The American Upper Class

excerpted from the book

Who Rules America Now?

by G. William Domhoff

Touchstone Books, 1983



From infancy through young adulthood, members of the upper class receive a distinctive education. This education begins early in life in preschools that frequently are attached to a neighborhood church of high social status. Schooling continues during the elementary years at a local private school called a day school. The adolescent years may see the student remain at day school, but there is a strong chance that at least one or two years will be spent away from home at a boarding school in a quiet rural setting. Higher education will be obtained at one of a small number of heavily endowed private universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford head the list, followed by smaller Ivy League schools in the East and a handful of other small private schools in other parts of the country. Although some upper-class children may attend public high school if they live in a secluded suburban setting, or go to a state university if there is one of great esteem and tradition in their home state, the system of formal schooling is so insulated that many upper-class students never see the inside of a public school in all their years of education.

This separate educational system is important evidence for the distinctiveness of the mentality and life-style that exists within the upper class, for schools play a large role in transmitting the class structure to their students. Surveying and summarizing a great many studies on schools in general, sociologist Randall Collins concludes: "Schools primarily teach vocabulary and inflection, styles of dress aesthetic tastes, values and manners."

The training of upper-class children is not restricted to the formal school setting, however. Special classes and even tutors are a regular part of their extracurricular education. This informal education usually begins with dancing classes in the elementary years which are seen as more important for learning proper manners and the social graces than for learning to dance. Tutoring in a foreign language may begin in the elementary years, and there are often lessons in horseback riding and music as well. The teen years find the children of the upper class in summer camps or on special travel tours, broadening their perspectives and polishing their social skills.

The linchpins in the upper-class educational system are the dozens of boarding schools that were developed in the last half of the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth centuries, with the rise of a nationwide upper class whose members desired to insulate themselves from an inner city that was becoming populated by lower-class immigrants. Baltzell concludes that these schools became "surrogate families" that played a major role "in creating an upper-class subculture on almost a national scale in America.

From kindergarten through college ... schooling is very different for members of the upper class from what it is for most Americans, and it teaches them to be distinctive in many ways. In a country where education is highly valued and the overwhelming majority attend public schools, less than one student in a hundred is part of this private system that primarily benefits members of the upper class and provides one of the foundations for the old-boy and old-girl networks that will be with them throughout their lives.


Just as private schools are a pervasive feature in the lives of upper-class children, so, too, are private social clubs a major point of orientation in the lives of upper-class adults. These clubs also play a role in differentiating members of the upper class from other members of society. According to Baltzell, "the club serves to place the adult members of society and their families within the social hierarchy." He quotes with approval the suggestion by historian Crane Brinton that the club "may perhaps be regarded as taking the place of those extensions of the family, such as the clan and the brotherhood, which have disappeared from advanced societies." Conclusions similar to Baltzell's resulted from an interview study in Kansas City: "Ultimately, say upper-class Kansas Citians, social standing in their world reduces to one issue: where does an individual or family rank on the scale of private club memberships and informal cliques."

The clubs of the upper class are many and varied, ranging from family-oriented country clubs and downtown men's and women's clubs to highly specialized clubs for yachtsmen, sportsmen, gardening enthusiasts, and fox hunters. Many families have memberships in several different types of clubs, but the days when most of the men by themselves were in a half dozen or more clubs faded before World War II. Downtown men's clubs originally were places for having lunch and dinner, and occasionally for attending an evening performance or a weekend party. But as upper-class families deserted the city for large suburban estates, a new kind of club, the country club, gradually took over some of these functions. The downtown club became almost entirely a luncheon club, a site to hold meetings, or a place to relax on a free afternoon. The country club, by contrast, became a haven for all members of the family. It offered social and sporting activities ranging from dances, parties, and banquets to golf, swimming, and tennis. Special group dinners were often arranged for all members on Thursday night, the traditional maid's night off across the United States.

