A Classification of American Wealth
History and genealogy of the wealthy families of America - Sponsors

 Part 1 : Colonial and Mercantile America  Part 2 : America in the Gilded Age
 Part 3 : America in the Twentieth Century  Encyclopedia of American Wealth

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  Chronicles of American Wealth / Nr 6 / June 12, 2002 

<<  List of chronicles   

Content :
1 -
Now Online : Introduction into the Gilded Age / The list of 1875
2 - Profile of a wealthy family : the Astors


Introduction into the Gilded Age : the list of 1875

The Gilded Age is fabulous period when America grew so fast, that the enterprising capitalist just needed to grab whatever opportunity knocked on his door, to grow immensely rich and famous. It was the time when great wealth was hailed and no taxation curbed its accumulation by the founding families of our industrial age. It was also the time of lavish spending, construction of huge private palaces and all kind of extravagances, which went along with a changing concept of social status and aristocracy. Roughly delimited by the American Civil War and World War I or October 1929, the Gilded Age is the time when more very large fortunes were made in America than ever, except maybe in the 1990's, when the new economy still promised a new deal at the top echelons of wealth.

Three lists will frame the Gilded Age in our wealth classification roster : 1875, 1900 and 1925. The first one, now online at "Encyclopedia of American Wealth", is headed by railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, department store owner A. T. Stewart and William Backhouse Astor, the landlord of New York City. It is about equally composed of new (Gilded Age) fortunes, mainly made in railroads and mining ventures, and old (mercantile) wealth. The list of families shows, how inherited wealth from the mercantile period still dominated the new money in 1875.

Read more about the Gilded Age in our (free) introduction chapter at "A Classification of American Wealth"


Profile of a family : the Astors

The Astors were the richest real estate owners in New York City. The first John Jacob Astor immigrated to America with little more than a few flutes. Astor then made the first stage of his fortune in the fur trade. His American Fur Company soon had a monopoly and generated huge profits, which the shrewd merchant reinvested into New York City real estate. The rise in value of the latter made John Jacob the richest man in America, by the time he died in 1848. His son William Backhouse Astor, who inherited the $ 20 million fortune, was known as the landlord of New York. By his marriage to Margaret Rebecca Armstrong, a Livingston descendant, William Backhouse Astor secured his family access to New York's society. His children did even better. John Jacob Astor III, the elder son, vastly increased the family's wealth by investments into railroads and telegraph companies. The second son, William Astor, married Caroline Webster Schermerhorn, who combined the Astor wealth with her Dutch American pedigree to reign as a queen over New York and Newport society. In the fourth generation there were two cousins. William Waldorf Astor, the only son of John Jacob Astor III, had political aspirations but failed to satisfy them in America. He therefore emigrated to England, where he became a press lord and was made a Viscount and member of the Upper House of Parliament. His branch, the English Astors, flourished and are still wealthy and influent today. His cousin, John Jacob Astor IV died on the Titanic in 1912. He left the main part of his fortune to his son William Vincent Astor, who married three times but had no children. This part of the Astor fortune ended in a philanthropic foundation and the family is no longer among the wealthiest in America.

Read more about the Astors in our chapter 4 : Landlords of New York City



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