springs and Newport where littered with sons of Dukes, Earls, and Barons seeking a pretty face, an amiable disposition, and a rich social climbing future father or mother-in-law. And London seasons were sprinkled with American heiresses seeking to add their DNA to the next generation of aristocrats.

In fact there are very few British aristocrats who can’t trace an ancestor or two to an American great-grandmother. Even the British Royal Family through Princess Diana now has American blood running through its veins as Diana’s maternal great grandmother was a daughter of Franklin H. Work (1819–1911), a well-known stockbroker and protégé of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Not surprisingly, most marriages of convenience did not transform into the kind of loving marriage that Robert and Cora developed. The reasons were many starting with the oldest reason of them all—money. Few Dukes, Earls and Barons knew how to live within their means—which had become more limited as crumbling estates soaked up dowries. And, while there were plenty of servants, the houses were drafty, the days long, the food more meager and ill prepared than American heiresses were used to.

British society was not particularly welcoming to American transatlantic transplants. These young wives were far from home and it wasn’t easy for families to pop over the ocean for a visit. Loneliness and isolation were real issues.

Husbands often took advantage of British society’s high tolerance for discreet adultery among married aristocrats so many husbands were unfaithful to their wives. In addition, once an American heiress married her Lord, he literally was her master under British law. She could not own property, could not have even her own pin money. While many settlements were written with paragraphs where father’s provided accounts for their daughters, the reality was that if the husband chose to rifle his wife’s accounts, under British law he would have been able to.

As more of these marriages turned sour and father’s realized they were marrying off their daughters to reprobates with no ambition, Anglo-American alliances looked less and less attractive. In addition, America was taking its place in the world. No longer wounded by a devastating civil war, it was forging a dynamic future and with it, America’s upper class was holding its head higher. More mobility was happening in society, as well, as New York took its place among the best cities in the world.  On the other side of the Atlantic, the British Empire was losing its colonies and its influence was waning and with it the allure of the romanticized notion of nobility. The bloom was off the British rose.

Care to share your knowledge about America’s Gilded Age?

Sources: http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/node/1907208 To Marry and English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace, Workman Publishing, New York

Portrait-Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consuelo_Vanderbilt  Note: This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923. This may not be in the public domain in other countries.

Anne Carrole writes about men who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. You can check out her contemporary romance, Falling for a Cowboy, and western historical romance, Saving Cole Turner, at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com or Kobobook.com. You can friend, follow, or find Anne on Facebook, Twitter, www.annecarrole.com , or at the western historical facebook fan site, Love Western Romances.


  1. Irene

    It must have been very hard for a young American woman to marry into the stuffy, rarefied class system one still finds in the UK. “Love my money, love me.” Yeah, right. The idea of sharing my husband with a mistress…not gonna happen. But then, I’m not an heiress, so nobody would want me.
    However, I did write a book in which this happens in modern times. He didn’t have a mistress, though. I made him a good Earl.

    • Anne Carole

      That’s what I love about writing fiction–we have control of our characters, lol. But based on many of the biographies I have read, including that of Consuelo Vanderbilt who married the Duke of Marlborough and found him to be less than noble, it could be very a very isolating experience and being so far from family made it all the worse. Thanks for stopping by Irene.

  2. Ella Quinn

    Great article. I think we need to remember that it’s only been in the past few decades, that even American men were expected not to have affairs. I remember the “turn your head” attitude when I was growing up. As to money, there was the possibility of a trust for the wife, meaning she kept her own funds, unfortunately, the husband had to agree to it before the marriage.

  3. Sharla Rae

    Great blog Ann. I knew some younger lords sought out rich American young ladies but had no idea that there so many! Very interesting. 🙂



Share This