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Old money

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Title: Old money  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: American upper class, Reference desk/Archives/Miscellaneous/2011 October 21, Nouveau riche, Philadelphia Main Line, Lake Wendouree, Victoria
Collection: Social Classes, Social Groups, Wealth
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Old money

Old money is "the inherited wealth of established upper-class families (i.e. gentry, patriciate)" or "a person, family, or lineage possessing inherited wealth".[1] The term typically describes a class of the rich who have been able to maintain their wealth over multiple generations, often referring to perceived members of the de facto aristocracy in societies which for historical reasons lack an officially established aristocratic class (typically, the United States of America).


  • United States 1
  • Europe 2
  • Effects of World War II 3
  • Influences on popular culture 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7

United States

American locations that are associated with old money include the Upper East Side of Manhattan; Westchester County, New York; Long Island's North Shore; Fairfield County, Connecticut; Greenwich, Connecticut, Newport, Rhode Island; Boston's Back Bay and Beacon Hill; Weston and Wellesley, Massachusetts; Philadelphia's Main Line; Chicago's North Shore suburbs; and the Grosse Pointe area of suburban Detroit, Michigan. Ironically, these areas' inhabitants that are colloquially described as "old money" are almost always descendants of the people the term "nouveau riche" (new money) was originally coined to describe: nineteenth century industrialists, bankers, and builders. Traditionally, wealth was associated with landowning and these Gilded Age fortunes made money in a new way, hence the term new money. Edith Wharton, among Gilded Age America's greatest chroniclers, referred to industrialists and their ilk as "brazen new money".

Wealth—assets held by an individual or by a household—provides an important dimension of social stratification because it can pass from generation to generation, ensuring that a family's offspring will remain financially stable. Families with "old money" use accumulated assets or savings to bridge interruptions in income, thus guarding against downward social mobility.[2]

"Old money" applies to those of the upper class whose wealth separates them from lower social classes. According to anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner, the upper class in the United States during the 1930s was divided into the upper-upper and the lower-upper classes.[3] The lower-upper were those that did not come from traditionally wealthy families. They earned their money from investments and business rather than inheritance. In contrast to the nouveau riche, the upper-upper class was families viewed as "quasi-aristocratic" and "high-society".[3] These had been rich for generations. They lived off idle inheritances rather than earned wealth.

During the early 20th century, the upper-upper class were seen as more prestigious.[3]

"Old money" contrasts with the nouveau riche and parvenus. These fall under the category "new money" (those not from traditionally wealthy families). Some families with "old money" include:

  • The Cabots arrived in Salem from the Isle of Jersey in 1700 and made fortunes in shipping. At the age of 21, Godfrey Lowell Cabot (see Lowells below) founded the Cabot Corporation, the largest producer of carbon black in the country.
  • The Du Pont family fortune began in 1803, but they became an extraordinarily wealthy family by selling gunpowder during the American Civil War. By World War I, the DuPont family produced virtually all American gunpowder. In 1968, Ferdinand Lundberg declared the Du Pont fortune to be America's largest family fortune.[4] As of 2008 E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company ranked 81st on the Fortune 500 list of the largest U.S. corporations.[5]
  • The Forbes family of Boston made their fortune in the shipping and later railroad industries as well as other investments. They have been a prominent wealthy family in the United States for 200 years.
  • The Astor family made their fortune in the 18th century, through real estate, the hotel industry and other investments.
  • The Griswold Family of Connecticut made their fortune in shipping, banking, railroads, and industry. They have been prominent in American politics, producing five governors and numerous senators and congressmen.

Although many "old money" individuals do not rank as high on the list of Forbes 400 richest Americans as they once did, their wealth continues to grow. Many families increased their holdings by investment strategies such as the pooling of resources.[6]:115 For example, the Rockefeller family's estimated net worth of $1 billion in the 1930s grew to $8.5 billion by 2000. In 60 years, four of the richest families in the United States increased their combined $2–4 billion in 1937 to $38 billion without holding large shares in emerging industries.[6]:115[7]:2


The Rothschild family, as an example, established finance houses across Europe from the 18th century and was ennobled by the Habsburg Emperor and Queen Victoria. Throughout the 19th century, they controlled the largest fortune in the world, in today's terms many hundreds of billions, if not in trillions (US$). The family has, at least to some extent, maintained its wealth for over two centuries. The Rothschilds were not, however, considered "old money" by their British counterparts. In Britain, the term generally exclusively refers to the landed gentry, usually the aristocracy and nobility who traditionally live off the land inherited paternally.[8]

Effects of World War II

Economists assert that the largest transfer of wealth will be as the older generation leaves wealth to the baby boomers. Inheritance has been estimated to make up 6% of the US GDP each year.[7]:16 The current generation is wealthier than any generation before. This increase in wealth and inheritance indicates a rise of "old money" in American families. Stephen Haseler argues that America is becoming an inheritance culture in which much economic opportunity is from family inheritance and not personal achievement.[9]:17

Influences on popular culture

The ITV television series Downton Abbey frequently contrasts the differences between Old Money and New Money. Notably between the Newspaperman Sir Richard Carlisle and the heiress Lady Mary Crawley, the distinction being the aggression of the parvenu Sir Richard and the Noblesse Oblige of the Crawleys.

Lana Del Rey also has a song titled Old Money from her 2014 album Ultraviolence.

See also


  1. ^ "Old Money" The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 5 Nov. 2008.
  2. ^ Scholz, Claudia W.; Juanita M. Firestone (2007). "Wealth". In George Ritzer (ed.). Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Blackwell Reference Online. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.  
  3. ^ a b c Warner, William Lloyd (1960). Social Class in America: A Manual of Procedure for the Measurement of Social Status. Harper & Row. 
  4. ^ Lundberg, Ferdinand (1968). The rich and the super-rich. New York: Bantam Books/Lyle Stuart Publishing. pp. 165‒177. 
  5. ^ "Fortune 500 2008: Fortune 1000 1-100". Fortune. 2008-05-05. Retrieved 2008-12-02. 
  6. ^ a b  
  7. ^ a b  
  8. ^  
  9. ^

Further reading

  • Aldrich, Nelson W. (1996). Old Money: The Mythology of Wealth in America. New York: Allworth Press.  
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