A Brief History of Rich People

By Tim Lambert

Rich People in Ancient Egypt

Rich Egyptians lived in large, comfortable houses with many rooms. Walls were painted and floors had colored tiles. Most wealthy houses had enclosed gardens with pools. Inside their homes, rich Egyptians had wooden furniture such as beds, chairs, tables, and chests for storage. However, instead of pillows, they used wooden headrests. Toilets consisted of a clay pot filled with sand. It was emptied regularly. Most important of all rich people owned slaves who did all the hard and unpleasant work!

Egyptians wore jewelry. Those who could afford it wore jewelry of gold, silver, and precious stones. n In ancient Egypt as in all early civilizations meat was a luxury and only the rich could afford to eat it frequently. The Egyptians ate sheep, pigs, cows, and goats but meat often came from ducks and geese. However fish were plentiful in Egypt.

The Egyptians ate many vegetables including, marrows, beans, onions, lentils, leeks, radishes, garlic, and lettuces. They also ate fruit like melons, dates, and figs. Pomegranates were quite expensive and were eaten mainly by the rich.

For entertainment the Egyptians loved parties. If a rich person invited you to a feast, singers, musicians, dancers, jugglers, wrestlers, and jesters would entertain you. Musicians played wooden flutes, harps, lutes, drums, and clappers. At a rich person’s banquet, guests were given a cone of perfumed fat to put on their heads. It slowly melted leaving the wearer smelling nice. Egyptians loved hunting and fishing. (For the rich hunting was for pleasure. For the poor it was for food). Men caught birds with nets or by throwing curved sticks. Fish were caught with hooks or harpoons.

Boys from wealthy families sometimes learned to be scribes. They learned by copying and memorizing and discipline was strict. Teachers beat naughty boys. The boys learned reading and writing and also mathematics.

Rich People in Ancient Greece

Rich Greeks lived in large houses with several rooms. Usually, they were arranged around a courtyard and had often an upper story. Downstairs was the kitchen and the dining room (called the andron). So was the living room. Upstairs were bedrooms and a room for women called a gynoecium (the women wove cloth there and also ate their meals there away from the men).

Even in a rich home furniture was basic. The Greeks stored things in wooden chests or hung them from wooden pegs on the walls. A rich home would also have a dresser to display expensive cups. People reclined on couches (which could also act as beds). The couches were simply wooden frames with rope webbing and mats or rugs laid on top. Rich Greeks lit their homes with olive oil lamps.

In Ancient Greece meat was a luxury but the rich ate plenty of it along with many vegetables. The Greeks also ate fruit such as raisins, apricots, figs, apples, pears, and pomegranates. They drank wine diluted with water. Rich Greeks ate much more varied and interesting diets such as roasted hare, peacock eggs, or iris bulbs in vinegar.

Like the Egyptians, the rich Greeks owned slaves (usually prisoners of war or their descendants who did all the hard and dirty work). In a rich family, the wife was expected to run the home and, sometimes, to manage the finances. However rich women would normally stay indoors and send slaves to do the shopping. Women, even rich ones, were expected to spin and weave cloth and make clothes. Rich Greeks wore silk and cotton and rich women carried parasols to protect them from the sun.

Rich People in Rome

In the Roman Empire, there were two types of people – citizens and non-citizens. Roman citizens had certain privileges. Originally to be a citizen you had to be born in Rome to Roman parents. From 89 BC all inhabitants of Italy were made Roman citizens. In 212 AD all free people in the Roman Empire were made citizens.

In Rome, the upper class was called patricians. The Senators who ruled Rome came from patrician families. Below them were the equites. They were merchants and bankers and sometimes civil servants or army officers. All other free people were called plebeians.

Rich people enjoyed luxuries such as mosaics and (in colder parts of the empire) panes of glass in windows and even a form of central heating called a hypocaust. Wealthy Romans also had wall paintings called murals in their houses. The wealthy owned very comfortable furniture. It was upholstered and finely carved. People ate while reclining on couches. Oil lamps were used for light. Furthermore, some people had a piped water supply. Water was brought into towns in aqueducts that went along lead pipes to wealthy individual houses.

