It’s the 19th century, and a strange phenomenon is sweeping through the United Kingdom. Scores of rich American women have started to flock to the country — and they’ve come with clear a motive in mind. We’ve now entered into the strange historical era of the so-called “Dollar Princesses.”
Jennie and Randolph
One of these Dollar Princesses was Jennie Jerome, who in 1874 became engaged to a British aristocrat by the name of Randolph Churchill. The pair had only met three days before their engagement, but they were apparently happy to move things along quickly. Not everyone was quite so pleased, though.
Randolph’s mom and dad were left seething when they found out about their son’s engagement. Thinking quite a lot of themselves, they were appalled that their British son would take an American as a wife. But they soon hopped off their high horse when they saw how the union would benefit them.
Jennie’s family were rich — very rich. And despite their fancy notions of themselves, the Churchills weren’t as wealthy as they wanted to be. So when they heard that Jennie’s dad was going to pay the Churchills a lot of money in the form of a dowry, they were certainly more willing to let the marriage take place. Even with the promise of hot cash, they still weren’t happy.
Ignorant of the true significance of their actions, the Churchill and Jerome families were kickstarting a series of events that would ultimately change the world. The union they’d agreed to let happen would produce a child of tremendous historic importance. And the marriage also set a template that many more American and British families would soon follow. The Dollar Princess era was now up and running.
The Gilded Age
To properly understand the Dollar Princesses phenomenon, we need to first get a grasp on the period of American history known as the Gilded Age. This took place in the years after the Civil War had ended and before the 20th century had gotten under way. It was a time of tremendous change in America, not least in terms of its remarkable economic growth.
Predictably, though, the wealth that accumulated in the United States during the Gilded Age was not spread evenly throughout the society. It was concentrated within the hands of a small few, who used it to their own advantage. Tycoons and oligarchs held tremendous sway within the ways the country was run, while everyone else had to make do with their lot.
It was actually Mark Twain who came up with the phrase “The Gilded Age” to describe this time in history. He used it as the title for one of his books — and he meant the term in a negative sense. If something is gilded, after all, it means it has a veneer of gold on its surface. Underneath that sheen, though, it might not be so pretty.
Gary Lawrence is an architect and writer who also runs a couple of online communities dedicated to the Gilded Age and its history. In a 2022 conversation with Town & Country magazine, he explained Twain’s joke. He said, “Basically, Mark Twain was making fun of the new rich covering wood and other objects with a thin layer of gold to make them seem more expensive and important.”
Legacy of war
The wealthy Americans of the Gilded Age generally started to acquire their money in the wake of the Civil War. A lot of factories dedicated to the war economy had sprung up during the conflict, but they weren’t being shut down now that it had ended. Instead, they were repurposed.
Businesses that had started out small were now growing and expanding. Some became massive, which made their owners very rich and powerful. Everyone else, meanwhile, largely fell into the orbit of these tycoons. Whereas most citizens had been self-employed in the middle of the 19th century, most were now workers under the employ of someone else by the dawn of the 20th.
According to the website UShistory.org, the economy of the United States pretty much doubled between the years 1877 and 1893. It was a dog-eat-dog sort of environment, though, as businesspeople who couldn’t keep up were ruthlessly destroyed. Some were bought out, but others lost everything.
The ones who made it big became famous, even if they happened to acquire their vast wealth by unscrupulous means. To this very day, we’d still recognize the names of people such as J. Pierpont Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller. Their names, after all, are still blazoned on notable buildings and corporations today.
By the years leading up to World War I, the United States had overtaken the empires of Europe as the world’s most significant industrial country. Its economy was booming, though if you were in the lower classes you wouldn’t have known it. Poverty was rampant for an awful lot of people.
Even those at the top were often unhappy. Greed is an overwhelming force, and sometimes nothing is ever enough. Tycoons with all the money in the world craved something they couldn’t have: status. Sure, they made names for themselves, but they weren’t actual royalty. That was a problem for some of these people.
The Constitution of the United States doesn’t allow for fancy noble titles to be given out to American citizens. So there can be no “sirs” or “dames” like there are in Britain. And even if you were given one of these titles by a foreign monarch — say the English king or queen — then you’d have to give it up if you wanted to be a senior governmental official in the U.S.
The basic premise behind this rule is clear, even if it didn’t exactly pan out right. The Founding Fathers wanted to avoid a situation in which someone of high, aristocratic status could simply waltz into government and manipulate its workings. Whether or not they managed to avoid such a situation is up to you to decide.
Back to the Old World
But the obscenely wealthy don’t tend to enjoy being told “no,” and some of them really wanted to officially become aristocrats. So this is where we see the rise of the Dollar Princesses. These wealthy ladies wanted high status, so they set out to go get it in the Old World.
Rich people problems
While the American elite was thriving during its Gilded Age, the British aristocracy wasn’t doing so well. The United Kingdom had once been a great food producer, but now the United States had taken over. That left British landowners in a bit of a bind, as the value of their estates plummeted.
Rust and rot
The massive, old mansions that these aristocrats were living in began to decay, with renovations proving too expensive to conduct. Their fancy yachts proved too expensive to sail, so instead they were left to rust and rot. In other words, British nobles were now watching their personal empires disintegrate and crumble.
