16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty

Trista - February 8, 2019

The Gilded Age, which began in the years after the Civil War, was characterized by wealthy railroad tycoons, steel barons, and sugar kings who quite literally had more money than they knew what to do with. However, there was a catch: they weren’t royalty, and that just wouldn’t do.

The American Constitution forbids the American government from giving out titles of nobility, and elected officials are not supposed to accept a claim that is given to them from a foreign country. For example, if the Queen of England were to knight somebody and that same man was to go on to be elected to Congress, he would be expected to drop the title that he obtained.

There were some excellent reasons for spurning the idea of nobility in the New World. The Founding Fathers wanted to make sure that the system that they created, which would evolve into what we now understand as democracy, wouldn’t become compromised through a network of status and privilege (though some would argue that happened anyway, without formal titles). Still, who wouldn’t want to become a baroness, a duchess, or even a princess? The American government seems to only stand in the way of your dreams.

But when you are so filthy rich that you have a gold-plated toilet in your bathroom, you can figure out a way to buy your way out of that quandary. Enter the dollar princesses, the daughters of these super-wealthy elites whose parents paid top-dollar dowries so that they could marry into the British aristocracy. Read on to learn more about the practice that led to the dollar princesses and how their legacy can still be seen.

 

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
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.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
Consuelo Vanderbilt on her wedding day in 1910. Persephone Books/ Wikimedia Commons.

15. A Mutually Beneficial Practice Helped Fix Both Problems

America’s nouveau rich were not accepted by the old rich, who felt that they were trashy and eroding the bedrock of American society. The solution, of course, was for the nouveau rich to have their daughters marry into British nobility and gain titles for themselves, enabling them to enter the most exclusive circles ever. They would then become grounded in the wealth of the old world instead of trying to prove themselves to the old rich of America. Their daughters would become noblewomen and inherit a legacy that they would be able to pass on to their children, some of whom would become royalty.

On the other side of the Atlantic, British aristocrats were keen to have their fortunes restored without having to work. They were more than willing to accept enormous dowries in exchange for marrying the daughters of America’s super-wealthy nouveau rich. An entire matchmaking industry ensued, with people on both sides of the Atlantic trying to arrange marriages between the daughters of the nouveau rich and the near-broke noblemen of England. The practice proved to be extremely lucrative (though many would come to see it as morally bankrupt and a form of slavery) for both of the families involved in the marriage contract.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
The Duchess of Marlborough, born Consuelo Vanderbilt, in 1911. Hulton Archive/ Getty Images/ History.

14. The Brides Cried at Their Weddings

The daughters of the Gilded Age’s nouveau rich had everything that they could want. They had jewelry, clothing, servants, and quite often, men who loved them. The problem is that they often were not able to marry the men that they liked because their parents paid for them to marry a stranger in the United Kingdom. Consuelo Vanderbilt was the daughter of William Vanderbilt, who shared the Vanderbilt’s newly-found fortune and could afford to “buy” his daughter a noble title by having her marry the Ninth Duke of Marlborough. The problem was that both Consuelo and the duke were in love with other people.

Consuelo’s wedding was the social event of the season. In November of 1895, crowds lined Fifth Avenue as she made her way to St. Thomas Episcopal Church. The wedding was the definition of a celebrity wedding; her mother leaked everything about it, down to the golden clasps on the wedding gown, to the press, which ate it up. Of the wedding, Consuelo said, “I spent the morning of my wedding day in tears and alone; no one came near me.” Meanwhile, the duke would obtain, through Consuelo’s dowry, the money that he needed to continue maintaining Blenheim Palace and pursue some much-needed renovations.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
Lady Randolph Churchill, born Jennie Jerome, with her two sons, John and Winston, 1889. Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

13. Winston Churchill Was the Son of a Dollar Princess

Consuelo endured a mercenary marriage to a man that she found to be cold, distant, and snobbish. She wasn’t the only one; Jennie Jerome, whose marriage helped spark the trend, was covered in tattoos when Lord Randolph Churchill presented her to his parents and announced their engagement. They had only known each other for three days, and his parents were horrified that he would want to marry an American socialite instead of a British noblewoman. Then they realized that her dowry was enormous – over four million dollars in today’s money – and begrudgingly approved of the marriage.

The couple married in 1874, and the new Lady Randolph Churchill gave birth to a son that she named Winston. That’s right, the man who led Britain against the Nazis during World War II was half-American. The privileged aristocracy that he was born into probably helped his political rise, and his American heritage helped him garner support on both sides of the Atlantic. In fact, quite a few influential characters in twentieth-century British history were the children of dollar princesses. Meanwhile, her husband’s parents helped to spark a trend of the aristocracy reclaiming their wealthy by marrying wealthy American girls whose parents were keen to gain entry into the most exclusive social club of them all.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
A photograph of Consuelo Vanderbilt, who became the Duchess of Marlborough, with her two sons in 1899. Wikimedia Commons.

