Texas Is a New Boy: Oilmen, Golddiggers, and Other “New Money” in Dallas High Society, 1925-1942

Shay O'Brien, Princeton University

For nearly a century, the midcentury Texan oil millionaire has been synonymous with “new money.” I demonstrate that most were born rich. In general, data limitations have led social scientists studying new and old money to equate industries with families, wherein every family making money from an “new” industry is new to wealth. A novel dataset composed of all wealthy Dallas oilmen during the East Texas oil boom (n = 298) and all socially elite people Dallas from 1895-1945 (n = 11,816) shows that although researchers and observers of 1930s Dallas have consistently characterized cotton barons as “old money” and oilmen as “new money,” their class backgrounds were nearly identical. And the kind of upper-class person most likely to have been new to money was a young white woman who married a wealthy man. I conclude that in this case, and likely many others, characterizations of new and old money reflect largely symbolic power shifts among the elite rather than the reality of mobility into the upper class.

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 Presented in Session 139. Exclusion and Symbolic Politics