Subscribe to the newsletter and get Edwardian-themed news delivered straight to your inbox!

social history

Series 3 of Downton Abbey, or A Look at England in the Early Twenties

by

Downton Abbey S3

English society immediately after the Armistice and the Paris Peace Conference was not exactly as it was before, but it was not yet what we know it became (all that jazz). On a whole, the English were rather subdued and befuddled, with some making an attempt to turn the clocks backward to August 3, 1914, while others marched hastily forward, determined to escape the bonds of Edwardian manners and mores. Still others adopted a wait and see mindset, suspicious of the possible changes in the world and the chance it might be snatched back. For those at the very top, the Great War had ravaged them most ferociously, not simply due to the high casualty rates for officers, but the combination of death duties and high taxation. In some cases, the ownership of the country estate passed through multiple hands before 1918 (for example, George Wyndham inherited Clouds, his father’s Wiltshire estate in 1911, George died in 1913 aged 49, his son Percy “Perf” Wyndham died in September 1914, and Clouds was passed to his cousin, Richard Wyndham, who fortunately survived the war), or passed from grandfather to grandson. In both cases, death duties were enormous and crippling, and many great manor houses were shut up, converted into schools or hotels, sold to the nouveau riche (denounced as “war profiteers”), or razed to the ground and the land sold to developers.

For the middle and working classes, life after the war was that of economy, economy, economy. Their way of life was not hit as hard as that of the aristocracy, but the demobilization of troops by January 1919 and the abrupt return to civilian life “produced a demand for food and clothing which sent prices soaring higher than ever, since production had still to re-adjust itself from war to peace conditions.” The fact that so many ex-soldiers and soldiers’ widows were provided with pensions and allowances, meant the law of supply and demand prevailed, and inflation rose to an alarming level in November 1920–176% higher than the cost of living in July 1914! There was also an acute shortage of housing. Before the war, young men and women could not afford to set up their own home, and so delayed marriage, but now the combination of wartime marriages and the halting of building between 1914 and 1918 created another high demand, and the cost of building materials soared with the prices for food and clothing. The irony of war was that for the first time, middle and working class men and women had substantial income in their pockets, but the prices for basic necessities continued to rise and rise because they had money!

However, unemployment went hand in hand with this inflation, and though the numbers of unemployed were relatively stable between March 1919 and November 1920, it shot back up to a million in January 1921 and to over two and a half million by June of that year. These unemployed were at first fiery and bombastic about demands for jobs (as well as Lloyd George’s promise of making England “a land fit for heroes”), and solutions ranged from tariffs against imports to quota systems in a effort to stimulate home trade. The railways were also hit hard immediately after the war, and they experimented with cheap rail fare–some as low as that seen twenty years before. All of these were only short-term solutions to the shortage of work, and the cynicism and pessimism over the promise of peace and the changes wrought by the war settled over the working class (and is why the Labour Party replaced the Liberal Party as the party of social change and progress).

Nevertheless, all was not doom and gloom! Women, though they were considered “surplus” due to the large number of deaths and maiming of the men of their generation, made significant strides in this short period of time. Oxford admitted women in full membership in 1919, with Cambridge following in 1921 (women’s colleges only), the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 gave women admission to the legal profession, the Higher Civil Service opened to them, and let us not forget the Representation of the People Act of February 1918, which gave suffrage to all men and to women over 30, with another bill following that November, which made women over twenty-one elgible to stand for Parliament.

Society and fashion also bounced back. The Social Calendar–the London Season–came to a halt during the war years, though country sports remained vital, but once the aristocracy and the upper classes threw off their gloom, they plunged back into events with alacrity. And this was in spite of their being hard-up. This time, however, there was a new Prince of Wales to follow: the slender, dashing, and fashionable Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, who adored all things modern and especially American, and partied even harder than his grandfather. In a way, society in the early 1920s was almost–if you squinted–a replica of the lavish Edwardian society, except for one inescapable fact: it was now all about the young, and young ladies just out and young men ran wild through country house parties, Ascot, dances, night clubs where you could hear the latest jazz, and sporting events, finally free of chaperones and their parents. The subtle shift away from the middle-aged to the young that was apparent around 1913 had now reached fruition, and the latest fashions–slim silhouette, filmy fabrics, light corsetry–reflected this. The fashion world was truly revitalized by the introduction of artificial silk. Now every woman could wear “silk” stockings and delicious, shimmering underwear, as well as frocks that looked just as expensive as the Paris models (or copies) worn by the Duchess of Blank and the Countess of X.

