The premise of my recent paper (Taylor 2021) is that the rapid decline in British agricultural prices in the last quarter of the 19th century, which shrank not only the income of aristocratic landed estates but also the income of ‘commoner’ (i.e. non-aristocratic) families who owned land, led to a significant proportion of male aristocrats marrying American heiresses with rich dowries as substitutes for the traditional source – namely, brides from British families with landed estates but no titles.
British agricultural prices began their drop in the mid-1870s for several reasons, from the development of US railroads and prairies to the advent of steamships, all of which led to the UK market being flooded with cheap prairie wheat. Meanwhile, in the US, high society shunned the families of the newly rich businessmen making their fortunes during the Gilded Age. East Coast high society was the jealously guarded preserve of families who could trace their ancestry back to the earliest Dutch or English settlers, and who socially ostracised the nouveau riche business magnates and their families. So, what were these newly rich families to do? They married into the British aristocracy as a means of establishing a social pedigree, whatever the cost.
Figure 1 shows the percentage of marriages between British aristocrats and non-aristocrats (‘out-marriages’) for British males born in 20-year cohorts between 1700 and 1899, as well as the 20-year average real price of wheat in London 33 years later (33 being the average age at which British aristocrats married during the 18th and 19th centuries). The positive correlation between the decline in the price of wheat and the percentage of brides from landed families marrying into the aristocracy is striking, as is the rise in the percentage of ‘out-marriages’ to foreigners as wheat prices fell.
Author(s): Mark Taylor
Publication Date: 5 September 2021
Publication Site: Vox EU