Origins of Old Money Behavior

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.
Thank you!
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.
–  BGT

22 thoughts on “Origins of Old Money Behavior

  1. I often wonder about the value of propagating wealth from one generation to the next. Why, for example, are Forbes 400 members Bill Gates and Melinda French-Gates planning on passing only $10M to each of their three kids?

    Toward this end, I’ve been reflecting recently on two old money families I know personally and how they are managing their family fortunes. Briefly, one is giving it all away, while the other has grown the family fortune through savvy investing. Note: personal details have been obscured.

    Paul’s great grandfather started a transportation business which his grandfather and father built into a household name. Paul received a substantial inheritance which he has multiplied several fold over the past two decades. He has held mid-level positions at two prestigious non-profits for over 30 years. Paul and his wife raised their kids in a beautiful upper-class suburb – living in a home that is well above his pay grade, but well below their net worth – while managing an eight-figure portfolio in his spare time. Their kids are well educated, financially literate and on-track to launching their own lives and careers. Paul is discrete and maintains a low profile. He represents and dresses the epitome of old money values and style.

    Similarly, David comes from a family that built a major manufacturing business started by his great uncle. His father took over and later sold the business. David left the old money culture that he grew up around and moved away for college. He had been pursuing his own successful career when he received a substantial eight figure inheritance. Since then, he has upgraded his lifestyle and given away substantial sums to social causes at a rapid clip. The kids live off trust funds that were established by David’s parents. He usually dresses in t-shirts and jeans.

    Paul has been a terrific steward of the family fortune, while David is spending and giving away most of his inheritance during his lifetime. Why such different approaches? I think it’s because Paul has a long-term outlook on humanity spanning generations and centuries. He feels a strong responsibility to take care of the family jewels and to pass them along the next generation. David believes that people are happiest when they make it on their own – like he did – and feels no obligation to pass material wealth to future generations. He wants to have as much impact on causes that he cares deeply about during his lifetime.

  2. Firstly, my thanks to Byron for inviting me to comment.

    Just briefly, a comment to the writer Maurice: I have no idea why the Gates’ don’t bequeath more to their children but perhaps their fortune is just too vast. In reality though, it does not have the same roots. Real old-money values, and of course fortunes, were not built on ‘tech-bubbles’. They took a bit longer than that.

    In the space available I would agree that many of the old money norms go back to the origins, and most importantly, the survival and the continuity of the British aristocracy. However, we’re (mostly) speaking from an English-language heritage point of view. Like most things though, norms and behaviours do not exist in isolation and others are practicing the same thing, just in other ‘languages’.

    I am visiting Poland and staying in a house that on an almost daily basis hosts four consecutive generations. The oldest being 94 and the youngest seven. It was built by a previous generation to the first of these four. It stands on ground that was purchased by a ‘great-great’ four generations further back than that. It survived being billeted by both the German and Russian occupying forces in WW2. It survived the Communist era. They harvest fruit from trees planted long before they themselves were around. There is a unspoken sense of continuity here.

    If I were to ask them if they were old money I’m fairly certain they’d be puzzled by the question. Perhaps even dismissive. They might say that it was ‘other people’ I must be thinking about. However no one survives with this type of continuity if they are not practicing what we’ve termed old money habits. They don’t think about it. It’s in them. There is no evidence of a fortune. But there is no evidence of need either.

    I re-watched the video that Byron provided the link to. I can also recommend The Last Dukes and a short one called Re-ordering the Aristocracy. There are others. Some are a bit ‘slow’ but when viewing them one needs to see the bigger picture and look backwards and forwards to try and grasp why today some families are still in the self-same houses, in an unbroken line, having begun on a date five hundred years (before) a certain Mr. Columbus set foot on distant shores.

    My opinion is that we can cut it up any-which-way-we-wish but these families are doing something correct and there have to be lessons for individuals, families and society as a whole. Developing a long view is not only crucial. It is central. Start with oneself and for heaven’s sake, forget what other people think ! It is none of their business. (A key OM trait.)

    One day someone might ask if you’re old money. You too could answer that it must be other people they’re thinking about.

    1. Thank you, David. I think the Gates are wise to limit the inheritance that their children receive. For a fortune that size, the psychological impact can be devastating in the best of circumstances (noting the subtleties in the Abigail Disney opinion piece). Trying to find a sincere dating or marriage partner would be a real trick.

