In the late 19th century, the wealth of the British aristocracy – much of which was wrapped up in agriculture now outsourced to the United States – was dwindling.


As fortunes crumbled, so did many of the country’s grandest houses in need of repair. Unable (or unwilling) to engage in traditional work due to societal norms, noble families had to look elsewhere.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the United States of America’s nouveau riche possessed great wealth but lacked one crucial element: a title. Along came a mutually beneficial phenomenon, the ‘dollar princess’.

What is a dollar princess?

Taissa Farmiga as Gladys Russell & Carrie Coon as Bertha Russell. Bertha is thought to be based on Alva Vanderbilt, who secured the marriage of her daughter, Consuelo, to the 9th Duke of Marlborough.
Taissa Farmiga as Gladys Russell & Carrie Coon as Bertha Russell. Bertha is thought to be based on Alva Vanderbilt, who secured the marriage of her daughter, Consuelo, to the 9th Duke of Marlborough. (Image by HBO/Universal Television)

As seen in popular history dramas The Gilded Age and The Buccaneers (the latter based on an unfinished novel by Edith Wharton), ‘dollar princesses’ was the name given to American heiresses who were married to European aristocrats by their self-made families during the Gilded Age.

Elsewhere in popular culture, fans of Downton Abbey may recognise Lady Grantham (played by Elizabeth McGovern) as a dollar princess.

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In Julian Fellowes’s drama, she marries the titled – but financially wanting – Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). The series depicts them as very much in love with three adult daughters, though examples of such happiness are difficult to find in the real history.

The real arrangements provided both parties with their desires. Nouveau riche American families gained an ancient title, while British aristocrats were provided with wealth to sustain their ancestral lines and grand estates.

This socio-economic phenomenon injected billions of pounds into Britain’s economy, and American blood into its aristocracy. Real-life dollar princesses include Princess Diana’s great-grandmother, the first woman to take a seat in the British parliament, and the inspiration for Cora in Downton Abbey – read more about them further on.

Who was the first dollar princess?

A photograph of the Churchill family (R-L) Winston Churchill at 10 years old, his mother Lady Randolph Churchill and his younger brother John Churchill.
A photograph of the Churchill family (R-L) Winston Churchill at 10 years old, his mother Lady Randolph Churchill and his younger brother John Churchill. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The marriage of Winston Churchill’s parents in 1900 is a prominent example of the trend.

Lord Randolph Churchill’s parents were reportedly horrified at the prospect of their son marrying Jennie Jerome, an American socialite and the daughter of a social climbing financier. That was until they realised just how wealthy Jerome was; her dowry was $250,000 (the equivalent of $6.7m today).

This match might have secured a title for the Jeromes and riches for the Churchills, but it didn’t result in love. The pair were involved in countless affairs, with Jennie’s lovers including the future King Edward VII, and King Milan of Serbia.

How did American families discover potential matches?

Many American women joined the London social season to secure an unmarried aristocrat.

“The wealthiest American heiresses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries aspired to presentation at the British court, where they might meet landed aristocrats seeking wives with independent fortunes,” explains Dr Carolyn Harris.

“Since only a woman who had been presented at court herself could recommend a debutante for presentation, aristocratic women with titles but few financial resources sometimes accepted payments from wealthy families on both sides of the Atlantic to facilitate a debutante’s presentation at court – thereby expanding the number of young women presented.”

An illustration from 1893 depicting a debutante being photographed.
An illustration from 1893 depicting a debutante being photographed. (Picture by GettyImages)

But social climbing didn’t just rely on word of mouth. There was even a publication, Titled Americans, that – in addition to announcing the heiresses who managed to marry into the aristocracy – also listed eligible British bachelors.

There was no room for secrets in its pages, with titles and reputed fortunes included alongside names. Interested women could reply via post to this catalogue-like list, in an attempt to gain a coveted ancient title.

How many dollar princesses were there?

According to Titled Americans, 454 American heiresses married into the European aristocracy during the Gilded Age.

What did the lives of dollar princesses look like once they were married?

The unions between American heiresses and British aristocrats resulted in material riches, but rarely promised happiness.

The marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt exemplifies this. The daughter of American railroad heir and businessman William Kissam Vanderbilt and his wife, Alva, Consuelo was married in 1895 to Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough. The match was a result of pressure from her parents, who were determined to secure a preeminent marriage alliance for the family.

When they married in New York in November 1895, many flocked to the streets to catch a glimpse of the bride, who was worth around $4b in today’s money. Consuelo , however, didn’t share their joy.

She would later admit to having “spent the morning of my wedding day in tears and alone; no one came near me”.

Portrait of American socialite Consuelo Vanderbilt. She has dark hair and is leaning with one arm.
Portrait of Consuelo Vanderbilt. (Photo by Gilliam Press Syndicate/PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

“This was a horrible marriage,” historian Nancy C Unger explained on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast. “She was so miserable, and it didn’t last.”

In fact, the whole dollar princess phenomenon doesn’t last very long, says Unger.

“The ‘old money’ people really couldn’t hold out forever, and they had to accept that these ‘new money’ people were adopting their standards and their charities, and so forth.

“That kind of snobbishness about ‘old money’ versus ‘new money’ just melded into money. Period.”

Three real dollar princesses who made their mark on history

Nancy Langhorne Shaw: the Virginian woman who worked her way into British parliament

Portrait of Nancy Langhorne Shaw.
Portrait of Nancy Langhorne Shaw. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

In 1906, Nancy married politician and newspaperman Waldorf Astor (born a member of the prominent American Astor family, Waldorf had himself become an English subject). With her new title of Lady Astor, Nancy began married life at Cliveden House.

This title didn’t just afford her social privileges. In 1919, she successfully ran for Waldorf’s former seat in the House of Commons.

Upon winning, Nancy became the second woman in history elected to parliament, and the first woman elected to parliament to actually take her seat.

Mary Leiter: the happy wife of George Curzon

George Curzon and his wife, Mary Curzon in a car
Mary and George Curzon leaving for a drive from the Viceregal Lodge in Shimla, India, 1903. (Photo by Underwood & Underwood/Graphic House/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Unlike many examples in this phenomenon, Mary Leiter’s marriage with British statesman George Curzon (who served as Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905) was a happy one.

Together, the couple shared the English rule of India, and Mary was granted the title of Vicereine of India in 1898 – the highest official title of any American woman up to that point.

Their loving marriage is reported to have inspired Julian Fellowes in his writing of the relationship between the Earl of Grantham and Cora in Downton Abbey.

Frances Ellen Work: the great-grandmother of Princess Diana

In 1880, American heiress Frances married British nobleman James Burke Roche, the future 3rd Baron Fermoy.

However, their marriage was not without suffering. So much so that 19 years later, Frances’s father, Frank Work, agreed to pay off the baron’s debts if the couple divorced and Frances was granted custody of their sons.

Frances Ellen Work's grandaughter, who became the mother of Princess Diana.
Frances Ellen Work's grandaughter, who became the mother of Princess Diana. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Despite Frank’s experiences leading him to stipulate that none of the family would visit Britain again in his will, Frances’ elder son – Edmund Maurice Roche – did leave America and return to Britain.


Edmund’s daughter, also named Frances like her grandmother, gave birth to Diana Spencer who would later become the Princess of Wales.


Lauren GoodDigital Content Producer, HistoryExtra

Lauren Good is the digital content producer at HistoryExtra, She joined the team in 2022 after completing an MA in Creative Writing, and she holds a first-class degree in English and Classical Studies, during which she studied ancient history and philosophy