Dreaming of living life as a richer, more popular version of yourself—and, obviously, as richer and more popular than your rivals—is a timeless endeavor. Every age has had its ruthless social climbers, and the Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century—when the gap between the rich and the poor was particularly vast—was no exception. Before reality television or Instagram fame were around to catapult people up the social ladder, here are the often-extreme measures would-be socialites had to resort to.
1. Seduce someone rich.
Marriage has always been a great way to weasel your way into the upper class (and for some, still is). Entrap a rich businessman or wealthy widow with your beguiling attentions, then sit back and enjoy the lavish parties for the rest of your life. Before all these pesky notions of “love” and “romance” became commonplace, marriage was seen as a business decision, one in which young people and their parents would jockey for position trying to secure a betrothal to the most socially and economically profitable mate possible.
2. Find a lord who’s fallen on hard times.
At the end of the 19th century, America’s richest class was full of industry titans, whose fortunes had been recently acquired in railroads or manufacturing. They were rolling in dough, but the nouveau riche didn’t always impress old-money aristocrats. British aristocrats, on the other hand, had plenty of social clout but crumbling fortunes. A marriage between, say, a wealthy American steel heiress and a struggling British lord would save the lord’s debt-ridden estate while catapulting the lady into a new level of social sophistication.
3. Cross your fingers and pray a distant relative kicks the bucket before he can have a son.
While the American moneyed classes could leave their fortunes to whomever they wished, European gentry have always been more restricted. In England, for instance, aristocratic titles and estates still must go to the oldest male descendant (the throne is the exception). The eldest daughter of a lord is SOL once her father dies; his riches will go to the oldest male in his lineage, even if it’s a distant cousin. So if you happen to be of modest means but have a far-flung relative with no male heir, you could stand to inherit his entire fortune, even if you’ve never met the man (extra brownie points if you marry one of his now-displaced daughters).
4. Fervently hope an older brother dies.
Fancy aristocratic titles like earl and duke (and the fortunes that accompany them) only go to the oldest son, per a system called primogeniture. All other children are doomed to a life of envy and resentment. However, if some … accident … were to befall all the older sons who stand before him in line, a youngest brother would stand to inherit that grand castle that once seemed so impossibly out of reach. As it happens, disease had a relatively high chance of taking out children in 1900 anyway, so chances were relatively high that your siblings might die young.
5. Make a ton of money.
The rags-to-riches tale is an American staple. They say that money can’t buy you love, but if enough libraries are named after you, it’s hard for people to argue that you’re one of the riffraff. Andrew Carnegie, for instance, was born a poor weaver’s son in Scotland, but became one of the richest men in America by the end of his life as a steel baron. Before he died, Carnegie gave $350 million to libraries and universities, making himself a household name in the process.
6. Join the military.
Becoming an officer in the military could launch you into the respectability of a gentleman. You generally had to have money to become an officer (until the 1870s, British soldiers had to buy their officer’s commission), but a uniform could turn new money into a modicum of upper-class dignity.
And in the Gilded Age, the U.S. military elite made bank. Officers almost always came from at least the middle class, but even the lowest ranks of officers made good enough money to enjoy the life of the bourgeoisie. You know, if you could leave the frontier for long enough to enjoy it.
7. Find God.
For Catholic men, becoming a priest was a way to achieve greater status in the community. Climbing the religious career ladder was also a way to climb the social and economic ladders—though with anti-Catholic sentiment running high during the Gilded Age, the gains might not translate as much to the world at large.
8. Vacation at a fancy resort.
Once upon a time, travelers had little choice but to rub elbows at the local inn, whether they were wealthy merchants or poor pilgrims. However, in the early 20th century, a whole slew of different resort options (at different price points) opened up. The rich and fashionable of the Northeast vacationed in fabulous Newport, while the commoners headed to Coney Island (as if!). Where you could afford to spend your leisure time said more than a little something about your social position.
9. Fake it.
Before the Internet made it easy to dig into a stranger’s past, it wasn’t hard to completely fabricate a family history. Oh, you’re a count from a far-flung land? Sure! In 19th century France, for instance, petty nobles often invented titles that were not legally theirs. These became known as titles of courtesy. So, when in doubt, just invent a bold-faced lie and say it confidently while looking down your nose. How could someone dare question a person of such noble heritage as yourself?