At the turn of the twentieth century 20 American women held the royal title of “princess.” In fact, some 500 American ladies became members of the European nobility during the time period from the end of the Civil War through the First World War. Historian Melissa Ziobro entertained the Historical Society of Moorestown with tales of these “Dollar Princesses.” The Mooretown Library hosted this latest program in the New Jersey History Speaks lecture series on March 13th.
So how did women raised in a country that rejected the concept of an aristocracy become part of a European one? Depending upon one’s perspective it could be argued that they did so in the good old capitalist fashion: they bought their titles.
Professor Ziobro explained that the United States transitioned from an agrarian society into an urban one starting in the mid-nineteenth century. This resulted in massive wealth creation. By 1900 some 4,000 millionaires lived in the country. Even with abundant financial resources, this “new wealth” failed to gain social acceptance among the nation’s “old wealth.”
Across the Atlantic, the nobility of Europe suffered through royalty’s equivalent of hard times. Their hereditary titles provided them with social status. The changing nature of society combined with their royal lifestyles, however, strained the remainder of their dwindling finances.
American ingenuity came up with a solution to both these dilemmas. Enter the era of the “Dollar Princesses.”
Professor Ziobro selected the subtitle to her talk, “New Jersey’s Lady Coras”, from a character in the television show Downton Abbey. Cora Levinson, a wealthy American, married into British royalty to become the Countess of Grantham. The concept of an American marrying into royalty intrigued the professor. It inspired her to research the topic further. She shared her findings with the audience.
The speaker described a quarterly publication from the era called Titled Americans. She compared it to “internet dating sites today.” The second half of the journal listed eligible European nobles. As the professor observed, “The lure of being an actual princess was strong.”
Professor Ziobro described many of these marriages as “not happy.” In some cases American mothers drove their daughters into theses unions. Many ended in divorce.
To compound the misery of the “Dollar Princesses”, the media vilified them. News publications criticized the amount of money they took out of the United States. When adjusted for inflation, Professor Ziobro estimated that these expatriates added $25 billion dollars to the United Kingdom’s economy alone.
The professor shared brief biographical sketches of some of these women. Jennie Jerome of New York was the most famous. Upon marrying a British aristocrat she became known as Lady Randolph Churchill. The speaker called their marriage a true “love match.” The couple remained together until Lord Churchill’s death. The couple is still well known today as the parents of British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill.
A few of these “Dollar Princesses” came from New Jersey. Consuelo Yznaga lived in Orange at the time she married the Duke of Manchester. This marriage wasn’t a happy one. The Duke became displeased upon discovering that his duchess didn’t possess the financial means he believed she did when he married her. He expressed his discontent by resuming his bachelor ways in the UK. The American media portrayed him as a figure of derision.
During the question period, most audience members inquired about the divorces. Professor Ziobro depicted them to be as unpleasant as the marriages they ended. Divorced “Dollar Princesses” didn’t retain their aristocratic titles. The men didn’t refund dowries, either. The professor explained that the women’s abundant financial resources provided them the means to get divorced.
Professor Ziobro based her remarks on an article she wrote for New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal; a publication she also edits. “’The almighty dollar will buy you, you bet/A superior class of coronet’: Biographical Sketches of N.J.’s Gilded Age ‘Dollar Princesses’” appeared in the summer 2018 edition.
“The First World War marked the death knell of the ‘Dollar Princess’ craze,” the professor said. “The Old World ways of life lost their appeal.” Professor Ziobro said that she’d delivered this lecture twenty times. Judging from the attendance at this one, interest in this trend won’t lose its appeal in the foreseeable future.