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Dollar Princesses – The Young American Ladies ‘Sold’ to the British Aristocracy

Louise Flatley

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hundreds of American women flocked to the United Kingdom in search of eligible, aristocratic bachelors. These were the so-called “Dollar Princesses”, wealthy American heiresses hoping to infiltrate the upper echelons of the British imperial elite.

In this period, the United States was a relatively young country without an aristocracy. Rich Americans seeking to elevate their status, therefore, had to look across the pond to their British neighbors in order to secure links to noble families.

For British aristocratic families, on the other hand, this foreign interest in their titles presented a significant opportunity. According to Smithsonian Magazine, several established families and estates were struggling in the late 19th century, and many British nobles were actually strapped for cash.

The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age

As the glory of the British Empire reached its pinnacle, some members of the upper strata of the British elite were struggling to keep up appearances.

Marrying a wealthy foreigner was the ideal way to boost the family income and inject a blast of American glamor into the staid and conservative British aristocracy. The Dollar Princesses were often young, beautiful, and wealthy enough to sustain a lavish lifestyle.

Moreover, by marrying British nobles they significantly raised their rank and influence and emerged as important political and social actors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Portrait of Lady Randolph Churchill, c. 1880

Portrait of Lady Randolph Churchill, c. 1880

According to the Smithsonian Magazine, the first of these affluent American émigrés was Jennie Jerome, the daughter of a fantastically rich American financier and speculator.

Born in Brooklyn, and a notable beauty, Jennie was introduced to the young Lord Randolph Churchill by the then-Prince of Wales, later to become Edward VII.

Within days they were engaged, although the official announcement was not made for several months, as their parents haggled over the marriage settlement.

Lord Randolph Churchill and Lady Randolph Churchill in Paris (1874) by Georges Penabert

Lord Randolph Churchill and Lady Randolph Churchill in Paris (1874) by Georges Penabert

As part of this agreement, Jennie brought with her £50,000, and a personal annual allowance of £1000. This was an enormous sum that transformed the fortunes of the young Lord Randolph, who until this point had been reliant on a small stipend from his father, the 7th Duke of Marlborough.

This marriage was significant for a number of reasons, not least because Jennie and Randolph’s first child was named Winston, and he would grow up to be Britain’s most famous and arguably most important political leader. However, according to Smithsonian Magazine, the union did not escape public scrutiny and was colored by scandal.

Lady Randolph Churchill with her two sons, John and Winston, 1889

Lady Randolph Churchill with her two sons, John and Winston, 1889

First, Winston was actually born only seven months after the marriage had taken place, leading to speculation that he had been conceived out of wedlock.

Second, both Jennie and Randolph engaged in several scandalous extra-marital affairs and Jennie was even reported to have had a dalliance with the Prince of Wales.

Regardless of the gossip, her society connections gave her significant influence in political circles, and she was instrumental in furthering the careers of both her husband and her son.

Jennie Spencer-Churchill photographed in 1889

Jennie Spencer-Churchill photographed in 1889

Jennie’s successful integration into British high society encouraged other American families to search for eligible bachelors on the other side of the Atlantic.

However, not all of these marriages were successful. Consuelo Vanderbilt, from one of the wealthiest families in the United States, was bitterly upset when she was forced, against her will, to marry the Duke of Marlborough.

Consuelo Vanderbilt

Consuelo Vanderbilt

She later recounted that she wept on the day of her wedding and she was very unhappy in her marriage. Both partners had a string of affairs and eventually separated after 10 years.

It is estimated that around 350 wealthy American women married into the British aristocracy between the late 19th century and the outbreak of the Second World War.

Many of these Dollar Princesses were effectively “sold” by their families and forced into a loveless marriage and a life that was not their choice.

Consuelo Vanderbilt with her father

Consuelo Vanderbilt with her father

Nevertheless, they often exploited their new status to become influential political and social actors in their own right.

Read another story from us: The Founding Mother – George Washington’s Mom was Quite the Character

Icons of the so-called Gilded Age, these women brought an estimated $25 billion into the British economy, shoring up many ancient aristocratic families and shaking up British elite culture in the process.