Written by Adrian Lee and Originally Published on Daily Mail Online on October 1, 2012
Beautiful, vivacious and fabulously wealthy, they were known as the Dollar Princesses.
At the end of the 19th century, hundreds of eligible young women turned their backs on America and crossed the Atlantic, with a steely glint in their eyes. The only intention was to snare a member of the British aristocracy.
It might all seem terribly crass but, in fact, these were matches made in heaven.
In return for receiving titles, the daughters of US millionaires offered fistfuls of much-needed cash.
The women’s huge impact on British life is expected to feature in a Downton Abbey prequel. It will concentrate on the courtship of the character Cora Crawley, the rich American who goes on to marry the Earl of Grantham.
With their vast armies of servants estates like Downton were expensive to run, so the US dollars provided a lifeline. Some of the nation’s most historic country estates were threatened with ruin at the time, because of a depression in agriculture which had halved the value of some fortunes.
The American predators also helped shape the future of the aristocracy by providing heirs, including a future Prime Minister, in addition to their money.
It must have been akin to the cavalry coming over the hill to the rescue of the upper classes.
During this period, lasting from the 1870s to the outbreak of World War 1, some 350 US heiresses married into the British aristocracy. At today’s values, it’s estimated that they brought with them the equivalent of £1 billion of new world wealth.
New, ultra-fast ocean liners propelled these marauders from New York.
It was hardly surprising when they began swarming here that the brash, confident, women caused such a stir. They could afford the latest Parisian fashions and different wardrobes for every season.
The woman were bedecked in jewels and some even played cards for money, which would have been out of the question for their demure English rivals. Another trait was laughing aloud, rather than follow the conventional style of simpering quietly behind a hand.
Melanie Stafford, of the American Museum in Britain, in Bath, says: 'They came from a different culture and had a very different outlook on life. They were more forward than English women, who were expected to know their place and be seen and not heard.
'The American women were socially confident and competitive. If they had a view they’d make it known, so they could be very good company.
'There’s no doubt that noses were put out of joint among the English women who might otherwise have got these titles.'
During the period, lasting from the 1870s to the outbreak of World War 1, some 350 US heiresses married into the British aristocracy. At today’s values, it’s estimated that they brought with them the equivalent of £1 billion of new world wealth
When the women disembarked, often with their mothers in tow to arrange introductions, they’d ingratiate their way into London society by letting it be known they had money.
Stafford adds: 'Soirees and musical evenings were held, where the women would be introduced to members of the aristocracy. It was all very hasty and this was like the speed-dating of its time, involving impoverished members of the English aristocracy and wealthy American heiresses.
'They were marriages of convenience, but you have to remember that there was much less emphasis on marrying for love in those days.'
A quarterly publication called The Titled American listed the successfully married ladies, as well as the names of eligible titled bachelors.
In 1890, it carried this blatant appeal for a wealthy bride: 'The Marquess of Winchester is the fifteenth Marquess and Premier Marquess in the Peerage of Great Britain.
'He is also the Hereditary Bearer of the Cap of Maintenance. The entailed estates amount to 4,700 acres, yielding an income of $22,000. He is 32 years of age, and a captain of the Coldstream Guards. Family seat: Amport House, Hampshire.'
In Downton, Robert marries Cora for her money before he eventually falls in love with her, but the reality was often very different for the Dollar Princesses.
These lively, well-educated women were whisked off to spend their days in isolated, draughty stately homes which were thousands of miles from their families.
By then American homes had central heating and showers, so it must have been a culture shock to bathe in a tin bath filled with hot water carried upstairs by a maid.
The American women also found themselves resented by the servants of the house. One made the faux pas of asking a butler to light a fire, a job well beneath him. The reaction was a look of absolute horror, she later recounted.
The lucky ones found husbands near London but it was a steep learning curve so it’s little wonder so many of the marriages remained loveless, or failed.
Inevitably, the American social climbers also faced snobbery here and one wrote: “In England the American woman was looked upon as a strange and abnormal creature, with habits and manners something between a Red Indian and a Gaiety Girl.
'Anything of an outlandish nature might be expected of her. If she talked, dressed, and conducted herself as any well-bred woman would she was usually saluted with the tactful remark, "I should never have thought you were an American" – which was intended as a compliment. Her dollars were her only recommendation.'
The sneers, however, were nothing new. Back home there were also divisions in society, which created the entire Dollar Princess phenomenon.
In the 1860s a new breed of people began making money in armaments, steel, railroads, the food industry and agricultural machinery. These enterprises made a lot of men very rich, very fast, and they descended on New York.
Girls from these backgrounds were considered nouveaux riches by Mrs William Backhouse Astor, who ruled over the list of 400 families admitted into polite New York society.
'They came from new money, made after the Civil War in the new businesses and industries that were springing up,' says Stafford. 'They were barred from entering elite American society, hence the exodus across the Atlantic.'
The flow from the US to Britain of these voracious social climbers is also charted by authors including Henry James and Edith Wharton, whose uncompleted novel The Buccaneers tells the story of five women who arrive here in search of gentlemen.
Oscar Wilde, too, was fascinated by the influx of witty beauties from across the Atlantic. “Of all the factors that have contributed to the social revolution of London, there are few more important, and none more delightful, than the American Invasion,' he wrote in 1883.
Another reason why the Americans were able to gain access to the upper classes was the patronage of the playboy Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward V11. He adored the Dollar Princesses and became an unofficial matchmaker.
Defending his involvement, he once said: 'American girls are livelier, better educated, and less hampered by etiquette. They are not so squeamish as their English sisters and they are better able to take care of themselves.'
The trade of wealth for titles began to dry up when Edward, their champion, died in 1910 and society adopted a less frivolous approach.
There was also a backlash in the United States, where initial pride that Americans were gaining British titles through marriage eventually gave way to resentment that so much wealth was leaving the country.
By then, however, the American buccaneers had left an indelible stamp on British society.