      On a more practical level, personal security for Bill and Melinda’s daughters could become a huge headache and constant concern (note the Getty family’s kidnapping ordeals in Italy, etc.).

      The real issue for the Gates children, though, is the fact that their father and mother are not only very wealthy, they are very public. Therein lies the rub, and the desire for Old Money families to stay under the radar.

      Thanks again. Let’s talk soon. – BGT

  3. I think David’s observation that “There is no evidence of a fortune. But there is no evidence of need either.” is pretty revealing.

  4. Byron, thank you for inviting me to comment – this is a provocative question and you and David have already given such thoughtful and thorough replies. After some coffee and a bit of pondering, I look forward to sharing some thoughts … – C.V.

  5. I’m suprised no one mentioned: Protestantism and Capitalism. That’s what I’ve learned (in Sociology courses at university) was the breeding ground of an economic elite, one not necessarily related to titled aristocracy. I still keep the book in my library.

    From that historical perspective, Germany, The Netherlands and Scandinavia are as close, if not closer to Anglo-Saxon Old Money, than France. Are the British Mounbattens not related to the German Battenbergs?

    As for the image of lords and farmers blending together, I believe that’s a recent one. Certain lords do indeed cultivate an air of, not just modesty, but genteel poverty, while owning a stately home, swathes of land and a dozen cottages. Is it not inverted snobbery?

    A generation or two ago, the distinction between them would have been rather stark. In fact, in the old days, it was the Church that, at times, had to instill civility and temper the decadence and abuses of the upper class.

    Finally, a thought on how family fortunes are preserved through centuries: male primogeniture? In the days of my grandmother’s grandmother, that’s how things worked. House and land went to the eldest brother, period.

    1. Thank you, Largo. Your insights are greatly appreciated. You may be right about France being a half-step farther away than other countries mentioned. Much appreciated. – BGT

  6. Largo,

    In Britain, at least, it isn’t / wasn’t just in the time of your ‘grandmother’s grandmother’ that male primogeniture determined who received what. Male primogeniture is alive and well in the British aristocracy, right here and right now.

    If one views some of the recommended videos one finds two points of view on this topic: those who do not have sons favouring a change or a mix, depending on who was born first. And the second point of view: no point of view. Aristocrats who politely declined to be interviewed and kept their (point of view) between those of a similar caste.

    They are in my opinion entitled to their own opinion and to taking a stand, just like you and me in this age of wokeism.


  7. David,

    Indeed, it seems that male primogeniture is well entrenched in British upper class culture. I remember watching an interview with the offspring of landed gentry. The young lady insisted that she had never even considered the thought of inheriting the ancestral house. She always knew it was her elder brother’s privilege. Where I come from, it’s not legally possible to “disinherit” or significantly favour one particular child.

    Let me be clear: I don’t have a final opinion on this matter. On the one hand, it seems preferable to favour one heir, if that guarantees continuity. Women also tend to get married within or above their social class, so they will eventually preserve their living standards. Besides, as you pointed out above, family ties are strong. So heirs stand up for each other through life, rather than fighting for the “big pot of gold”.

    There is no intellectual merit, neither in wokeism, nor in associating it with the arguments one disagrees with. In that sense, both sides make the same mistake. Few people realise that.

    Thank you,

  8. I’ve been giving a fair bit of thought to this since you posed the question. The manner of old money is surprisingly difficult to describe or explain in isolation, as it is so tied into other aspects of the belief system – especially at its origins.

    Understatement is a cornerstone belief here, but it may have come in part from a desire to deflect envy or even self-preservation (cough cough 1789 cough cough).

    Humility and a sense of self-deprecating humor are another way to deflect envy. Especially since, even with all the additional advantages of a cushion of wealth and a network of family connections and the tacit knowledge (more on that in a moment), life may not be as successful as one hoped. To end up at B when everyone hoped you’d end up at E can be embarrassing, so the humility helps to downplay expectations or ambitions.

    A corollary to this may be the favoring of camping and other “roughing it” kinds of hobbies – a way to test one’s mettle given that life has otherwise coddled one, in many ways.

    There’s a sense of quiet competence that comes from knowing one’s field well, and from knowing how society works. Of knowing who to call (or even knowing someone in that company or government office) to solve a problem. This feels like it touches on both the stiff upper lip and the sense of humility – resulting in a proportional response to a crisis, big or small. This brings to mind a moment from Truman Capote’s Black & White Ball, where a costumed woman with long hair was standing too close to a candle, and the bottom of her hair had caught on fire. A nearby man noticed, whispered this to her, patted the fire out, and they drank and laughed about it – today, in the Real Housewives era, one imagines there would be more screaming and drama and sturm and drang.

