Old money

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Old money (French: vieux riche) is "the inherited wealth of established upper-class families (i.e. gentry, patriciate)" or "a person, family, or lineage possessing inherited wealth".[1] The term typically describes a social class of the rich who have been able to maintain their wealth over multiple generations, often referring to perceived members of the de facto aristocracy in societies that historically lack an officially established aristocratic class (such as the United States).

United States

Wealth—assets held by an individual or by a household—provides an important dimension of social stratification because it can pass from generation to generation, ensuring that a family's offspring will remain financially stable. Families with "old money" use accumulated assets or savings to bridge interruptions in income, thus guarding against downward social mobility.[2]

"Old money" applies to those of the upper class whose wealth separates them from lower social classes. According to anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner, the upper class in the United States during the 1930s was divided into the upper-upper and the lower-upper classes.[3] The lower-upper were those that did not come from traditionally wealthy families. They earned their money from investments and business, rather than inheritance. Examples include John D. Rockefeller, whose father was a traveling peddler, Cornelius Vanderbilt whose father operated a ferry in New York Harbor, Henry Flagler who was the son of a Presbyterian minister, and Andrew Carnegie who was the son of a Scottish weaver. In contrast to the nouveau riche, the upper-upper class were families viewed as "quasi-aristocratic" and "high society".[3] These families had been rich and prominent in the politics of the United States for generations. In many cases their prominence dated since before the American Revolution (1765–1783), when their ancestors had accumulated fortunes as members of the elite planter class, or as merchants, slave traders, ship-owners, or fur traders. In many cases, especially in Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas, the source of these families' wealth were vast tracts of land granted to their ancestors by the Crown and or acquired by headright during the colonial period. These planter class families were often related to each other through intermarriage over the past 300 years, and are sometimes known as American gentry. They produced several Founding Fathers of the United States and a number of early Presidents of the United States. An example of this social class was George Washington, who with an estimated net worth of $525 million (in 2016 dollars) due to his vast holdings of land and slaves, was the wealthiest man to hold the office prior to the election of billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump in the 2016 United States presidential election. [4][5]

After the American Civil War (1861-1865), many in this social class saw their wealth greatly reduced. Their slaves became freedmen. Union forces under Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan had also cut wide swaths of destruction through portions of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. They destroyed crops, killed or confiscated livestock, burned barns and gristmills, and in some cases torched plantation houses and even entire cities such as Atlanta. They were using scorched earth tactics, designed to starve the Confederate States of America into submission. After the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (1865) and the emancipation of the slaves, many plantations were converted to sharecropping. Africans freedmen were working as sharecroppers on the same land which they had worked as slaves before the war. Despite the fact that their circumstances were greatly reduced, the enactment of Jim Crow laws and the disenfranchisement of freed black people allowed many planter class families in the Southern United States to regain their political prominence, if not their great wealth, following Reconstruction (1863-1877).

In the early 20th century, the upper-upper class were seen as more prestigious than the nouveau riche even if the nouveau riche had more wealth.[3] During the late 19th century and early 20th century, the nouveau rich flaunted their wealth by building Gilded Age mansions that emulated the palaces of European royalty, while old money was more conservative. American "Old money" families tend to adhere to various Mainline Protestant denominations; Episcopalians[6] and Presbyterians are the most prevalent among them.[7]

Some families with "old money" include:

Although many "old money" individuals do not rank as high on the list of Forbes 400 richest Americans as they once did, their wealth continues to grow. Many families increased their holdings by investment strategies such as the pooling of resources.[19]:115 For example, the Rockefeller family's estimated net worth of $1 billion in the 1930s grew to $8.5 billion by 2000—that is, not adjusted for inflation. In 60 years, four of the richest families in the United States increased their combined $2–4 billion in 1937 to $38 billion without holding large shares in emerging industries. When adjusted for inflation, the actual dollar wealth of many of these families has shrunk since the 30s.[19]:115[20]:2

From a private wealth manager's perspective, "old money" can be classified into two: active "old money" and passive "old money". The former includes inheritors who, despite the inherited wealth at their disposal or that which they can access in the future, choose to pursue their own career or set up their own businesses.[21] Paris Hilton and Sir Stelios Iaonnou are examples of this category. On the other hand, passive "old money" are those who are the idle rich or those who are not wealth producers.[21]

"Old money" contrasts with the nouveau riche and parvenus. These fall under the category "new money" (those not from traditionally wealthy families).


The Rothschild family, as an example, established finance houses across Europe from the 18th century and was ennobled by the Habsburg Emperor and Queen Victoria. Throughout the 19th century, they controlled the largest fortune in the world, in today's terms many hundreds of billions. The family has, at least to some extent, maintained its wealth for over two centuries. The Rothschilds were not, however, considered "old money" by their British counterparts. In Britain, the term generally exclusively refers to the landed gentry, usually the aristocracy and nobility who traditionally live off the land inherited paternally.[22] The British concept is analogous to good lineage and it is not uncommon to find someone with "old money" who is actually poor or insolvent.[23] By 2001, however, those belonging to this category—the aristocratic landowners—are still part of the wealthiest list in the United Kingdom.[24] For instance, the Duke of Westminster, by way of his Grosvenor estate, owns large swaths of properties in London that include 200 acres of Belgravia and 100 acres of Mayfair.[25] There is also the case of Viscount Portman, who is the owner of 100 acres of land north of Oxford Street.

