Researchers at the University of California, Davis, and the London School of Economics conducted a study in which they “followed the money”. They looked at unique surnames from around the world in order to determine how long it takes for a family to reach the upper class.
The researchers selected unique surnames because those kinds of surnames are easier to trace through genealogical and public records (as compared to common surnames). Some of the names they picked included: Atthill, Bunduck, Balfour, Bramston, Cheslyn, and Conyngham. It’s easy to see why those surnames would be easier to trace than Smith or Jones.
The study focused on unique surnames among students who attended Oxford and Cambridge universities between 1170 and 2012. It also looked at rich property owners between 1236 and 1299, and probate records since 1858.
Overall, the study of the unique English surnames found that it took 300 to 400 years for an upper-class family to fall back into middle class. It also took about the same amount of time (10 to 15 generations) for poor families to work their way up to middle class. For example, the study found that illiterate village artisans in 1300 took seven generations to incorporate fully into the educated elite of 1500.
This study could not be done in the United States because America is younger than England. That being said, people can easily pick out some well known surnames of rich families and estimate how long it took a particular family to rise in wealth.
Take, for example, the Rockefeller family. John D. Rockefeller was born in 1839 in Richford, New York. He was born on a farm and was the second of six children. His family grew up living “in modest circumstances”.
He built his first oil refinery near Cleveland and in 1870 incorporated the Standard Oil Company. By 1882, he had a near-monopoly of the oil business.
Today, 146 years later (which equates to 4 generations), the Rockefeller family is exiting the oil business. The Rockefeller Family Fund is a charity that supports causes related to the environment, economic justice, and other issues. It is liquidating its investments in fossil fuel companies – including Exxon Mobile (a company that is a descendant of Standard Oil).
In short, the Rockefeller Family Fund is divesting holdings of Exxon, as well as selling its investments in coal companies and tar sands-based oil producers. In a statement the Fund explains: “While the global economy works to eliminate fossil fuels, it makes little sense- financially or ethically – to continue holding investments in these companies.”
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