12. The Dollar Princesses Were Frequently Not Accepted in British Social Circles

The daughters of America’s nouveau rich had the latest and most magnificent amenities. Their houses were often entirely new and had running water, even a hot and cold tap. They were well-insulated and heated so that drafts were not troublesome. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the houses that they moved into were often centuries old. Taking a bath became a chore that involved servants making half a dozen trips from the basement bathtub to the kitchen, carrying buckets of boiling water. Life with nobility quickly proved to be less than the life of ease that they and their parents had anticipated that it would be.

So the daughters of enterprising entrepreneurs decided that they would be enterprising themselves and start renovating their houses. They wanted to modernize their estates, at least make their homes less dark and cold, but doing so was anathema to the tradition-rich nobility of Britain. Their peers saw them as snide and turned their noses up at the women whose roots were not aristocratic. They were frequently dismissed from the social circles that their parents had paid so much money for them to become a part of. Basically, they gave up their homes and families on one side of the Atlantic to be spurned on the other side.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
Mary Victoria Leiter, Vicereine of India. Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

11. One Dollar Princess Became Vicereine of India

Parents can’t be faulted for wanting the best for their children. Who can blame a doting mother and father for seeing their precious baby girl as a princess, and then conspiring to help her really become one? Enter Mary Leiter, who was born in Chicago to a Mary and Levi Leiter, the super wealthy founder of the Field and Leiter business. She entered society in Washington, DC and was privately tutored by a professor from Columbia University. Her education and extensive traveling at an early age primed her with the poise and grace that would endear her to Baron George Curzon, Viceroy of India.

Keep in mind that an American cannot be born into nobility unless their British parents have American citizenship. Mary, however, was able to marry into it. Her father’s wealth not only paid for an enormous dowry to George Curzon but may have also helped him climb through the ranks and become the viceroy (a viceroy essentially controls in proxy for the king; India was a colony of the British Empire and was ruled by the British crown). As his wife, Mary became the vicereine, the highest title that a woman could hold in the entire British Empire. Not bad for daddy’s little princess.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
Wallis Simpson, who was from Pennsylvania, with the Prince of Wales at Kitzbühel, Austria, in February 1935 before they were married. Photographer unknown – Published in Life, 14 December 1936, p. 37/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

10. The Marriages Were Often Arranged

Consuelo Vanderbilt was distraught at being coerced by her parents into marrying the Duke of Marlborough. She said of her wedding preparations, “A footman had been posted at the door of my apartment, and not even my governess was admitted. Like an automaton, I donned the lovely lingerie with its real lace and the white silk stockings and shoes.” Of the wedding itself, “I felt cold and numb as I went down to meet my father and the bridesmaids who were waiting for me.” Both partners would have numerous affairs before divorcing ten years later.

To assist with arranging marriages between American nouveau-rich princesses and British noblemen, guidebooks that served as a “who’s who” appeared on both sides of the Atlantic so that people could take their choice. Matchmakers would cross the Atlantic to try to secure the most profitable (and hopefully at least somewhat happy) marriages between American women and British men. Some of the girls, like Jennie Jerome, were eager to marry into nobility, and the men were quite thrilled at the windfall that came with their huge dowries. However, plenty of them, like Consuelo, were forced by their parents into marriages that were unhappy and lonely.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
The character of Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey, played by Elizabeth McGovern, is based on Chicago-born Mary Leiter, who married Lord Curzon of Kedleston, Viceroy of India in 1895. ITV/ Daily Mail.

9. Downton Abbey Features a Dollar Princess

In the television show, Cora Crawley, wife of Lord Grantham, is a dollar princess. She hails from a multi-millionaire in Ohio, who paid a massive dowry for her to be able to marry into the British nobility. The character of Cora Crawley is based on the real Lady Almina, who lived at the house where Downton Abbey was filmed. She married the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, who came from a family that was descending into penury but still wanted to live a free-wheeling, free-spending good life. The massive dowry that her father paid enabled her husband to continue traveling abroad on private yachts.

Almina was the illegitimate child of Alfred de Rothschild, of the famous family that made a fortune in banking. He indulged her every financial whim; however, because she was born out of wedlock, she wasn’t able to partake of many of the same social circles as her kin. Her father made up for this by paying for her to marry into British nobility. The plan must have worked, because today, Downton Abbey – much of which is based on her – is one of the most popular shows on both sides of the Atlantic. In fact, her dowry helped pay for the restoration of the building in which the show is filmed.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
The Earl of Yarmouth in 1900. The Library of Congress/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

8. Struggling British Noblemen Took Out Ads for Dollar Princesses

Although the dollar princesses whose parents bought their way into British nobility were met with skepticism and disdain by many in Britain, the trend definitely took off when struggling noblemen realized that they could reclaim their fortunes by marrying an American girl. They were quite eager to list themselves as eligible bachelors in what might have looked like a modern dating service. The Titled American was one publication that not only displayed the happiness that the American brides had found with their new titles but also listed the eligible British bachelors who had paid for an ad and were willing to sell their names for money.