Life in general went at a breakneck pace, with aeroplane races, motor races, and anything else that went fast, becoming wildly popular with crowds. In August 1919, three aeroplanes started from Hounslow to inaugurate a regular daily passenger service from London to Paris, and in November, an air mail service between London and Paris began. By October 1922, air travel between London, Brussels, Paris, and Cologne was possible, and many daring aeronauts tested the limits of the “heavier-than-air” machine with transatlantic flights. The despair of inflation, unemployment, and poverty was also lifted somewhat by royal weddings in 1922: the Princess Royal and Lord Lascelles in February, and Lord Louis Mountbatten to Edwina Ashley (granddaughter and heiress of Sir Ernest Cassel, the private financier to Edward VII) in July. In large, the early twenties were mostly a time of great transition, where the vestiges of pre-war society remained, even as the changes brought by the war loomed closer and closer.

Further Reading:
Ourselves, 1900-1930 by Irene Clephane
Scrapbook for the Twenties by Leslie Baily
The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson
The Long Week End; a social history of Great Britain, 1918-1939, by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge
Children of the Sun: A Narrative of Decadence in England After 1918 by Martin B. Green

The American Heiress

by

mary-endicottBetween the years 1870 and 1914, hundreds of American heiresses flooded the shores of Britain and Continental Europe. To this day, their influence (and lineage) can be traced through many noble European households, and even some royal ones (Princess Diana was descended from New York heiress Frances Work, and the mediatized House of Croÿ is lead by the grandson of an American heiress).

Despite protestations to the contrary, Americans have always been fascinated by titles, whether royal or noble, and prior to the massive influx of American girls in the late Victorian era, there was a little wave of Anglo-American matches in the colonial and Federal eras (1780s-1830s). In 1798, a daughter of the governor of Pennsylvania married the Marquess de Casa Irujo, the Spanish minister to the United States, and John Jay, the first US Chief Justice, had two granddaughters who married successively, the 6th Viscount Exmouth. Three Caton granddaughters, descendants of a co-signer of the Declaration of Independence, married the 7th Duke of Leeds, the 8th Baron Stafford, and the 1st Marquess Wellesley, brother of the Iron Duke, respectively, and the first royal-American match was made between Betsey Patterson and Jerome Bonaparte, future King of Westphalia.

Jennie JeromeThe spark that lit the flame of Anglo-European matches after a forty year hiatus was the 1874 marriage of Jennie Jerome of Brooklyn, New York and Lord Randolph Churchill, second son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. Jennie and Randolph never thought their impulsive love-match would trigger the ambitions of social-climbing American millionaires born of the post-Civil War, but the subsequent marriage of her friends Consuelo Yznaga to the dissipated Viscount Mandeville (future Duke of Manchester) in 1876, and Minnie Stevens to Colonel Arthur Paget in 1878 sealed the fate of the nouveau riche American heiress.

Cut from exclusive American social circles, newly rich mamas made a mad dash for London, where, under the influence of the Prince of Wales, society craved the spirit and independence (and money) of the American girl. Of course all did not run smoothly in the early years of the rush, as evidenced by the Duchess of Marlborough and her circle who, according to Jennie, “looked upon [the American girl] 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.”

anita-rhinelander-stewartIn 1895, nine American heiresses married titled British men, including a duke, an earl and three barons. But soon there emerged a flaw in the plan: the system of primogeniture only gave the eldest son a title and put him in line to inherit a greater one.

For Catholic American girls, and those who were too impatient to wait for a father-in-law to die, the hunt on the Continent yielded better results: one could become a Princess; that must certainly be higher than a Duchess! And so, the princely and noble titles of Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy and Spain were also blessed by Providence with restored coffers and manor houses. Russia was not for the faint of heart. If one wished to brave the bracing weather and the even colder Romanov court, princely titles abounded (and some even related to the Romanovs–though if one aimed too high, as in the case of Harriet Blackford, who wished to marry Grand Duke Nicholas, the Imperial Family was apt to deal harshly with both parties).

mary-curzon Though many European-American alliances ended dreadfully, a few American women proved their mettle by assisting their husband’s ambitions. Mary Leiter, who married George Nathaniel Curzon in 1895, eventually became Vicereine of India–the highest social and political position in the British Empire behind the Queen. Despite being relegated to the shadows of history, Mary Endicott, wife of Joseph Chamberlain, was her husband’s partner and equal during his long and controversial political career.

