During the late 19th century, British aristocrats – powerful, titled landowners – faced what might today be called a cash-flow crisis. Their tenants were abandoning rural life and moving to industrialised areas, while strong competition from foreign agriculture was beginning to bite. As a result, the income generated by the aristocracy’s vast land-holdings was falling sharply.
While many dukes, marquises, earls and other nobles no doubt kept their feelings hidden behind the famous British stiff upper lip, they were worried. How could they continue to enjoy lives of privilege and maintain grand residences with dwindling fortunes?
A Transatlantic Phenomenon in the Gilded Age
As British fortunes faltered, America enjoyed an economic boom. Mining, the steel industry and the development of the railways were at their peak there. Entrepreneurs were taking their place among the New World’s nouveau riche. The period from the 1870s to the early 1900s in the US has since been called the Gilded Age.
It’s easy to see why the grown-up daughters of affluent businessmen attracted the attention of asset-rich, cash-poor aristocrats across the Atlantic. Dollar signs lit up the noblemen’s eyes and wedding bells filled their ears! While the American heiresses became known, rather patronisingly, as the ‘dollar princesses’, they were at the forefront of a social phenomenon that united the Old World and the New in a remarkable way. When they wed cash-strapped noblemen, they reshaped the British aristocracy.
The Considerable Appeal of Aristocratic Titles
What were the dollar princesses given in exchange for their sizeable dowries? The answer is highly desirable titles of nobility and the enhanced social status that accompanied them.
By marrying Britain’s most eligible bachelors, the American heiresses forged alliances between the landed gentry and the nouveau riche. This enabled US families who possessed astonishing wealth but were not of noble birth to create lasting ties with one of society’s most elite groups.
It’s tempting to cast a cynical eye over the marriages; in many ways they were business transactions or mutually beneficial arrangements. Husbands received the money needed to preserve their aristocratic heritage. Wives were elevated to the privileged status of duchesses and so on. However, a more positive way of looking at the unions is that they represent a fresh, modern, pragmatic approach to relationships and looking after your prospects.
Jennie Jerome: The First Dollar Princess
The marriage that sparked the trend took place in 1874 between Brooklyn-born Jennie Jerome, a financier’s daughter, and Belgravia-born Lord Randolph Churchill, the 7th Duke of Marlborough’s son. After being introduced by the Prince of Wales, the couple enjoyed a whirlwind courtship. However, financial negotiations between their families delayed their wedding for months.
Lord Randolph Churchill’s vivacious bride received the elite title Lady and made a tremendous impression on the smart set. Less than a year after marrying into the aristocracy, she gave birth to Winston Churchill, who would become one of the most significant figures in British history when he led the nation to victory in the Second World War.
Leading Lights from Across the Atlantic
Hundreds of similarly bright, lively, stylish American heiresses followed in Jennie Jerome’s elegant footsteps and made their own contributions to British high society.
The most notable include:
- Consuelo Yznaga, a philanthropic Cuban American heiress, who married George Montagu, Viscount Mandeville, in 1876. Viscountess Mandeville’s title was upgraded to Duchess of Manchester when her husband inherited the dukedom in 1890. The marriage was unhappy, but she found a loyal friend in her mother-in-law, Louisa Montagu, who became the Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth House in 1892.
- Conseulo Vanderbilt, Consuelo Yznaga’s goddaughter, who wed Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough, in 1895. Her $2.5 million dowry made her the richest dollar princess and was used to renovate the Duke’s family seat, Blenheim Palace.
- Frances Work, a millionaire stockbroker’s daughter, who married James Roche, 3rd Baron Fermoy, in 1880. She’s best remembered as the great-great-grandmother of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge. Britain’s future king can therefore trace his lineage back to an American heiress.
The dollar princess phenomenon is significant enough to be the subject of a Library of Congress research guide, which documents the intense press interest in the marriages.
And through their descendants, the American heiresses’ influence is still being felt.
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