One such ad was from the Marquess of Winchester. It read, “The Marquess of Winchester is 32 years of age and a captain of the Coldstream Guards.” It also listed their incomes, estates, professions, and other eligible family members. If an American girl (or, more often, her mother) was interested in the prospective groom’s profile, she could respond to the ad instead of swiping right or sending a smiley face. The publication was revised every year so that the super-wealthy girls always had an updated list of Britain’s most eligible bachelors to choose from.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
Frances Work became Mrs. Burke Roche. George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

7. Princess Diana Descended From a Dollar Princess

Frances Ellen Work, known to her friends as Fannie, was born in New York City in 1857 to a self-made multi-millionaire, Frank Work. By the time Frank died, he had amassed a fortune of $15 million, billions in today’s money. Fannie was considered by those around her to be exceptionally beautiful, and her grandmother was keen to see that this beauty be fully appreciated. After all, her maternal grandmother, Ellen Strong, had found herself in the presence of eight presidents. She wanted Fannie to have the same opportunities, if not more, to be able to run in the most prestigious social circles of them all: British nobility.

Fannie married James Boothby Burke Roche, the son of the First Baron Fermoy. He enjoyed a lavish lifestyle but wasn’t particularly wealthy. That is until he obtained Fannie’s dowry. Ironically, Fannie’s father vehemently disapproved of the marriage and wrote her out of his will, possibly to keep more of his hard-earned money from falling into the free-spending hands of the baron. After all, the baron blew most of his wife’s $2.5 million dowries on gambling. The marriage was far from a total loss: Fannie’s granddaughter was Princess Diana, the “people’s princess” who was known for her advocacy for the poor.

Of the mercenary marriage, Diana’s brother said, “I don’t know if he fell in love with her, or her father’s fortune.”

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
Lady Curzon wearing the “Peacock Dress” created for her in 1903 by the House of Worth (designed by Charles Frederick’s son, Jean-Philippe Worth). This portrait completed posthumously in 1909 by William Logsdail following Lady Curzon’s death in 1906. Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

6. The Attire of Dollar Princesses Was Beyond Glamorous

When Consuelo Vanderbilt’s mother, Alva, secured her daughter’s engagement to the Duke of Marlborough, she left nothing to the imagination as she leaked every single detail of her daughter’s wedding to the press. She even gave them details about the undergarments that her daughter would be wearing as she walked down the aisle. To put it mildly, Consuelo’s wedding dress was unparalleled. Moreover, she was far from the only dollar princess who donned the most expensive, elegant attire that money could buy. Consider Mary Leiter, the Chicago-born daughter of a dry goods tycoon who became the Vicereine of India.

In 1902, when King Edward VII was coronated, Mary wore a dress that had been designed by the first couture designers, the House of Worth. The gown was made of gold (that’s right, gold) cloth that was bedecked with peacock feathers. Today, the dress is so renowned that it is on display at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire and is maintained by England’s National Trust, which claims that over 115 years after it was initially made, the dress remains a favorite to visitors. There is no way to understate the extravagance of the dollar princesses, who quite literally had the best that money could buy.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
A self-portrait of Winnaretta Singer circa 1885. Fondation Singer-Polignac Paris/ Wikimedia Commons.

5. One Heiress Married a French Prince… Twice

Winnaretta Singer was the twentieth of twenty-four (yes, twenty-four) children born to Isaac Merritt Singer, the man who invented the modern sewing machine. She grew up mostly between New York City, France, and England. When she was 22 years old, she married the French prince Louis-Vilfred de Scey-Montbeliard. Five years later, the marriage was annulled. The next year, she married a different French prince, Edmond de Polignac. They remained married until Edmond died in 1901. Of course, the annulment of the marriage between an American dollar princess and a French prince raised many eyebrows in France’s more traditional society, but there was a pretty good reason for it: the marriage was never consummated.

Winnaretta was a lesbian and, like so many other dollar princesses, married the prince so that she could get a noble title. On their wedding night, she reportedly climbed onto the wardrobe and, waving an umbrella at her husband, said, “I am going to kill you if you come near me!” The second prince that she married happened to be gay, so the two enjoyed a platonic union that was more of a friendship and business arrangement. They hosted musicians at their home and championed the arts and other creative endeavors.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
Blenheim Palace, where Winston Churchill was born. xlibber/ Wikimedia Commons.

