Last week, I received the following email from one of our readers…
I recently read The Old Money Book — it was really insightful (and entertaining). Thank you! You wrote that Old Money prioritized modesty over display, refinement over brashness, etc.
It got me interested in these rules of behavior re Old Money. Where do these traditions come from? Where did the wealthy (Old Money) learn to act like Old Money so to speak…?
I read that in China now, there are consultants who teach the wealthy (which is all New Money) how to “act rich.”
Could you elaborate or recommend (links, articles, books, etc.) any material that may address these traditions or rules?
I really appreciate your time and kind attention.
I hope you are well and staying safe.
So, first off, thank you, Steven. This is a great question.
I discussed it the day after receiving your email with our erstwhile foreign correspondent David over coffee and a croissants here in Paris prior to his departure for exotic parts unknown.(Poland, actually.)
I’m going to offer my insights and then ask that he add his thoughts, in writing this time, to the subject. (C.V., you are also welcome to chime in.)
Immediately, I suggested that Steven read The Proper Bostonians by Cleveland Amory. This book offers brilliant insights into the formation and development of Old Money families in Boston, as well as detailing their history, traditions, values, and attitudes. It is also highly entertaining.
As for the historical origins of current Old Money behavior, I think we’d best credit the British aristocracy first, then tip our hat to the French aristocracy.
The reasons for citing these two countries and their aristocratic cultures are numerous. First, much of their their early wealth was based on the ownership and stewardship of land. (How it was acquired is another issue.)
The land had value only to the extent that it was properly managed: how productively it was farmed for the growing crops, managing resources like timber and livestock, and generating rental income from residential or commercial buildings.
This agrarian economy had social and interpersonal ramifications. Conspicuous consumption by the aristocracy, while certainly present at times, was counterbalanced by a sense of partnership with the people who worked the land. Everybody depended on the harvest and the herds for food and income. Decisions impacting the estate had to be well-thought-out by the owner, as well as well-executed by the laborer.
Furthermore, everybody lived, walked, and worked on the same land, and in the same weather. This daily reality led the lord and the stable hand to dress in much the same way, with everybody sporting durable tweeds and practical shoes.
So we might summarize the reality of this economic and social situation thus: everybody’s in the same boat (the estate), wanting the same outcome (good harvest, good livestock), facing the same obstacles (weather, disease, war, etc.).
The big difference between the residents of the manor and the people working the land, (aside of course from their net worth), then, was most often in their diction, manners, education, and perspective. The aristocracy spoke articulately. They were raised to be polite, at least to their peers. They had tutors and access to the finest schools. They could travel. Most importantly, they were required to think and plan for the long term: it was essential for their survival.
So let’s take these considerations and fast forward to Old Money behavior today. While land is less of a factor in calculating wealth in 2021, many of these historical, aristocratic attitudes remain. First, money and resources must be well managed, or they will disappear. Secondly, being well dressed means being dressed appropriately for the occasion (work, leisure, sport). We also dress to be comfortable (clothes that fit), and to be practical (clothes that wear well and are versatile). We have no reason to dress in order to gain attention from others.
Second, we consider ourselves to be in partnership, not just with people who work for us or with us, but with everybody else on the planet. People draw different lots in life. Some do well. Some just get by. Ours is not to judge. Ours is to be as polite as we can while doing our duty. Ours is not to spend as much as we can, waste as much as we can, and pollute as much as we can. Restraint is a byword.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the big differences in Old Money Guys and Gals and the general population is not in the subtle wardrobe choices, exclusive residential zip codes, or exotic vacation destinations. It’s in the level and quality of education, the manners and etiquette, and the perspective.
We still have to delay gratification for the short term and prioritize for the long term. That aristocratic or Old Money attitude is probably the cornerstone of the whole building.
Of course, I’ve simplified these concepts and the context in which they originated. But I think this gives us a good starting point to begin our discussion…and address Steven’s query.
Please feel free to comment and contribute. And for additional insights, enjoy a 45 minute PODCAST
on the subject, as well as a VIDEO
, both courtesy of our dear friend David.