Looking for a little background to clarify some plot elements of Downton Abbey, I happened on the 1912 edition of McClure’s Magazine. Burton J. Hendrick’s piece, “Permanent Owners of New York,” offered plenty of food for thought, starting with the photo of Vincent Astor.
The wealth of these U.S. families was phenomenal—a circumstance extremely helpful to British aristocrats obliged to sell their treasures—or themselves, as spouses— in order to repair, say, the ancestral roof.
The entire piece is well worth reading, for insights into how these fortunes were built, as well as some glimpses of the people themselves & their quirks. Since the piece is far too long to reproduce here, we'll settle for Mr. Astor and John G. Wendel, whose photos and captions I particularly liked.
“The old Knickerbocker families of New York are to-day, precisely as were their predecessors in the early part of the nineteenth century, the owners of New York. They invested their fortunes, not in railroads or in shipping or in manufactures, but in America’s most productive source of wealth—the soil of Manhattan Island. They are the city’s landed aristocracy; they represent essentially the only American fortunes that endure from generation to generation; that maintain their own in the face of changing economic circumstances; and that steadily and surely increase from year to year."
"There is John D. Wendel, for example, a brother-in-law of the first John Jacob Astor, who made a fortune as a commission dealer in deerskins, and who invested it so thoughtfully in New York real estate that his grandson owns from $30,000,000 to $40,000,000 worth to-day."
McClure's magazine, Volume 39, 1912