Another American heiress who held all the cards was Anita Rhinelander Stewart. In 1909 she met Prince Miguel de Braganza, whose father was referred to as the Pretender to the Portuguese throne, and three months later, they were engaged. At first it was announced that the marriage would be morganatic, but Anita refused to accept anything less than the title of princess. And she got it: Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary, who extended hospitality to the exiled Braganzas, created the tenacious American the Duchess Vizeu & Princess de Braganza in her own right.

Alice HeineBefore Grace Kelly, there was another American Princess of Monaco: Alice Heine of New Orleans and widow of the Duc de Richelieu. Alice married His Serene Highness, Prince Albert I of Monaco in 1889. To their marriage she brought a strong business acumen and worked hard to change the reputation of the principality from that of a gambling den to a place of culture. It was Alice who established the Opera house and installed a director who brought the world’s greatest operas to Monaco. Alice and Albert’s relationship cooled soon after their marriage, and she took a series a lovers, the most notorious being Isidore de Lara. Fed up with his wife, Albert made their break public when he slapped Alice in the face at the Opera when she stopped to whisper to her lover.

She packed her bags in 1902 and left Monaco forever.

Besides Lady Randolph Churchill, the best-known American heiress is the Duchess of Marlborough, née Consuelo Vanderbilt. This derives partly from the delightful memoirs she published in the 1950s, and partly by the fact that she was one of the wealthiest heiresses of her time, with a dowry of approximatelyvanderbilt1895 $2.5 million ($75 million in 2008 dollars), and wed, in 1895, one of England’s premiere dukes. In her memoirs, she recounts the vigorous training and tutoring enforced by her mother Alva, and the secret fiancee she was forced to release when her mother set her sights on Consuelo marrying a titled European.

Though no one knew it then, Alva Vanderbilt feigned mortal illness to convince her daughter to accept the proposal of the 9th Duke of Marlborough, and the poor girl wept the entire way to her wedding. Their marriage was obviously unhappy, with the duke informing Consuelo he’d given up the woman he loved to marry her on their honeymoon, and by the birth of their second son (she coined the phrase “the heir and the spare”), their marriage was on the rocks. When they petitioned for divorce in 1906, the scandal rocked English society and King Edward made his disapproval known.

From familial pressure, and the possible revelation of Consuelo’s aborted elopement with the also married Viscount Castlereagh, they settled for a legal separation. Both now banished from court circles, Consuelo turned her pain into helping the needy and raising her sons. They eventually divorced in 1921, whereupon Consuelo married Jacques Balsan, and Sunny, another American, Gladys Deacon.

anna gouldAmerican women continued to marry European noblemen after the Great War, but the men were different, and so were the women. The devastation of the war created hundreds of nationless aristocrats, and also hundreds of fake aristocrats, who were eager to take part in the frantic pace of the 1920s and 1930s.

But to take part, they needed money, and as aristocrats they were unaccustomed to work and most likely had no qualifications for work. These aristocrats became out and out fortune hunters, and as before, the American heiress (many of this new generation, free from parental control, were more susceptible to blandishments given by a shiny coronet) stepped in to fund the playboy lifestyle. America is built on democracy, but the lure of a title will forever play into the daydream of the fairy tale. (left, Anna Gould, Comtesse de Castellane and Duchesse de Sagan)

Further Reading:
Crowning Glory by Richard Jay Hutto
The Glitter and the Gold by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan
The Reminiscences of Lady Randolph Churchillby Mrs. George Cornwallis-West
Heiresses and Coronets by Elizabeth Eliot
Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
To Marry an English Lord or, How Anglomania Really Got Started by Gail MacColl & Carol McD. Wallace
The Million Dollar Studs by Alice-Leone Moats
In a Gilded Cage. From Heiress to Duchess by Marian Fowler
American Jennie: The Remarkable Life of Lady Randolph Churchill by Anne Sebba
The Dollar Princesses: Sagas of Upward Nobility by Ruth Brandon
Gilded Prostitution: Status, Money, and Transatlantic Marriages, 1870-1914 by Maureen E. Montgomery