Sporting activities are the basis for most of the specialized clubs of the upper class. The most visible are the yachting and sailing clubs, followed by the clubs for lawn tennis or squash. The most exotic are the several dozen fox hunting clubs. They have their primary strongholds in rolling countrysides from southern Pennsylvania down into Virginia but they exist in other parts of the country as well. Riding to hounds in pink jackets and black boots, members of the upper class sustain over 130 hunts under the banner of the Masters of Fox Association. The intricate rituals and grand feasts accompanying the event go back to the eighteenth century in the United States, including the Blessing of the Hounds by an Episcopal bishop in the Eastern hunts.

One of the most central clubs in this network, the Bohemian Club of San Francisco, is also the most unusual and widely known club of the upper class. Its annual two-week encampment in its 2,700 acre Bohemian Grove 75 miles north of San Francisco brings together the social elite, celebrities, and government officials for relaxation and entertainment. A description of this gathering provides the best possible insight into the role of clubs in uniting the upper class.

The huge forest retreat called the Bohemian Grove was purchased by the club in the 1890s. Bohemians and their guests number anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 for the three weekends in the encampment, which is always held during the last two weeks in July, when it almost never rains in northern California. However, there may be as few as 400 men in residence in the middle of the week, for most return to their homes and jobs after the weekends. During their stay the campers are treated to plays, symphonies, concerts, lectures, and political commentaries by entertainers, musicians, scholars, and government officials. They also trapshoot, canoe, swim, drop by the Grove art gallery, and take guided tours into the outer fringe of the mountain forest. But a stay at the Bohemian Grove is mostly a time for relaxation and drinking in the modest lodges, bunkhouses, and even teepees that fit unobtrusively into the landscape along the two or three macadam roads that join the few "developed" acres within the Grove. It is like a summer camp for the power elite and their entertainers.

As the case of the Bohemian Grove and its symbolic ceremonies rather dramatically illustrate, there seems to be a great deal of truth to the earlier-cited suggestion by Crane Brinton that clubs may have the function within the upper class that the clan or brotherhood has in tribal societies. With their restrictive membership policies, initiatory rituals, private ceremonials, and great emphasis on tradition, clubs carry on the heritage of primitive secret societies. They create within their members an attitude of prideful exclusiveness that contributes greatly to an in-group feeling and a sense of fraternity within the upper class.


The debutante season is a series of parties, teas, and dances, culminating in one or more grand balls. It announces the arrival of young women of the upper class into adult society with the utmost of formality and elegance. These highly expensive rituals, in which great attention is lavished on every detail of the food, decorations, and entertainment, have a long history in the upper class. Making their appearance in Philadelphia in 1748 and Charleston, South Carolina, in 1762, they vary only slightly from city to city across the country. They are a central focus of the Christmas social season just about everywhere, but in some cities debutante balls are held in the spring I as well.

... Evidence for the great traditional importance attached to the debut is to be found in the comments Ostrander received from women who thought the whole process unimportant but made their daughters go through it anyhow: "I think it's passé, and I don't care about it, but it's just something that's done," explained one woman. Another commented: "Her father wanted her to do it. We do have a family image to maintain. It was important to the grandparents, and I felt it was an obligation to her family to do it." When people begin to talk about doing something out of tradition or to uphold an image, suggests Ostrander, then the unspoken rules that dictate class-oriented behavior are being revealed.'

Despite the great importance placed upon the debut by upper-class parents, the debutante season came into considerable disfavor among young women as the social upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s reached their climax. Although enough young women participated to keep the tradition alive, the refusal to take part by a significant minority led to the cancellation of some balls and the curtailment of many others. Stories appeared on the women's pages across the country telling of debutantes who thought the whole process was "silly" or that the money should be given to a good cause. By 1973, however, the situation began to change again, and by the mid-1970s things were back to normal.

The decline of the debutante season and its subsequent resurgence in times of domestic tranquillity reveal very clearly that one of its latent functions is to help perpetuate the upper class from generation to generation. When the underlying values of the class were questioned by a few of its younger members, the institution went into decline. Attitudes toward such social institutions as the debutante ball are one indicator of whether or not adult members of the upper class have succeeded in insulating their children from the rest of society.


The institution of marriage is as important in the upper class as it is in any level of America society, and it does not differ greatly from other levels in its patterns and rituals. Only the exclusive site of the occasion and the lavishness of the reception distinguish upper-class marriages.

