Old Money Last Names: Exploring the Wealthy & Influential Surnames

by | Mar 19, 2024 | Aristocracy, Kingdoms, Nobility, Noble Titles, Royal Titles

Throughout the evolution of civilisation, both individuals and groups have sought to classify members of society into certain hierarchies. 

While it may not seem appropriate to modern minds, given the contemporary culture of equality and democracy, there have been many themes throughout history that show how some social groups tend to categorise people based on varying criteria. 

One classic example is the hierarchy of royalty and aristocracy. In the world of royals and nobles, the criteria were relatively simple, usually based on the heritage (whether parents were of royal or noble birth), or the acquisition of a royal rank or noble title. 

These distinctions evolved over a number of centuries and varied slightly across the different countries and nations around the world. Yet human civilisation in general followed a common pattern of appointing certain individuals a more elevated status than others. 

The idea of an elite social class is something that can be seen in the histories of many of the world’s cultures. Though the ancient class systems may seem archaic today, they have played a significant role in the development of many modern societies. 

The Upper Classes: Old Money Vs New Money

It may seem that to belong to one of these elevated social groups meant automatic access to the entire community – invitations to the high society events, a seat at the right dinner parties, and entry to the country clubs where all the important people went to mingle with each other. 

For some, this was the case. Those born into the upper classes very often gained automatic entry to the highest echelons of society. Yet even within these prestigious groups  – the uber-wealthy and established royals and nobles – there were even more restrictions about who was considered ‘in’ and who was snubbed from the elite social gatherings. 

Sometimes, the criteria that made all the difference in being part of the right clubs was money – specifically, the source of family money

Unlike in modern times, when it’s the size of a fortune that holds the most sway on a person’s influence within society, in centuries past there was an idea of ‘Old Money‘, which was regarded as superior to the newly-acquired wealth of the self-made millionaires and billionaires. 

This Old Money was usually related to inherited wealth. So the families that came from generations of wealth and money were often considered more established in high society. These were the ones who made up the famous lists of social eminence, such as The Four Hundred in New York in the late 19th century. 

The names and families included on this all-important list were accepted as the traditional Upper Classes. Other memberships that carried social gravitas in the days of high society were aristocratic associations or gentlemen’s clubs, such as The Knickerbocker Club in New York City. 

Many of the Old Money families who enjoyed esteemed positions within these elite social clubs have become famous names in modern society. Some even have family members and descendants still alive today. 

Old Money Last Names

Here are some of the family names that appeared on those all-important Old Money lists, whether they made the cut originally, or they eventually became established within high society gatherings. 

  • The Byrd Family
  • The Roosevelt Family
  • The Astor Family
  • The Whitney Family
  • The Vanderbilt Family
  • The Rothschild Family
  • The Rockefeller Family
  • The Randolph Family
  • The Carter Family
  • The Forbes Family
  • The Getty Family
  • The Carnegie Family

Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist

Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist – Unidentified painter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the families were included in the original Old Money classifications. In America, these were usually based on which families could claim ties to the original colonists who came from Europe, in particular those who enjoyed land and wealth as grants from the Crown. 

Many of these families were based on the East Coast of America, where the first settlers began to build the towns and cities that we know today. These include Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas. (All places named after European queens.) 

Some of the other names are families that were originally shunned as New Money, also known as nouveau riche. These were the families and individuals who didn’t have historic links to the royals and nobles of the ages, they were just ordinary working-class people who had built enormous fortunes in commerce or industry. 

The irony of the Old Money snobbery was that so many of the wealthy socialites had inherited their place in society as a result of their hard-working ancestors who had risen from nothing. 

Regardless, the ideas of Old Money vs New Money were entrenched in high society circles, both in America and Europe. Perhaps the established American Old Money families were emulating the aristocracies of Europe, which had strict rules and regulations about who was and who wasn’t included in their number.  

Over time, however, the families that were initially regarded as working class upstarts eventually became part of the Old Guard, as subsequent generations inherited the original fortunes and began to mingle more successfully with the established Old Money elite. 

Historic Old Money Surnames

While the lines between Old Money and New Money have blurred over the centuries, there’s still a pride and devotion afforded to certain family names and surnames, particularly in the East Coast of America where the social elitism of lists like The Four Hundred played out most significantly.

The members of these families often feel proud of their historic roots, and hold a deep reverence for the ancient lineages of their families – something they have in common with the royals and nobles of the ages.  

Yet, there are also a number of later dynasties, the ones who were originally New Money but eventually integrated into the accepted Upper Class groups. 

The modern-day members of these families – many of whom bear surnames that we would recognise today – also feel a great degree of pride and reverence for the ambitious and enormously successful individuals who elevated their family name to its elite status. 

Their families also have vast fortunes comparable to, or even in excess of, the Old Money wealth that was passed down the generations. 

In line with the spirit of democracy that is more relevant today, public opinion often relates more to the calibre of the individuals than to the age or origin of distant fortunes.

If learning about these noble names has made you curious about acquiring a prestigious Noble Title of your own get in touch using the enquiry form in the sidebar or you can contact our Geneva office directly between 10.00-19.00, Monday to Friday on +41 225 181 360.

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