Those Scandalous Dances!

by

The Viennese WaltzUntil the emergence of the waltz in the early 19th century, the minuet reigned supreme as the courtliest, most aristocratic of dances. It was stately, it was elegant, it was—most importantly—proper; only the hands of the dance partners touched, their fingers clasped ever so gently. When the Viennese waltz set a dainty foot on English ballrooms, it shock the church and society with the prolonged bodily contact not just of the hands, but of the body! The dance was quickly denounced by the Anglican archbishops as a lust-inducing, decidedly degenerate action to be left to those hot-blooded, silly foreigners. Needless to say, the more forbidden the dance became the more anxious society was to engage in it—while at the same time considering it scandalous. However, by 1816, the dance had finally reached respectability and the waltz firmly fastened itself onto the dance schedules of balls and routs of English society for the majority of the 19th century. Society thought itself safe from unruly and scandalous dances, having only added the polka in the 1840s, the Virginia reel, germans, and other vigorous dances which did no more harm than red faces and shortness of breath.

Then came ragtime.

By the turn of the century, the syncopated rhythms of African-Americans had slowly but surely invaded the sedate ballrooms of American society. Composers like Scott Joplin, whose Maple Leaf Ragtime made him the first mainstream black artist in American history, created a furor for ragtime and the phonograph. By the time Irving Berlin became an overnight sensation with Alexander’s Ragtime Band and Everybody’s Doin’ It Now, ragtime music had inspired dances with amusing names like the Turkey Trot, the Grizzly Bear, and the Bunny-Hug. Moralists, parents, and statesmen from America to Russia decried the corrupting influence of these dances on youths, but they only served to make them even more popular. However, nothing prepared the terrified older generation for the tango.

The Tango This slinky, sensual dance emerged from the fusion of Afro-Latin-American rhythms and movements. It was said the dance originated from the brothels of Argentina, where they were danced by the lower classes and prostitutes of both sexes. Upon the migration of Argentinians to Europe, the dance hit mainstream first in Paris, around 1910, making its way to England and the US by 1913. In reaction to the fluid movements of the tango, skirts suddenly slit to the knee, people began to talk of gigolos, “Tango teas” became the craze, and Latin American music began to supersede the graceful Viennese melodies of the nineteenth century.

And history repeated itself once again with the vitriolic protest Pope Pius X launched against the tango. In Milan, priests thundered from the pulpits, warning congregations “not to indulge in the immoral dance; better still not even to watch it for fear of temptation.” But as with the waltz, Society turned a deaf ear to the remonstrations and in fact, took to the tango (and those wild ragtime dances) with even more alacrity than with the waltz.

Vernon and Irene Castle For many, despite the insistence that in order to be fashionable, one must do the dances, the tangos and Boston two-steps and such were too much for their sensibilities. Into the fray leaped an American couple by the names of Irene and Vernon Castle. After a stint in Paris, the Castles introduced sedate versions of the raucous dances into the parlors of America’s aristocracy. They placed a firm emphasis on the health benefits and gracefulness of dancing, and as a result of their performances on Broadway, garnered the patronage of thankful matrons such as Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish and Mrs. Rhinelander. The highly-successful couple made the first dance instruction video (1909) and wrote a number of popular books on dancing. To date, a number of films have been made about them, most especially a movie featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

These days, dances that scandalized our ancestors are consigned as relics of the past, considered “fusty” and “fussy”, only seen in old musicals or costume movies, and sometimes at ballroom dancing competitions. Except the tango. To today, it continues to be seen as a sensual, decidedly un-fusty dance of seduction. For more information on these dances and others, visit Street Swing!

Further Reading:
Vernon and Irene Castle’s Ragtime Revolution by Eve Golden
The Golden Age of Tango: An Illustrated Compendium of Its History by Horacio Ferrer
This Is Ragtime by Terry Waldo
Dance, A Very Social History by Carol McD. Wallace