The prevailing wisdom within the upper class is that children should marry someone of their own social class. The women interviewed by Ostrander, for example, felt that marriage was difficult enough without differences in "interests" and "background," which seemed to be the code words for class in discussions of marriage. Marriages outside the class were seen as likely to end in divorce.

The original purpose of the debutante season was to introduce the highly sheltered young women of the upper class to eligible marriage partners. It was an attempt to corral what Baltzell calls "the democratic whims of romantic love," which "often play havoc with class solidarity." But the day when the debut could play such a role was long past even by the 1940s. The function of directing romantic love into acceptable channels was taken over by fraternities and sororities, bachelor and spinster clubs, and exclusive summer escorts.

... there is evidence that the I continuity of families within the upper class is very great from generation to generation. This finding conflicts with the oft-repeated folk wisdom that there is a large turnover at the top of the American social ladder. Once in the upper class, families tend to stay there even as they are joined in each generation by new families and by middle-class brides and grooms who marry into their families.



Members of the upper class do not spend all their time in social activities. Contrary to stereotypes, most members of the upper class are and have been hardworking people, even at the richest levels. In a study of the 90 richest men for 1950, for example, Mills found that only 26 percent were men of leisure.

By far the most frequent preoccupation of men of the upper class is business and finance. This point is most clearly demonstrated l through studying the occupations of boarding school alumni.

The feminine half of the upper class has different preoccupations I than those of men. Our study of a large sample of the upper-class women included in Who's Who in American Women for 1965 showed the most frequent activity of upper-class women to be that of civic worker or volunteer, which includes a wide range of welfare, cultural and civic activities. Second on the list was author or artist followed by a career in journalism, where upper-class women are involved in both the management and writing of newspapers and magazines. Finally, women of the upper class were found in academic positions as teachers, administrators, and trustees at leading boarding schools and colleges for women.

The most informative and intimate look at the preoccupations of the feminine half of the upper class is provided in Ostrander's interview study. It revealed the women to be people of both power and subservience, playing decision-making roles in numerous cultural and civic organizations, but also accepting traditional roles at home vis-a-vis their husbands and children. By asking the women to describe a typical day and to explain which activities were most important to them, Ostrander found that the role of community volunteer is a central preoccupation of upper-class women, having significance as a family tradition and as an opportunity to fulfill an obligation to the community.

... Quite unexpectedly, Ostrander also found that many of the women serving as volunteers, fund-raisers, and board members for charitable and civic organizations viewed their work as a protection of the American way of life against the further encroachment of government into areas of social welfare. Some even saw themselves as bulwarks against socialism. "There must always be people to do volunteer work," one said. "If you have a society where no one is willing, then you may as well have communism where it's all done by the government." Another commented: "It would mean that the government would take over, and it would all be regimented. If there are no volunteers, we would live in a completely managed society which is quite the opposite to our history of freedom." Another equated government support with socialism: "You'd have to go into government funds. That's socialism. The more we can keep independent and under private control, the better it is."

... Walter Lippmann, the only son of an upper-class family in New York, was an enthusiastic socialist as a Harvard undergraduate and the secretary to the reform socialist mayor of Schenectady in 1912. By 1915 he was back to the life that had been waiting for him and went on to be one of the most respected opinion leaders in the upper class for a 40-year period as a columnist, author, and adviser to presidents.

Our impressionistic evidence from a few individual cases suggests that even most of those who persist for a few years beyond college as social critics and radicals are gradually pushed back into their own class by their differences from members of other classes. Because they are unable to overcome the subtle effects of their socialization on their bearing and manner, there is often tension between them and their working-class allies, who become suspicious of their motives and envious of their backgrounds. In turn, the upper-class radicals become weary of being mistrusted and grow impatient with the hesitancy of the constituency they are trying to lead.

... just 0.5 percent of all people in the United States own from 20 to 25 percent of all wealth ...

Exhibiting high social status ... is a way of exercising power. It is a form of power rooted in fascination and enchantment. It operates by creating respect, envy, and deference in others. Considered less important than force or economic power by social scientists who regard themselves as tough-minded and realistic, its role as a method of control in modern society goes relatively unnoticed despite the fact that power was originally in the domain of the sacred and the magical.

Who Rules America Now?

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