Many wealthy Romans owned large estates in the countryside called villas. They were usually arranged to be self-sufficient. As well as farmworkers there were craftsmen like a blacksmith, a carpenter, and a potter. (Both farm laborers and craftsmen could be slaves). If the owner of the villa was absent a man called a villicus and his wife the villica ran the villa. Rich people traveled by horse or on long journeys by covered wagon. Sometimes they were carried in litters (seats between two long poles).

The sons and daughters of well-to-do Romans went to a primary school called a Ludus at the age of 7 to learn to read and write and do simple arithmetic. Girls left at the age of 12 or 13 and only boys went to secondary school where they would learn geometry, history, literature, and oratory (the art of public speaking). Teachers were often Greek slaves. The teachers were very strict and they frequently beat the pupils.

Rich People in Anglo-Saxon England

At the top of Saxon society were the thanes, the Saxon upper class. They enjoyed hunting and feasting and they were expected to give their followers gifts like weapons. In Saxon England, rich people’s houses were rough, crowded, and uncomfortable. Even a Thane’s hall was just a large wooden hut although it was usually hung with rich tapestries. Thanes also liked to show off any gold they owned. Any furniture must have been simple and heavy such as wooden chests.

However, at least the rich Saxons ate well. In the evenings they feasted and drank. During the day the main pastime of the rich was hunting. Rich Saxons kept falcons. In the evenings apart from feasting, they enjoyed storytelling, riddles, and games like chess. After feasts, minstrels entertained the lord and his men by playing the harp and singing.

Rich People in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages society was organised into a kind of pyramid. At the top of the pyramid was the king. Below him were the barons or tenants-in-chief. The king granted them land and in return, they had to provide so many soldiers to fight for so many days a year. They also had to swear an oath of loyalty to the king and they became his vassals. The barons granted land to knights. In return, they had to fight for so many days a year. Below the knights were the ordinary people, most of whom worked on the land.

The Normans, at first, built castles of wood. In the early 12th century stone replaced them. Living in a stone castle was more comfortable as it was warmer and drier than a wooden dwelling. In the towns, wealthy merchants began living in stone houses. (The first ordinary people to live in stone houses were Jews. They had to live in stone houses for safety).

In Saxon times a rich man and his entire household lived together in one great hall. In the Middle Ages, the great hall was still the center of a castle but the lord had his own room above it. This room was called the solar. In it, the lord slept in a bed, which was surrounded by curtains, both for privacy and to keep out drafts. The other members of the lord’s household, such as his servants, slept on the floor of the great hall.

At one or both ends of the great hall, there was a fireplace and chimney. In the Middle Ages, chimneys were a luxury. As time passed they became more common but only a small minority could afford them. Certainly, no peasant could afford one. About 1180 for the first time since the Romans rich people had panes of glass in the windows. At first, glass was very expensive, and only rich people could afford it but by the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the middle classes began to have glass in some of their windows. Those people who could not afford glass could use thin strips of horn or pieces of linen soaked in tallow or resin which were translucent.

Furniture in the Middle Ages was very basic. Even in a rich household, chairs were rare. Often only the lord sat on one so he was the ‘chairman’. Most people sat on stools or benches. Rich people also had tables and large chests, which doubled up as beds. Rich people’s homes were hung with wool tapestries or painted linen. They were not just for decoration. They also helped keep out drafts. In a castle, the toilet or garderobe was a chute built into the thickness of the wall. The seat was made of stone. Sometimes the garderobe emptied straight into the moat!

In the Middle Ages, both sexes wore wool but it varied in quality. It could be fine and expensive or coarse and cheap. From the mid-14th century laws lay down which materials the different classes could wear, to stop the middle classes from dressing ‘above themselves’. (Poor people could not afford to wear expensive clothes anyway!). However, most people ignored the law and wore what they wished. In the late 14th and 15th centuries clothes became much more elaborate. Fashion in the modern sense began. For the wealthy styles changed rapidly. Women wore elaborate hats and men wore long shoes.

