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Victorian American Aristocracy

the-proper-bostoniansI’ve done a couple guest blogs(  Novel Thoughts and Yankee Romance Reviewers),  in the last couple months, and both times I ended up talking about  the 19th century American Aristocracy.  I think I’ve glossed over it from time to time at Slip into Something Victorian, most notably a posting about Ward McAllister’s famous 400, but I haven’t talked in depth about it at all.   What have I been thinking?  This is one of my prime, and most enjoyed, research items, and yet I’ve been slow to share it.  So I’m going to see if I can get myself writing a regular series on it over the next few weeks/months, because it is really fascinating.  Here, I’m going to give you a little introduction.

First, let’s start with the term Aristocracy.  The definition Americans are most likely to give to that term is comes third at Merriam Webster’s On-line: 3: a governing body or upper class usually made up of a hereditary nobility.   That being the case, it’s no wonder that the average 21st century American’s response to American Aristocracy is, “What on earth are you talking about?  We don’t have any nobility in this country.”  Perfectly true, of course.  We have no landed, titled gentlemen or ladies.  But if you skip down to the 4th definition, you’ll understand more of what I mean 4: the aggregate of those believed to be superior.  If Ward McAllister’s 400 and the Boston Brahmins aren’t that, then I don’t know what is.

Second–this is not a term I have coined myself.  I’m not that high-handed!  I got it from other places, and while I can’t quite remember the book I read, there was a quote from a woman in Cleveland circa 1840 saying to a foreigner, “You just don’t understand our Aristocracy.”   Now in a country that fought to remove itself from the tyranny of an Aristocratic government, you would think the lastterm anyone would want to use would be Aristocracy.  I imagine, although I have no empirical evidence, that those of the upper-crust may have used it quietly amongst themselves, but not in public.  In fact the First Families (an often use synonym in Boston and Philadelphia) of Boston avoided the term and used the term Brahmin instead (follow the link and you’ll see Aristocracy as well).  Not better (at least in my opinion) but easier for people to stomach than Aristocracy.

Third–did you note the word Cleveland?  Yes, Cleveland.  Cleveland in the 19th century had their own Aristocracy, their own upper-class, high society, debutante ball type of folk.  In fact, most of the major American cities did.  I believe, although I can’t say for certain, that Cleveland was part of the difficult-to-find Society In America series, which featured, The Proper Bostonian (ironically by Cleveland Armory), Washington Cavalcade, Charles Hurd, and The Spectacular San Franciscans, Julia Cooley Altrocchi and The Amiable Baltimoreans, Francis F Beirne.  This is a very old series basically detailing the various groups of The Victorian American Aristocracy, published in the 1940’s.  The series, from what I can see, doesn’t have anything on either New York or Philadelphia, but trust me, if it had continued, it would have.  Those were two cities with very exclusive societies.

How did I get interested in this, you ask (okay, you didn’t, but you might have considered asking it)?  Most of my Victorian American books center on the rich.  I figure if I’m going to write romance, I might as well go for the gold and live in the fantasy of wealth.  Besides, Cinderella was my favorite of all childhood stories.  Anyway, when I started writing I had no idea that the rich people I was talking about actually were the self-proclaimed elite.  I just found that out as my books moved from city to city.  It was when I was working on The Wild One and Wicked Woman that it came home to me–when I first picked up The Proper Bostonians.  I discovered the Society In American series, that San Francisco was part of it and that there was a connection between San Franciscan society and New York Society.  Ward McAllister’s brother, Hall, was a part of San Franciscan society.  Then I discovered McAllister’s 400, and Caroline Astor, mimicked by San Francisco’s Ned Greenway and Eleanor Martin and, well, I was hooked.

So there it is, your introduction.  As soon as the snow stops here in New England (if it ever stops, grrrrr) I’ll hike myself on out to the library where I have some books on Philadelphia Society waiting for me.   What, you thought I’d start with Boston and San Francisco?  Nah, while I have lots of information on those, my current WIPs deal with New York and Philadelphia.  Much more fun to share new information than old, although, I promise, I’ll get to Boston and ‘Frisco.  In the meantime, I’ll post a little snippit concerning Jess’s introduction into Society from The Wild One on my personal page in case anyone is interested.  No worries–it won’t be on the test 🙂  You can register to win our basket, regardless. 

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6 Comments

  1. Interesting stuff! I don’t write about rich people in my own historicals, so didn’t know any of this.

    Look forward to what you dig up on Philadelphia society.

  2. Ro Abreu says:

    As a “GRITS” (Girl Reared in the South) I can tell you that there were several places down here that had as many societal layers as a doberge cake. However, I don’t know how such things were monitored. Places like Savannah, Atlanta, New Orleans, Montgomery, Jackson, etc. each had their own heirarchy, usually decided by finances, land ownership and genealogy links, as well as how long a family had been in an area and their reputation. I live in Natchitoches, which was founded in 1714 and is the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase. Things are still very “who’s your Mama” around here, and there are a few family names that still endure from the times of French and Spanish settlers in the early 18th c. It’s amazing how much oral tradition survives in this sort of thing.

    Thanks for your info, it was fun to read.

  3. ruth says:

    I enjoy reading this intriguing history which makes me think of those times and that era.

  4. Denise Eagan says:

    Ro, I would so much like to write about the Southern elite/aristocracy! But because I write Victorian era books, it would always end up at the Civil War and it’s too sad for me to consider. Although I might someday do something with a post-Civil War hero from one of these families and send him out West to make his fortune there as so many Southern men did. That would be fun and I could end it happily as well.

  5. Denise Eagan says:

    Thanks Ruth! I adore history, but mostly I love reading about the people. I’m not very much a “date” person. I want to know what they did, how they felt etc. The whole aristocracy surprises me, because it seems to foreign to how I think most modern Americans see thier country. All that makes sense to me is that we were still trying to figure out who we were as a country, and so we clung to some degree to what we knew. Does that makes sense?

  6. […] of the era is mostly what we’re about here.  For Wicked Woman it was a fascination with the Boston Brahmins.  With The Wild One, it was a continuation of that fascination, along with that of San Franciscan […]

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