John Jacob Astor IV (July 13, 1864 – April 15, 1912). Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

16. America’s Nouveau Rich Emerged as Britain’s Aristocracy Was Crumbling

Many people in American history came from extraordinarily wealthy families or made fortunes in trading or other enterprises in the early days of the country. Consider John Jacob Astor, who grew up in an impoverished family in Europe but became the first multi-millionaire when he emigrated to America and set up a fur-trapping business. These wealthy elites, who had long since been established, turned their noses up at the nouveau rich, like the Vanderbilt’s. They were poor farmers on Staten Island who became one of the wealthiest families in Manhattan who was noted for their extravagant taste in jewelry and other conspicuous consumption.

At the same time, many members of the British aristocracy, the gold standard of inherited wealth and status, the most elite, influential, and exclusive social club in the world, found that their fortunes were rapidly eroding. Their riches had long been held up in the lands and agriculture of England, but much of England’s food production had been outsourced to the United States. With rural populations flocking to cities, the aristocracy frequently found that though they still had vast land holdings, they were not worth nearly what they had been.

Their houses were crumbling, and they couldn’t afford repairs. Their private yachts were stuck at the harbor because they couldn’t afford to take them to the Azores or Caribbean for a luxurious vacation. Keep in mind that if you are nobility, you don’t work. So these impoverished aristocrats just sat around and watched their fortunes collapse around them. Meanwhile, rich fathers on the other side of the Atlantic were prepared to pay exorbitant sums of money (read: dowries) so that their daughters could marry these most eligible bachelors and, in the process, gain a noble title for themselves.