Children from noble families saw little of their parents. When they were very young nurses looked them after. When they were about 7 they were sent to live with another noble household. Boys became pages and had to wait on lords and ladies. They also learned to fight. At 14 a boy became a squire and at 21 a knight. Girls learned the skills they needed to run a household.

Childhood ended early for children in the Middle Ages. In upper-class families, girls married as young as 12 and boys as young as 14. They did not normally choose their marriage partners. Their parents arranged their marriages for them.

The rich ate well in the Middle Ages. They ate beef, mutton, pork, and venison. They also ate a great variety of birds, swans, herons, ducks, blackbirds, and pigeons. However, the church decreed that Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday were fast days when people were not allowed to eat meat. Rich people usually had fishponds so they could eat pike and carp. They also ate fish caught in rivers or the sea. On special occasions, the rich had huge feasts.

The Lord and his lady sat at a table on a raised wooden platform so they could look down on the rest of the household. Often musicians entertained them while they ate. Rich people ate their food from slices of stale bread called trenchers. Afterward, they were given to the poor.

The main pastime of the upper class was hunting. Lords hunted deer with packs of dogs and killed them with arrows. They also hunted wild boars with spears. Both men and women went hawking. In the evenings they feasted, danced, and played board games such as chess and backgammon. In the mid-15th century playing cards arrived in England.

When he was not hunting the noble or night was fighting. Their wives were also kept busy. They had to organise the servants and generally run the household. Knights also took part in tournaments. These events drew large crowds of spectators. At them, knights fought with wooden lances, swords, or maces. This was called jousting. There were also tourneys (fights between teams). Tournaments often lasted four days. Two days were for jousting, one was for tourneys and one was for archery competitions.

Rich People in the 16th Century

In the Middle Ages, rich people’s houses were designed for defence rather than comfort. In the 16th century, life was safer so houses no longer had to be easy to defend. It was an age when rich people built grand houses e.g. Cardinal Wolsey built Hampton Court Palace. Later the Countess of Shrewsbury built Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.

Chairs were more common than in the Middle Ages but they were still expensive. Even in an upper-class home children and servants sat on stools. Chimneys were also a luxury in Tudor times, although they became more common. In wealthy Tudor houses, the walls of rooms were lined with oak paneling to keep out drafts. People slept in four-poster beds hung with curtains to reduce drafts.

In the 16th century, some people had wallpaper but it was very expensive. Other wealthy people hung tapestries or painted cloths on their walls. In Tudor, England carpets were a luxury only the richest people could afford. They were too expensive to put on the floor! Instead, they were hung on the wall or over tables.

In the 16th century, prosperous people lit their homes with beeswax candles. However, they were expensive. In the 16th century, the rich had clocks in their homes. The rich had pocket watches although most people relied on pocket sundials.

Rich Tudors were also fond of gardens. Many had mazes, fountains, and topiary (hedges cut into shapes). The rich ate vast amounts of meat. However, they rarely ate vegetables. The Tudors were also fond of sweet foods. However, in the 16th century sugar was very expensive. In the 16th century, new foods were introduced from the Americas. Turkeys were introduced into England in about 1525. Potatoes were brought to England in the 1580s but at first, few English people ate them. Tomatoes came to England from Mexico and apricots were introduced from Portugal. Rich people liked to show off their gold and silver plates. The middle classes would have dishes and bowls made of pewter. There were no forks in Tudor times. People ate with knives and their fingers or with spoons. Wealthy people had silver or pewter spoons.

From the mid-16th century, some rich people rode in carriages. They must have been very uncomfortable because they did not have springs and the roads were very bumpy. In Tudor times you would be lucky if you could travel 50 or 60 kilometers a day. It normally took a week to travel from London to Plymouth. However rich people deliberately traveled slowly. They felt it was undignified to hurry and they took their time.

