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Sunday, 19 January 2020

Megxit: ‘Dollar Princesses’: What Our Ancestors Made of American Women

This article was originally published in Discover Your Ancestors Online Periodical in January 2019

Republishing this today on my blog to see what it might add to the debate!

The Dollar Princess: Miss Gabrielle Ray (1883-1973) as Daisy in the Edwardian musical comedy  ‘The Dollar Princess,’ which took a satirical look at American heiresses, London, 1909. Bassano Photo, Bain News Service,Via Wikimedia Commons.

With actress Meghan Markle marrying Prince Harry in May 2018, the issue of how we Brits perceive American women has been a matter of great public interest in recent times. Markle is of course bi-racial, with an African-American mother and a white father (a background that inevitably complicates public reaction to her), but the white American women who came to Britain in the past in one capacity or another have, in fact, always provoked debate and controversy.

Looks and Health

As with much historical commentary on women, it was the appearance of American females that caught the attention of many British commentators and there were many positive attributes to admire. The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser  (May 14th 1892) commented on their overall robustness, ‘the frankness of their eyes, the naturalness of their emotions and their general genuineness.’ In November and December 1882, many English newspapers, carried further approbation (quoting research conducted by the North American Review) suggested that the health of American women was better than that of their British sisters and that consequently, ‘the period of possible maternity is two years longer in American women than in the women of other English-speaking nations!’ 

Fashion and Expenditure

Known by the British mostly in their role as performers (actresses on the stage and later screen), tourists and heiresses – transatlantic women were stereotypically described as being the owners of large leather Saragota trunks stuffed with expensive clothing. In 1910, the Aberdeen Press and Journal published an article entitled ‘American Women’s Extravagance’ which described the phenomenon of the affluent US dame with a mixture of disgust and envy:  ‘It seems that there are 100 women in New York known to spend 150,000 dollars every year in dress, more than 1000 others lay out $75,000 on the toilette; 15,000 others have to make 3,000 dollars suffice.’

The same newspaper also made the rather unlikely claim that American women used ‘milk or champagne […] for the morning bath,’ and cited the shocking example of ‘a little dog owned by one wealthy woman which was wrapped in a coat of real ermine and had a collar of diamonds.’ Diamonds, indeed, were a big feature of British commentary on the lavishness of the American female. The previously-mentioned article went on to claim that American women… have millions of pounds worth of diamonds quite apart from their collections of other stones. The jewels are worn according to the occasions, and one woman will be heard asking another about her ‘summer diamonds’ and her ‘winter diamonds’ and so on.’ It was also noted that such women wore jewellery in the daytime as well as during the evening – something that, to the British, smacked of gross vanity and self-indulgence. American men, pointed out the same article, were quick to justify their womenfolk’s profligacy “‘Why,’ says an American when any criticism of the way in which his country women spend, ‘it is their own money. Their husbands made it; why should they not spend it as they like?’”  

Woman with Book Woman with Book by William McGregor Paxton, c. 1910. The American novelist, Henry James, - who might be supposed to have been rather biased in his opinions  - once commented that ‘one of her charms is that she does not make a guy of herself,’ and opined that ‘if [he] had to be born again, [he] would shout at the top of his voice, ‘Make me an American woman.’
Via Wikimedia Commons. New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut.

Temperament and Talk

Whilst the American journalist Nellie Bly (1864-1922) found British women ‘over-sheltered’, too confined to the home and, most shockingly, not at all inclined to express their opinions, British men found US women strident and forthright, very willing to put forward their point of view whether or not they were asked for it. Indeed, on this side of the Atlantic, there was a general horror at the garrulousness of American women. In September 1896 the London Daily News reported with disgust how an American bride had walked down the aisle on the arm of her father ‘chatting and laughing as unconcernedly as if she was in a ballroom’. The same article concluded that ‘the American woman is unquestionably a terror to many of the sterner sex.’

American Women Smoking This Punch cartoon, showing an unattractive woman smoking in a tunic and trousers, was the stereotype of a certain type of masculine American woman in London in the mid-nineteenth century. Punch, 1851, Via Wikimedia Commons

Education and equality

In general, American women were considered to have had better education and to enjoy greater legal rights than their British counterparts. It was remarked that in some States, more severe punishments were meted out to husbands who had committed domestic violence, and that there was better access to divorce, than in Britain. These supposed social advancements were decried by some and critics drew attention to the fact that, despite their superior education, very few American women had produced anything of any worth in the world of art and literature (The London Daily News, September 30th, 1896). Others, however, saw the more egalitarian education of American females as something to which Britain ought to aspire. In a series of articles comparing British culture to that of other countries, Sir Charles Dilke wrote,‘there is far greater equality of the sexes in America than there is here for the simple reason that American women are educated to be much more independent and self-reliant than ours.’ (The Eastern Daily Press, April 30th, 1887)