These cranky rich Brits, though, would soon find salvation in the form of Americans. Over in the States, certain wealthy families were craving the very lofty status of the aristocracy that their Constitution forbade. And how do you go about infiltrating that social class? By marrying into it, of course.
A sweet deal
If rich American families sent their daughters to Britain, these girls could find some single aristocrat and marry him. That way, the girl would be given a fancy title and the family would officially be as elite as it gets. All they’d have to do is send a little money over to the British families to sweeten the deal.
Start of a phenomenon
And here we have the basis of the Dollar Princess phenomenon. A whole industry sprang into being, where matchmakers would set up marriages between ladies from rich American families with gentlemen from aristocratic — but increasingly poor — ones. With American cash flowing into British families in exchange for titles, the arrangement allowed both sides to get what they desired.
One of the first Dollar Princesses, as we’ve seen, was Jennie Jerome, who tied the knot with Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874. Randolph’s parents were firmly against the union, but the prospect of getting their hands on some of the Jerome family’s wealth proved too tempting to pass up. Promised a dowry worth the equivalent of more than $4 million today, they allowed the wedding to take place.
A big name
Before long, Jennie and Randolph were starting a family. The couple ended up having two boys, the younger of whom was named John. The elder boy, though, is probably more recognizable today. His name was Winston. So, although they didn’t quite know it yet, Jennie and Randolph had brought a prime minister into the world.
Hundreds of princesses
That fact might make Jennie Jerome one of the most famous Dollar Princesses in history, but she was far from the only one. To the contrary, hundreds of American ladies made the journey across the Atlantic to marry into the British aristocracy. In doing so, they injected huge sums of money into Britain’s economy, while also shoring up the social standing of their families.
The Dollar Princess era took place roughly from the end of the 19th century to around the time of World War II. It wasn’t a particularly long period, then, but it nonetheless changed Britain forever. It even had implications for the monarchy itself, as we’ll come to shortly.
Not all good
We’ve seen how the arranged marriages benefited the Dollar Princesses themselves, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Sure, they had fancy new titles to flaunt, but the reality of their new lives in Britain was sometimes pretty grim. In America they’d lived fancy, modern lifestyles, but over in the U.K. they were now living in big, cold mansions that were falling apart.
Dark and dingy
In a 2013 article for Newsweek, a writer named Daisy Goodwin summed up the situation for many of the Dollar Princesses rather well. She wrote, “After marriage, they found themselves chatelaines of houses where taking a bath involved a housemaid making five trips from the kitchen in the basement, carrying jugs of hot water to fill a hip bath. The stately homes of England were all too often dark, dingy, and terribly cold.”
Not happy with their living arrangements, many of these wealthy ladies began the task of renovating these mansions. And that often didn’t go down very well with the British aristocrats, who were far more conservative by nature. As a result, a lot of animosity was aimed in the ladies’ direction.
A mixed bag
The situation was a bit of a mixed bag for the Dollar Princesses, when it came to their social standing. On the one hand, they were despised by the British elite. But back home in America, their fancy titles made them part of a very select group people that other rich Americans coveted.
The reverence the Dollar Princesses felt back in America was obviously too tempting for lots of these women to pass up, as so many made the journey to marry into the aristocracy. The practice was so popular, in fact, that a magazine was printed specifically aimed at making matches. It would list single aristocratic men, leading to an influx of rich American ladies coming over to the U.K. to try and marry them.
Some of the Dollar Princesses managed to marry men with particularly high-ranking titles. The practice became commonplace, and it didn’t look like slowing down. In an article from 1904, the San Francisco Call newspaper proclaimed, “Though the British peerage has of late years yielded many titled husbands to American heiresses, there is no danger of the supply running short.”
According to the History Collection website, a staggering amount of American money found its way into Britain because of the Dollar Princesses. Citing one extravagant estimate, the site claims something close to $25 billion in today’s money ended up in the U.K. — and that was only from the dowries alone.
We’re talking about even greater sums when we consider the wider industry that formed because of the Dollar Princesses. Let’s think about the renovations they conducted on their massive estates, for example. That would have meant architects and builders were employed, which in turn means pumping more American money into the British economy.
The Baron’s wedding
The Dollar Princess phenomenon really swept through Britain’s elite circles. It was a widespread practice, which even took hold of the royal family. For example, a wedding took place in 1880 between the man who would one day become known as Baron Fermoy and an American socialite called Frances Ellen Work.
A famous great-grandchild
Though the marriage between Baron Fermoy and Frances Ellen didn’t work out, it did produce a notable line of descendants. You may not recognize the names of these two people, but their great-grandchild became known all over the world. This was Princess Diana, who married right into the royal family.
So even though the Dollar Princesses were largely disdained by much of the British aristocracy, they nonetheless managed to integrate themselves into it. And that went right to the top, with some now having descendants who broke into the royal family. It doesn’t get much more upper-class and hoity-toity than that.
A strange time
The Dollar Princess phenomenon was a strange chapter in British and American history. Often, it led to unhappy relationships. And though it arguably propped up the economy of the U.K., it was doing so on dubious grounds. The American families involved were basically just buying titles that didn’t really mean anything.
But the legacy of the period is seen today in the stately properties that litter England today. For an idea of what they were like, throw on an episode of Downton Abbey. These were the sorts of places that the Dollar Princesses breathed new life into with their interior design ideas and their riches.