The upper class a century ago

Complimentary dinner tendered by Sir John Eaton, King Edward Hotel, 1919

Names communicate a lot of information, which is subject to both interpretation and misinterpretation. This discussion of what we can learn about social class from people's names is the fourth of a five part series What Do Names Tell Us? (The first three parts dealt with popular names, last names, and race and religion.)

(From time to time, Looking in the Cultural Mirror deals with broad topics that require multiple posts-for example, the six part series on The Census and Race [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6].)


The United States is made up of former British colonies. We speak English, the language of our former rulers, and a British accent sounds intelligent to American ears (in contrast, for example, to a less valued Spanish accent). In religion, Old Money is largely Episcopalian--the American version of the Church of England (Anglican). And British surnames like Carnegie, Mellon, and Morgan carry an upper class cachet.

When it comes to given names, those chosen by the upper class overlap with the most popular American names, but also include distinctive choices. Children's names that are common among the upper class but rare among other Americans--e.g., Maisie and Imogen for girls and Phineas and Auden for boys--are a mark of the cultural boundary separating the upper class from the hoi polloi. If you and your kids don't know anyone with any of those four names, you're probably not in the upper class.

One way to get into the upper class is to get listed in the Social Register. Cecil Adams offers advice on how to achieve this end-but don't get your hopes up. On the other hand, the Social Register website offers a free peek at the initial pages. These include some obituaries, complete with pictures, where you can read some upper class names, get a glimpse of some life histories, and see what you've been missing out on.

Since the upper class is a kind of international club, non-British surnames can be found among those who marry in--including foreign moguls, celebrities, and royalty--though non-European surnames are harder to find.

For the rest of us, the main social class information hinted at by our names is that we are not from the upper class.

Image Source:
Complimentary dinner tendered by Sir John Eaton, King Edward Hotel, 1919, City of Toronto archives

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