How do you refer to the rich and famous? These days, you might call a wealthy or powerful person a “one percenter” or a member of the elite. But in the 1840s, you would have called them the “Upper Ten” instead—a pithy term that sparked outrage among rich and poor New Yorkers during the 19th century.

Ironically, the term came not from an attempt to criticize New York’s elite, but to flatter them. Nathaniel Parker Willis, an author known for his chronicles of high society, coined the phrase in 1844 in an article that called for a place for rich New Yorkers to socialize in their carriages. Willis complained that there was no distinct place for the “upper ten thousand of the city” to promenade.

“He was trying to make the fashionable classes tastemakers, but also do it in a way that could work in a democratic society,” says Thomas N. Baker, professor of history at SUNY Potsdam and the author of Sentiment and Celebrity: Nathaniel Parker Willis and the Trials of Literary Fame. Indeed, he “spent his whole career talking about the benefits of getting inside” high society.

Paragraph in which American writer Nathaniel Parker Willis coined the phrase "upper ten thousand".
Paragraph in which American writer Nathaniel Parker Willis coined the phrase “upper ten thousand”.

By identifying a relatively large elite—New York had about 312,000 residents in 1840—Willis thought he could give Americans something to aspire to. New York’s aristocrats, he wrote, were “the most moral and scrupulous… of the population.”

Willis certainly wasn’t the only person to frame wealth in terms of moral superiority. Since the country was founded, Americans had debated whether a “natural aristocracy” of deserving elite could fill the roles of royalty or landed gentry in a country with no king. And for many, the superior economic and social position of the wealthy was proof that they were more deserving than “the unwashed immigrant masses”—people so unfamiliar and alarming that the rich created entire uptown neighborhoods to escape them.

Though Willis’ optimistic, fawning term quickly became shorthand for New York’s upper classes, the concept of the Upper Ten became a flashpoint in the era’s class wars just as swiftly. “Almost immediately, it was hit upon by working-class people but also upper-class people who didn’t like Willis’s brand of culture,” says Baker.

But the critiques of rich and poor were very different. Elites hated the term because it suggested people could buy their way into the upper crust. And to New York’s growing working class the term smacked of snobbery and inequality.

1849 lithograph from the New York Public Library. (Credit: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).
1849 lithograph from the New York Public Library. (Credit: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).

Take “The Upper and Lower Ten Thousand,” an 1863 song by vaudevillian Tony Pastor.  “The Upper Ten Thousand in mansions reside, with fronts of brown stone, and with stoops high and wide,” he sang, “While the Lower Ten Thousand in poverty deep, in cellars and garrets, are huddled like sheep.” The song went on to contrast the jewels and fashion of the rich with the rags of the poor, contrasting the wealthy’s ability to pay legal fees and buy off judges while the poor were sent to jail for stealing money for food.

Known as the “Father of Vaudeville,” Pastor was one of his era’s most popular performers, and his song would have found a receptive audience in theaters, minstrel shows and opera houses frequented by the poor.

Others used the concept as a way to poke fun at the city’s elite. In 1854, the Burton’s Chambers Street theater near Broadway staged a play called “the Upper Ten and the Lower Twenty” by Thomas Blades de Walden. The melodramatic parody portrayed rich and poor characters and featured plot points of lunacy, infidelity and retribution. It was so popular that it was still being staged a decade later.

Stories of the Upper Ten were even exported abroad: A series of tales of the elite’s weddings, vacations and mild scandals by Charles Astor Bristed published in the British magazine Fraser’s proved so popular that it was made into a book in 1852.

Charles Astor Bristed's book, "The Upper Ten Thousand". (Credit: The Library of Congress)
Charles Astor Bristed’s book, “The Upper Ten Thousand”. (Credit: The Library of Congress)

The obsession with the Upper Ten’s comings, goings and acquisitions was the flip side of the era’s extreme poverty. New York’s population doubled every decade between 1800 and 1880, taxing the city’s scant social system and consigning immigrants and the working poor to filthy, overcrowded tenements. The concept of the Upper Ten would never have been as potent without the hardship of other New Yorkers—people who would never experience the world of jewels, carriages and lavish celebrations the Upper Ten took for granted.

Willis’ own obsession with the upper classes came back to bite him. Born to modest means, Willis used his role as journalist to ingratiate himself with the upper classes—and hoped that his designation of the Upper Ten could “capture the possibilities of the role of fashion and refinement in American culture.” Eventually, says Baker, his desire for social access embroiled him in a divorce case that damaged his reputation.

“Willis had spent his whole career talking about the benefits of getting on the inside, but it exploded in his face,” says Baker. After the trial, Willis retired from public life—but the idea he created lived on. Though the term itself eventually faded, the concept didn’t. It was replaced with “the Four Hundred” during the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

And when the Occupy Wall Street movement began in 2011, the slogan “We are the 99 percent” gave rise to the term “one percenter” as shorthand for a global political and economic elite. Regardless of the name, the concept Willis pioneered doesn’t seem likely to die anytime soon—and if our modern interest in celebrity culture is any indicator, neither does our obsession with the lifestyles of the rich and famous.