4. The Dollar Princesses Revamped Britain’s Aristocracy and Economy

The rise of American agriculture and industry proved to be a bust for Britain, which had previously been an industrial powerhouse for the world. Food could be grown, and usually for much cheaper, on the vast prairies and farmlands of rural America, and goods that had once been exclusively made in British factors could be produced en masse in the United States. Rural English families lost their farms, which were usually owned by nobles, and had to move to the cities. These noble men and women found their fortunes eroding as the British economy slowly crumbled beneath their feet. They needed to be rescued, and fast, or else their free-spending lifestyles would come to an abrupt end.

Enter the dollar princesses. The money in their dowries was enough to revive the fading fortunes of newly-impoverished noblemen. Not only that, but their American tastes frequently meant that they wanted to renovate their centuries-old estates. All told, they injected the present-day equivalent of about $25 billion into the British economy – just through their dowries. That number doesn’t account for the number of jobs that were created to satisfy their tastes, such as the construction workers and architects who were hired to renovate their homes. Still, many wealthy (and unfortunate) British families turned their noses up at them.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
A portrait of Nancy Astor, about 1926. The Print Collector/ Print Collector/ Getty Images.

3. One Dollar Princess Became the Second Woman in Parliament

Ever since John Jacob Astor made his fortune in fur-trapping and trading in the eighteenth century and went on to buy up much of the property in Manhattan, the Astor family has been synonymous with the most elite circles of American society. The New York 400 was a list of the most prominent socialites, kept by Caroline Astor, and was a veritable who’s who of American aristocracy. Of course, they weren’t real aristocracy, because the American government cannot give titles. But who cares when you have money coming out of your ears? William Astor was born in the US, but he spent most of his life in London and was so surrounded by British aristocracy that he adopted their lifestyle.

When he married Nancy Langhorne Shaw, a girl from Virginia, she shed her country roots and adopted the title Lady Astor. She immediately was accepted into both British and New York social circles with incredibly high status. So high, in fact, that in 1919, she decided to run for the British Parliament in a bid to gain the seat that her husband had once held. When she was elected, she became the second woman elected to Parliament. Not bad, considering that she was American.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
The Ninth Duke of Marlborough, and Winston Churchill’s grandfather, was born in India in 1871. Geni.

2. They Helped Noblemen Rebuild Crumbling Palaces

British noblemen who were finding themselves short of funds for their lavish lifestyles needed more than money to continue traveling on private yachts. Their homes, which were often centuries old, frequently were in dire need of repairs that they could not afford. When Alva Vanderbilt arranged for her daughter to marry the Duke of Marlborough, he was thrilled at the match because the money from her dowry could help repair Blenheim Palace, which was falling apart. As soon as the marriage was official on both sides of the Atlantic, the duke began using the money from his wife’s dowry to undertake repairs.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
Charles, 9th Duke of Marlborough, with Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough (born Vanderbilt), and their sons John, the 10th Duke of Marlborough, and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill. Blenheim Palace/ John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery/ Wikimedia Commons.

1. The Practice of Selling Girls for Titles Came to be Viewed as Slavery

Frances Work, who married into nobility against her father’s wishes, became the great-grandmother of Princess Diana. However, her father never got over what she did. In his obituary, he was quoted as having said, “It’s time this international marrying came to a stop for our American girls are ruining our own country by it. As fast as our honorable, hard working men can earn this money their daughters take it and toss it across the ocean.” Apparently, he wasn’t too happy about being used as a bank account with unlimited funds, or about his daughter marrying a British aristocrat just so she could get a title.

He saw right through the practice, realizing that the British noblemen who were obtaining massive, multi-million-dollar dowries (which could be worth tens, if not hundreds, of millions, in today’s money) so that they could spend it on themselves, often through gambling or expensive vacations. Though the marriages might have been seen as mutually beneficial, ultimately, they were destructive, not only to the individuals who engaged in them but also to the countries that were involved. Americans were shedding money to prop up Britain’s economy, just for status artificially. There had to be a better way for the daughters of the nouveau rich to be accepted.

 

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

“The ‘Dollar Princess’ and the Duke.” Christie’s. October 22, 2016.

“How American Dollar Princesses Invaded British High Society,” by Erin Blakemore. History.com. May 18, 2018.

“Meet the real-life Lady Cora.” The Independent. September 18, 2011.

“Titled Americans, the 1890s Guide to Snagging an Aristocrat,” by Evangeline Holland. Edwardian Promenade. August 9, 2012.

“Frances Ellen Work: The New York roots of Prince Harry,” by Chris Graham. The Telegraph. November 28, 2017.

“Lady Mary Curzon’s Peacock dress.” The National Trust.

“Who the F Is … Arts Patron Winnaretta Singer?” by Trudy Ring. Pride. January 29, 2015.

“The Dollar Princesses: How American Social Climbers Sold Their Daughters To British Nobles For Rank,” by Genevieve Carlton. Ranker.

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