    There’s often a joy in inexpensive hobbies, too. Birdwatching, walking, painting, pottery. That one’s weekends aren’t regularly spent bleeding money. That one can enjoy themself without haemmoraging cash.

    Connoisseurship. This is adjacent to competence and to inexpensive hobbies (although, over the years, one realizes how much they’ve spent on books – but it turns out to be an investment of sorts). Most of the old money folks I think of are tremendous, voracious, and eclectic readers – which makes them wonderful conversationalists. Another side of this is a deep appreciation for anything done well, from cooking to carpentry to tailoring. They appreciate the process (and the producer) as much as the product. But again, it is proportional. That Michelin-starred restaurant nearby? It’s only for special occasions. We cook at home the rest of the time. Savile Row suits? Yes, one or two – there’s no need to be a clotheshorse unless it’s your one indulgence. And so on.

    But this hasn’t touched upon that ineffable sense of style, that grandeur of manner. In films, it’s often portrayed or caricatured as haughtiness or buffoonery – Thurston Howell from Gilligan’s Island was modeled on a Boston Brahmin – but in real life, these folks are, more often than not, defined by an amiable warmth. Approachable, relatable. The ones who take an extra moment to write a more thoughtful reply on email or text, or to make someone in a customer service role feel seen and appreciated.

    An aunt of mine, when I was young, had given me an etiquette book with this caveat: “The second most important lesson here is which fork to use.” And she paused. “But the most important lesson is not making anyone else feel inadequate because they didn’t have the opportunity to learn which fork to use.” She was one of the most gracious people I’ve known, who fully embodies the qualities described above.

    Everyone does certain things; not everyone does them with style or panache. Old money style is a combination of the clothing, manner, etiquette, mindset, warmth and guardedness. I could keep revising that sentence for weeks to tease out nuances and examples – and it raises another question. To what degree are some of the qualities we ascribe to “old money” found in other economic or social strata? But they are differently among the old money cohort.

    This difficulty of defining the old money style and manner is, I think, part of what makes it so fascinating.
    This has probably run on for far too long, so I shall stop now.

    1. Thank you, C.V. I think we’re closing in on the term ‘ephemeral’ and the oft-used phrase “I know it when I see it” as we refer to Old Money behavior in general. And the mystery remains, thankfully. Much appreciated. – BGT

  9. Hi Byron,

    I was wondering if you could do a post on the general food/drink/diet culture in Old Money society. What are some typical meals and dishes of the elite, WASPY, preppy families? How do they stay so trim? Are most of the meals eaten at home, and if so, who does most of the cooking? Do trips to McDonalds ever occur? 😉

    It seems like so many resources focus on the fashion and appearance of Old Money, but I’ve had a hard time finding anything about their source of nutritional sustenance, besides the infamous cocktail hour.

    1. My guess is that they eat healthy, fresh and nutritious food, according to the gastronomic tradition of their origins. They avoid or are careful with sugar, processed food, saturated fats and simple carbohydrates. Quality over quantity. No rocket science.

      Add some regular workout (even if just walking) and a good tailor, and that’s why they stay more or less trim.

      Some of them may also avoid “controversial” foods like horse, dolphin or whale meat, eggs from battery hens, foie gras or anything from unsustainable or unethical sources.

  10. I second Katherine’s suggestion. The next time you have a chance to speak with your OMG network Byron, it would be great to hear their perspective on food & eating.

    It seems to me that in general, OMGs tend to be “appropriate weight for their height,” i.e. lean/fit. And I say this as an overweight man: all things being equal, a lean/fit person seems to convey a sense of self-control, competence, reliability, respect. And we all know the health benefits of keeping the excess weight off.

    For my part, I’d like to hear the unvarnished OMG opinion on this. Take the gloves off, and give it to me straight (to mix my metaphors).

    1. Hi Yank, thank you for the inquiry. Largo’s comment on this subject was a great start. I’ll expand a little, actually, a lot, and do it in a blog post. You should see the post in the next few days. – BGT

  11. Per food I just read that the British royal family eats only food grown on their farms throughout their childhood. That would probably account for their excellent health and longevity.

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