The Dollar Princesses

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several prominent members of the British aristocracy were particularly ‘delighted and captivated’ by American women.  Despite some public repugnance at transatlantic marriages, it was generally acknowledged that the fortunes of these ‘dollar princesses’ were helping to shore up the fortunes of our crumbling nobility. Some American-British nuptials left an important social and political legacy. More often than not such alliances were presented to the public as hotbeds of  infidelity, outlandish fashion and obscene wealth. Jennie Jerome (1850 or 1854-1921), a society beauty from Brooklyn, married Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874 and became the mother of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. After the death of Winston’s father in 1895, Jennie married two further ‘toy-boy’ husbands (one of whom nickamed her ‘Pussycat’) and died after tripping down a friend’s staircase whilst wearing a new pair of high-heeled shoes!

Fanny Burk (1857-1947 was an American heiress who appeared in the Four Hundred – an index to New York’s ‘best families.’ She married the Honourable James Boothby Burke Roche (later third Baron Fermoy) and would become the great-grandmother of Diana, Princess of Wales. After her divorce in 1891, she was the subject of a well-publicised trial in which her husband accused her of keeping their daughter prisoner! 

Chicago-born Mary Leiter (1870-1906), the model for Lady Grantham in TV’s Downton Abbey, married Conservative M.P. George Curzon, (later Lord Curzon of Kedleston) and subsequently became Vicereine of India. Though she gained notoriety as ‘the best dressed woman in the world,’ wearing a dress adorned with peacock feathers at the Coronation of Edward VII, Leiter was also known for her compassion, opening hospitals for women in India and helping to save an endangered species of rhinoceros. 
Mary Leiter: Mary Leiter, American wife of Lord Curzon. A striking and ‘curvaceous’ beauty at 6 foot 2, this popular ‘dollar princess’ acquired two inherently British titles: Baroness Curzon of  Kedleston and Viceriene of India. Portrait by Franz von Lenbach, 1902.  Via Wikimedia Commons

By the time then that twice-divorced Wallis Simpson appeared as the love interest of the future Edward VIII in the mid 1930s, the British public had already had a whole host of extraordinary, multiply-divorced and controversial American women to draw upon. Simpson’s almost universal vilification was, therefore, just about unavoidable and it intensified when Edward abdicated in order to marry her. With this background, Megahn Markle can be forgiven if she approached her new role as the Duchess of Sussex with some trepidation! 

If Only Women Knew: Virginia Lee and Robert Gordon in the American film, ‘If Women Only Knew,’1921. Accounts and images of female actresses on stage and screen – in which they invariably appeared to have more independence and freedom than British women - were just about the only source of information on American women a century ago, and necessarily distorted public opinion. Via Wikimedia Commons. Still from the American film If Women Only Knew, Cayuga Pictures, from an advert on page 79 of the magazine Photoplay, (August 1921)

Regular American Girls

Those US ladies who married into the aristocracy were objects of fascination and vilification in the British press, but it should be remembered that these opinions were based on general impressions of  a very small group of people  - the wealthy set or ‘It’ girls of the time, if you like, - in New York. But, thousands of ordinary women of American birth can also be found in the decennial British censuses (by typing in the optional keyword 'American' on the commercial genealogical website, for example).To pick a few at random, these women include 30 year old Elsie Abeling, a ‘singer-vocalist’ from ‘Richmond, America’, who found herself a patient at Chelsea Hospital, Hastings, on the night of the 1901 census; and Edith Butler, (a 21 year old servant to a rich family in Birkenhead) and Mary Allen (the 42 year old wife of a grain merchant’s horseman in Bodmin), both of whom described themselves as ‘American subjects’ on that same census.

An American Girl in London: An American Girl in London’ by Everard Cotes, (1891). Many young American women came to London to work, and in the expectation of marrying, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps your ancestors too were among these many US girls who came to Britain to visit, work or settle around a century ago. If so, it’s worth thinking about how they might have been received by the families into which they married and the people living in the neighbourhoods they frequented. Their integration into British society might have been smoother than that of those immigrants who spoke other languages or who came from more different backgrounds, but they carried a weight of expectation – positive and negative - all of their own.

Useful Books and Websites

William H. Chafe, The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century,  Oxford University Press, 1991.

Anne de Courcy, The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married Into the British Aristocracy, Macmillan USA,  2018.

Carol Faulkner, ed, Women in American History to 1880: A Documentary Reader, Wiley Blackwell, 2011.

Blanche McManus,  The American Woman Abroad, 2012 (originally published 1911).

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