Old Money vs New Money Within The Aristocracy

Dec 3, 2021 | Noble Titles, USA

Within the higher echelons of society such as the nobility or aristocratic systems of the world, there’s an idea of Old Money vs New Money. This is a kind of discrimination or judgement about individuals or their families, based on their background, familial lineage and how they created their wealth.

One of the most ancient and well-known aristocratic systems in the world is the nobility of England and Europe, which evolved from the feudal systems and royal courts of the Middle Ages. These social orders went on to become the Landed Gentry and titled persons who inherited wealth, family estates, noble titles or rank such as Duke, Earl, Count, Viscount or Lord.

Historically, these individuals and their families came from a long and established line of nobility, or what’s known within these circles as a ‘good background’, which usually involves claims to aristocratic heritage, as well as the right schooling and education. When substantial wealth accompanies all these criteria, these people are generally regarded as Old Money.

Old Money

Within the aristocracy, Old Money is typically viewed as being more acceptable, more respectable and more appealing than those regarded as New Money. In the marriage markets that evolved in the upper and noble classes over the centuries, Old Money was deemed to be a much more valuable attribute in a potential suitor or future wife.

For example, if a socially ambitious mother had grand visions for marrying her daughters ‘well’, she would most likely pursue a match with a rich noble family that had Old Money backgrounds. These would be deemed much more favourable and socially acceptable than New Money candidates – however charming, handsome, or devoted to her beloved daughters. An Old Money suitor may even be regarded as preferable to a nouveau riche paramour, even if the New Money man had much better financial prospects or greater wealth.

One famous example of this Old Money preference is in the novel Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen. The mother of the numerous Bennett sisters is desperately keen to marry off her daughters to the most eligible bachelors possible. In Mrs Bennet’s mind – as with many mothers of the time – the best catches come from the local Landed Gentry, those young unmarried men who possess substantial country estates, also known as family seats, that came with considerable incomes and inherited wealth.

Scenes from Pride and Prejudice

C.E. Brock, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While the novel was a work of fiction, it was based on a well-known and accepted truth within society, i.e. that wealthy aristocratic bachelors were regarded as the ultimate match for any socially ambitious young lady (or her parents). This is a classic example of the respect and admiration for Old Money nobility throughout the ages.

While Jane Austen’s Pride & prejudice was set in the early 19th century, the preference for Old Money Vs New Money within the aristocracy was a well-known phenomenon in earlier times. Interestingly, one of the places most renowned for this type of snobbery and discrimination was a country that had never had a true aristocracy in the official sense: America.

New Money

As the ‘self-made men’ of the American Industrial Age began to accumulate vast fortunes, the more established High Society families were known to close rank on these New Money families. Established Old Money families such as the famous Astor family, whose wealth and prominence stretched back to the 1700s, became the self-appointed arbiters of which families were acceptable within American High Society, with a distinct disdain for the newly minted millionaires and their wives and daughters.

The undoubted queen of this cultural prejudice was Mrs Caroline Astor, who is credited with establishing the restrictions of The Four Hundred – a dictate that declared there were only 400 people within American High Society. Inclusion in this elitist selection was largely based on Old Money backgrounds and claims to both established family lines and substantial wealth. Vast fortunes alone did not guarantee social acceptance, especially if these fortunes were deemed to be New Money.

Ironically, those families and people regarded within society as Old Money may actually possess very little family wealth. They may even be on the verge of bankruptcy. It’s a well-known fact within the aristocracy that the maintenance of large estates, along with endless social demands, particularly during the royal courts of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, could be extremely expensive. These expenses could stretch even the most substantial inherited wealth and income streams, sometimes to the point of penury.

Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough

William van der Weyde, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One such example is the 9th Duke of Marlborough who was facing significant financial difficulties in maintaining the vast palatial estate that had been in his family for generations; Blenheim Palace. In a classic representation of the value of Old Money aristocracy – however dwindled those funds may be – the 9th Duke of Marlborough brokered the esteem granted to his lineage and position in securing an enormous dowry from his wealthy American father-in-law, William Kissam Vanderbilt. Mr Vanderbilt would have been keenly aware that the social prestige such a match would lend his family was far greater than anything his many millions of New Money dollars could buy.

In today’s social circles, the requirements for Old Money ties are much less de rigueur, and the esteem and respect afforded to the nobility and aristocracy are much more informal. While the possession of an aristocratic title such as a Duke or Baron can be a social asset, modern values have shifted away from the dictates of old, whereby Old Money was the ultimate family heritage.

While there is still an element of intrigue and fascination for those with noble titles or aristocratic lineage, our modern society has come to pay more attention to aspects such as media fame and ostentatious wealth – whatever its origins. As a result, there is much less snobbery around New Money, so much so that today’s wealthiest self-made millionaires and billionaires proudly declare their impoverished backgrounds to show just how far they have risen in the ranks – and that they did so without the advantages of inherited fortunes and aristocratic lineage.

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