Social climbing is nothing new. But while a quickly made fortune can translate into a gaudy Kardashian-esque lifestyle and celebrity, the super-superiority of a noble title has generally been more difficult to obtain.
True, some titles can be bought, but those fail to have the cache of being a true member of, say, the British peerage. Consider the American millionaires of the Gilded Age, who trotted their marriageable daughters across the Atlantic in hopes of bartering Yankee dollars for an aristocratic title.
It has to be a daughter, too. Men can't acquire titles through marriage. While a man who weds a duke's daughter will be His Grace's son-in-law and nothing more, a common-born woman can rise to giddy heights through marrying the right gentleman – as Miss Catherine Middleton has most recently proved.
The wonderful caricature, left, by Isaac Cruikshank (1757-1811) features a group of English women attempting to rush up the social ladder. (As always, click on the image to enlarge it.) They're all eager to be with their "betters", and quick to scorn those below them. On the pinnacle is a duchess, pointing to the coronet this is the ultimate prize; tumbling indelicately off the bottom step (and of course showing her bared breasts in the process) is the lowly mistress. Since the captions for each woman are a bit difficult to read even after enlarging, I've copied them here, from bottom to top.
Mistress: "Whenever I try's to mount I always miss my hold." Baronet's wife: "These Mistresses are allways following Quality." Baroness: "Here comes Sir John's wife, but she shan't get up." Viscountess: "Baroness, you've lost your Breath, you lag a little." Countess: "The Viscountess is very Nimble today." Marchioness: "I'll be up with Your Grace, but the Countess is allways at my heels." Duchess: "Come along Marchioness make one of us."
Above: The Quality Ladder, by Isaac Cruikshank, printed in London, 1793. Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.