In France, the "200 families" controlled much of the nation's wealth after 1815. The "200" is based on the policy that of the 40,000 shareholders of the Bank of France, only 200 were allowed to attend the annual meeting and they cast all the votes.[26] Out of a nation of 27 million people, only 80,000 to 90,000 were allowed to vote in 1820, and the richest one-fourth of them had two votes.[27]

Influences on popular culture

The ITV television series Downton Abbey frequently contrasts the differences between Old Money and New Money in Britain during the early 20th century. Notably between the newspaperman Sir Richard Carlisle and the heiress Lady Mary Crawley, the distinction being the aggression of the parvenu Sir Richard and the noblesse oblige of the Crawleys.

Perhaps the most famous critique of the tension between Old Money and New Money in American literature can be found in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. The characters in possession of old money represented by the "Tom Buchanan" family (Tom and Daisy), get away with (literally) murder; while those with new money, represented by Gatsby himself, are alternately embraced and scorned by other characters in the book. Fitzgerald vastly critiques people in possession of old money through his narrator Nick Carraway: "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

See also

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  1. "Old Money" The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 5 Nov. 2008. Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/oldmoney
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  11. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. pp. 526–527; J. W. Klise stated that Byrd began his legal education with his uncle. J. W. Klise, ed., State Centennial History of Highland County, 1902; 1902. Reprint. Owensboro, KY: Cook & McDowell, 1980, p. 168.
  12. Brock, Robert Alonzo (1888). Virginia and Virginians, Vol. I, p. 40. Richmond and Toledo: H.H. Hardesty.
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  14. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  15. Emory G. Evans, A "Topping People": The Rise and Decline of Virginia's Old Political Elite, 1680–1790 (2009), pp. 18–19
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  26. Theodore Zeldin, France 1848-1945, Vol. 1: Ambition, Love, and Politics (1973) pp 53-62.
  27. Alan B. Spitzer, "Restoration Political Theory and the Debate over the Law of the Double Vote" Journal of Modern History 55#1 (1983) pp. 54-70 online

Further reading

  • Fisher, Nick, and Hans Van Wees, eds. Aristocracy in Antiquity: Redefining Greek and Roman Elites (ISD LLC, 2015).
  • Janssens, Paul, and Bartolomé Yun-Casalilla, eds. European Aristocracies and Colonial Elites: Patrimonial Management Strategies and Economic Development, 15th–18th Centuries (Routledge, 2017).
  • McDonogh, Gary Wray. Good families of Barcelona: A social history of power in the industrial era (Princeton University Press, 2014).
  • Pincon, Michel, and Monique Pincon-Charlot. Grand Fortunes. Dynasties and Forms of Wealth in France (1998) excerpt
  • Porter, John. The vertical mosaic: An analysis of social class and power in Canada (1965).
  • Rothacher, Albrecht. The Japanese power elite (2016).
  • Schutte, Kimberly. Women, Rank, and Marriage in the British Aristocracy, 1485-2000: An Open Elite? (2014).
  • Stone, Lawrence. An open elite?: England, 1540-1880 (1986).

United States

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  • Allen, Irving Lewis. "WASP—From Sociological Concept to Epithet", Ethnicity 2.2 (1975): 153-162.
  • Baltzell, E. Digby. Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a New Upper Class (1958).
  • Beckert, Sven. The monied metropolis: New York City and the consolidation of the American bourgeoisie, 1850-1896 (2003).
  • Brooks, David. Bobos in paradise: The new upper class and how they got there (2010)
  • Davis, Donald F. "The Price of Conspicious Production: The Detroit Elite and the Automobile Industry, 1900-1933." Journal of Social History 16.1 (1982): 21-46. online
  • Farnum, Richard. "Prestige in the Ivy League: Democratization and discrimination at Penn and Columbia, 1890-1970." in Paul W. Kingston and Lionel S. Lewis, eds. The high-status track: Studies of elite schools and stratification (1990).
  • Foulkes, Nick. High Society – The History of America's Upper Class, (Assouline, 2008) ISBN 2759402886.
  • Fraser, Steve and Gary Gerstle, eds. Ruling America: A History of Wealth and Power in a Democracy, Harvard University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-674-01747-1.
  • Ghent, Jocelyn Maynard, and Frederic Cople Jaher. "The Chicago Business Elite: 1830–1930. A Collective Biography." Business History Review 50.3 (1976): 288-328. online
  • Hood. Clifton. In Pursuit of Privilege: A History of New York City's Upper Class and the Making of a Metropolis (2016). Covers 1760-1970.
  • Ingham, John N. The Iron Barons: A Social Analysis of an American Urban Elite, 1874-1965 (1978)
  • Jaher, Frederic Cople, ed. The Rich, the Well Born, and the Powerful: Elites and Upper Classes in History (1973), essays by scholars
  • Jaher, Frederick Cople. The Urban Establishment: Upper Strata in Boston, New York, Chicago, Charleston, and Los Angeles (1982).
  • Lundberg, Ferdinand: The Rich and the Super-Rich: A Study in the Power of Money Today (1968)
  • McConachie, Bruce A. "New York operagoing, 1825-50: creating an elite social ritual." American Music (1988): 181-192. online
  • Maggor, Noam. Brahmin Capitalism: Frontiers of Wealth and Populism in America's First Gilded Age (Harvard UP, 2017); 304 pp. online review
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  • Phillips, Kevin P. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, Broadway Books 2003, ISBN 0-7679-0534-2.
  • Story, Ronald. (1980) The forging of an aristocracy: Harvard & the Boston upper class, 1800-1870
  • Williams, Peter W. Religion, Art, and Money: Episcopalians and American Culture from the Civil War to the Great Depression (2016), especially in New York City