The nobility was an integral concomitant of royalty. The Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, then, created a new high-status social segment independently of the two old high-status social layers. Some of the people in this new high-ranking status organized the ownership of their businesses on a hereditary basis. Dynasticity flourished in local enterprises as well as in major international business conglomerations. Individual entrepreneurial dynasties had their trajectories, from a successful start to their heyday, which lasted as long as their businesses generated substantial profits. This simple rule determined the lifetime of family firms and ranked them hierarchically, at local, national and international levels. Even a relatively small business could rise to prominence, but only locally. The highest standings were occupied by enterprises that prospered at the national or international level.
Even though competition for the highest offices was a vital element in noblemen’s lives, noblemen could rest on their laurels without losing their noble status. Entrepreneurial dynasties, in contrast, had no such protection. In order to maintain their dynasticity, they had to pursue economic success constantly and relentlessly. In this respect a special honour was bestowed upon the dynasty’s founders, who made the most impressive status leap. At a time when status greatly depended on one’s family background, the notion of crossing social barriers during one’s lifetime seemed almost inconceivable. If this did happen, it was thought to be attributable to the champion’s extraordinary qualities. The entrepreneurial character and the idea of the self-made man was the apotheosis of individualism, a life philosophy diametrically opposed to the one that bestowed the highest ranks upon royalty and the nobility on a dynastic basis. Despite this fundamental difference, heredity and thereby dynasticity became the very foundation of family firms, tying the family closely to the business, just as the family was closely interwoven with the state in the case of royalty and the nobility. And heredity revived the old divides among offspring, between legitimate and illegitimate children and between sons and daughters and even between sons, as primogeniture gave the eldest son the right to inherit the firm, particularly in the nineteenth century but even later on.
Entrepreneurial dynasties modelled their performances of high status on the nobility, and in so doing presented themselves as social equals of the nobility. Residences were particularly significant in this respect: as entrepreneurs rose to prosperity, so their residences grew in size and splendour. They also had their country retreats and yachts, all in proportion to their wealth. Marriages finally showed that the perception of status equivalence was reciprocal: the marriage markets of entrepreneurial and noble dynasties blended with each other in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, in the case of some entrepreneurial dynasties quite frequently. However, this happened at a special kind of time: on the one hand, the nobility’s status decline was just about to begin and, on the other hand, most successful entrepreneurs were heaping up riches more than ever. These two currents—one declining, the other rising—crossed path and the two high-status tiers met each other and saw that they were very much like each other.
In other entrepreneurial dynasties, marriages were arranged in the classical way: status equivalence meant marrying into other entrepreneurial families. In some cases, identical status equivalence brought together two opulent entrepreneurial dynasties. However—and this was important—entrepreneurship was not enough: access to the marriage market of entrepreneurial dynasties was limited to those who came from wealthy entrepreneurial families. Owners of small businesses were excluded. There was nothing new about this kind of organization into a hierarchy, except that entrepreneurial dynasties now ranked high up alongside the nobility. Cousin marriages, which were particularly common in some entrepreneurial dynasties, were a fundamental part of this ranking principle. As in the case of the nobility, cousin marriages came to an almost abrupt end in the late nineteenth century, although they continued well into the twentieth century. This gives us a hint that cousin marriages were not only the result of the dynasty’s heyday, especially as cousin marriages were only contracted in some entrepreneurial dynasties.
The old axiom is that a family firm’s lifetime is limited to three generations: the first generation founds it, the second generation elevates it to its height and the third generation destroys it. This does not hold for all dynastic enterprises, many of which have been in business for five generations or more. Yet many of them have been closed down or merged into colossal joint stock companies, making the dynasty’s name disappear. Whatever their current situation, the names of these dynasties— Rockefeller, Ford, Rothschild, Krupp—remain for posterity as a kind of legacy or emblem of their immense riches. Part of this legacy are the foundations established by all top-level entrepreneurial dynasties in my data set and associating entrepreneurial dynasties with the arts and sciences since the early nineteenth century.