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More About the Upper Class

Nobility and New Wealth
Early in the 19th century, the old hereditary aristocracy and the new wealthy mixed socially and evolved into the modern upper class. Earlier, in feudal continental Europe, every member of a noble family was considered nobility and all were entitled to bear coats of arms. This practice among the hereditary aristocracy resulted in an enormous number of European titled families whose descendants tended to marry only members of other titled families. Royal and noble families formed a centuries-old, distinct, aristocratic social class in France. After the French revolution, titles, coats of arms, and other signs of feudalism were outlawed; with the return of the monarchy, aristocratic titles and heraldry were reinstated and strictly regulated.

Power and Money
In 19th century France, the reestablished hereditary aristocracy of royal relatives and noble families, along with the newly wealthy entrepreneurial landholders, dominated the economy, politics, and society. This dominant aristocratic upper class controlled the material production, as well as the production of ideas, established cultural style, and dictated political doctrines. At the beginning of the century, the wealthiest 5% of the French populace possessed 33% of the nation’s income, and paid very little income tax. The upper class possessed largely inherited wealth and property. They controlled and profited from economic expansion in trading and commerce, industrial and technological development, and development of professions such as law and medicine. As their economic power grew ever greater, they mobilized and sought increased political rights to shield them from capricious royal rulers. Well-to-do families feared poverty and loss of status should their offspring pursue lower status careers as artists or journalists.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Upper Class
The wealthiest of the upper class moved their residences as far away as possible from the crowded slums of the poor; they rode through the city streets in horse drawn carriages while everyone else walked. When city life became oppressive and unpleasant, upper class families took journeys into the countryside, as their aristocratic ancestors had. They luxuriated at their vast inherited or purchased country chateaus while lower class servants, tenant farmers, and sharecropping laborers worked to produce income for them and maintain their grand lifestyle. Upper class families living in cities generally bathed at least once a week; they were most likely to own large tubs in which the entire body could be immersed. Their upper class lifestyle included theatre, opera, entertaining, feasting, and dancing, and required the constant acquisition and consumption of luxury goods; a family could spend the equivalent of at least $10,000 a year on meat alone. Exclusive, specialized, high quality purveyors provided foodstuffs for the upper class. They were the most envied and admired members of society; from the 17th to 19th centuries, leading theatre characters were almost exclusively individuals of wealth and social position.

Mind Your Manners
For the upper class, social behaviors were seriously scripted, strictly observed, and were often mocked and caricatured. Lucien O. Carpenter published the Universal Dancing Master in 1880 which described appropriate dancing behavior in detail. Painters and caricaturists Louis-Leopold Boilly (1761-1845), Honore Daumier, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Caran d’Ache satirized social manners and mores in their depictions of aristocrats, political and military leaders, theatre celebrities, and music hall personalities. When dancing, upper class ladies and gentleman were instructed to complete their grooming in the dressing rooms provided by the hosts, and to pull on their gloves before entering the ballroom for dancing. Upon entering, each dancer politely greeted the director of ceremonies with a salute or a bow. Ladies were taught to dance with easy, becoming and graceful movements to be more pleasing to the gentlemen, but were also instructed to refuse to dance with any gentleman with whom they were not already acquainted without a proper introduction. Introductions in the ballroom were understood to be for that evening only, after which the acquaintanceship ceased, unless the lady chose to recognize the gentleman at any further time or place when they should meet again. Ladies were warned not be too hasty in filling in their dance cards (literally writing in the names of those gentlemen who had requested and been granted permission to dance), but to leave some dances open for any male friends who might arrive later in the evening. Ladies were prohibited from attending balls or walking around the ballroom without escorts (prearranged, usually male acquaintances or mature women relatives). Gentlemen were instructed that no lady should be left unattended and alone at any time.

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