Do You Come from Posh Ancestors?

Family History
5 May 2020
by Rebecca Dalzell

Some families say they’re descended from royalty. Others whisper about properties left behind in the old country or a successful businessman a few generations back. What if there’s some truth to family lore?

Historical records offer compelling details about your ancestors’ wealth. Here’s what to look for.

A Genteel Job

Did your ancestor have a fancy-sounding occupation In the 1860 U.S. Census, for instance, thousands of men in many parts of the country listed “gentleman” or “gent” as their occupation.

Census record shows a Pennsylvania man with the occupation of "gentleman."
This record from the 1860 Census shows a Pennsylvania man with the occupation of “gentleman.”

Women called themselves a “lady.” While neither so-called profession means someone was super rich, it implies that they had independent means or were at least comfortably retired.

Valuable Farmland

From 1850 to 1880, the U.S. did special censuses related to agriculture, manufacturing, and industry. Called non-population schedules, they enumerate juicy financial details like the value of farmland, number of livestock, or types of machinery on the property.

Non-population schedule listing a Vanderbilt and their farm.
A Vanderbilt and their Long Island, NY farm appear in this 1880 non-population schedule.

In 1880, a Vanderbilt scion reported that his $400,000 ($10 million today) Long Island, NY farm included 12 pigs, 200 poultry birds, and eight horses.

An Income Over $1,000 in 1940

The 1940 Census asked about income. The U.S. was just emerging from the Great Depression, so times were tough. The median income for a man was $956 ($17,563 today).

If you made more than that, you were doing pretty well. Babe Ruth, for example, raked in “$5,000+” the previous year ($91,800 today), even though he was retired from baseball. Ronald Reagan reported the same income level as an actor.

Census record listing Babe Ruth's income.
George H. Ruth (AKA Babe Ruth) reports his income as over $5K in this 1940 Census.

The 1940 Census also asked how many hours people worked and if they had income from a source besides wages, which could imply family money, a pension, or investment income.

A Generous Will

Wills offer a window into your ancestors’ wealth, showing how much money or property they had and if the deceased had charitable inclinations.

Department store magnate Marshall Field left behind a multi-million dollar estate and a lengthy will, with bequests to his employees, drivers, and servants as well as family. He also gave $8 million to what’s now called the Field Museum of Natural History.

His fellow Chicagoan Daniel Burnham, architect of New York’s Flatiron Building and Union Station in Washington, DC, was similarly philanthropic, leaving $50,000 to The Art Institute of Chicago.

Daniel Burnham's handwritten will.
The will of Daniel Burnham shows his bequest of $50K to The Art Institute of Chicago.

First Class Tickets

Ship passenger lists sometimes include accommodations, revealing how much money your ancestors had when they traveled to the U.S.

A man named J. Blaauw, for instance, was only 24 when he left Holland in a first-class cabin in 1889, which suggests he came from family money.

It was much more common to travel in steerage. But turn-of-the-century luxury ocean liners offered all of the comforts of home and then some.

Collage of documents and images related to the Titanic and Lusitania.
Early 20th century ocean liners offered luxury accommodations (Titanic and Lusitania images shown here).

Thousands in Real Estate Property

Most of us try not to be nosy about money. The 1860 U.S. Census and the 1870 U.S. Census flat-out asked Americans about their net worth. This includes the estimated value of someone’s personal estate and real estate.

It’s tricky to calculate real value of real estate in today’s dollars, but based on inflation alone, $50,000 in 1870 is about $1 million now.

Anyone with that kind of money was likely a prominent citizen, though their names may have been lost to history. Take Fanny Hendricks, a 50-year-old Englishwoman who lived in New York City. Most of us haven’t heard of her, but she had a whopping $350,000 worth of real estate (some $7 million today).

New York census record.
This New York resident in the 1870 Census shows a whopping $350K in real estate.

It’s also important to realize that with the Civil War not ending until 1865, a large personal estate for people living in the South was often slaves. So you’ll want to be very sensitive and diligent in your research.

Boarding School Attendance

While not definitive, where your ancestors went to school could hint at their financial status, so search yearbook collections to find their alma mater. Perhaps they boarded at a fancy private school like Andover or Deerfield. 

Andover prep school yearbook cover with inset class photo.
You might find a prep school photo or a prep school yearbook.

Or maybe they grew up in a well-heeled school district like Beverly Hills, California or Scarsdale, New York.

Yearbooks can also reveal if your family member played squash, joined the drama club, or volunteered with the Red Cross—a reminder that there’s more to a rich life than money.


What’ll You Discover?

Were some of your ancestors quite posh?

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