Although the days of armored knights were over the rich still enjoyed tournaments. The contestants dressed in armor and rode horses. They fought with wooden lances and swords. The rich also enjoyed hunting. They went hunting deer with bows and arrows. After it was killed the deer was eaten. The rich also went hawking. Falcons were trained to kill other birds. However, in Tudor times rich people did not hunt foxes.

The Tudors also liked wrestling and ‘casting the bar’, which was like shot-putting but with an iron bar. They also played billiards (but not snooker, which is a 19th-century game). The rich also played board games like chess and backgammon (a backgammon set was found on the wreck of the n . It is the same as a modern one). They also played tennis with a leather ball stuffed with hair. And they played bowls and skittles. Playing cards were also popular. Music and dancing were also very popular. The printing press made books much cheaper so reading was a popular pastime for the wealthy.

For rich Tudors fashion was important. For the poor clothes had to be tough and practical. All classes wore wool. However, it varied in quality. The rich wore fine-quality wool. The poor wore coarse wool. Linen was used to make shirts and underwear. However only the rich could afford cotton and silk. Rich Tudors also embroidered their clothes with silk, gold, or silver thread. Rich Tudor women wore silk stockings.

Rich people in the 17th Century

During the 17th century, the status of merchants improved. People saw that trade was an increasingly important part of the country’s wealth so merchants became more respected. However political power and influence were held by rich landowners. At the top of society was the nobility. Below them were the gentry. Gentlemen were not quite rich but they were certainly well off.

In the late 17th century furniture for the wealthy became more comfortable and much more finely decorated. In the early 17th century furniture was plain and heavy. It was usually made of oak. In the late 17th century furniture for the rich was often made of walnut or (from the 1680s) mahogany. It was decorated in new ways. One was veneering. (Thin pieces of expensive wood were laid over cheaper wood). Some furniture was also inlaid. Wood was carved out and the hollow was filled in with mother of pearl. At this time lacquering arrived in England. Pieces of furniture were coated with lacquer in bright colors.

New types of furniture were introduced. In the mid-17th century chests of drawers became common. Grandfather clocks also became popular. Later in the century, the bookcase was introduced. Chairs also became far more comfortable. Upholstered (padded and covered) chairs became common in wealthy people’s homes. In the 1680s the first real armchairs appeared.

In the early 17th century the architect Inigo Jones introduced the classical style of architecture (based on ancient Greek and Roman styles). He designed the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, which was the first purely classical building in England. The late 17th century was a great age of building grand country homes, displaying the wealth of the upper class at that time.

During the century new foods were introduced into England (for the rich) such as bananas and pineapples. New drinks were introduced, tea and coffee. In the late 17th century there were many coffee houses in the towns. Merchants and professional men met there to read newspapers and talk shop. In the 17th century, people in England began eating ice cream. Many rich people built special underground chambers on the grounds of their houses to preserve ice during the summer. The ice was covered in straw to preserve it.

In the 17th century, traditional pastimes such as cards and bowls continued. So did games like tennis and shuttlecock. People also played board games like chess, drafts, backgammon, and fox and goose. The wealthy also played a game called pale-maille (Pall Mall in London gets its name from an area where the game was played). Charles II also made yachting a popular sport.

The theatre remained popular in the 17th century. However, the Puritans disapproved of the theatre and in 1642 they banned it completely. The theatre began again in 1660. In the early 17th century the stage jutted out into the audience. In the late 17th century it took on its modern form. In the early 17th century boys played women’s parts. However, after 1660 actresses performed.

In well off families both boys and girls went to a form of infant school called a petty school. Many boys went to grammar school. Upper-class girls (and sometimes boys) were taught by tutors. But during the 17th century boarding schools for girls were founded in many towns. In them, girls were taught subjects like writing, music, and needlework. (It was considered more important for girls to learn ‘accomplishments’ than to study academic subjects).

Rich people in the 18th Century

Owning land was the main form of wealth in the 18th century. Political power and influence were in the hands of rich landowners. At the top were the nobility. Below them was a class of nearly rich landowners called the gentry. In the 18th century, a small minority of the population lived in luxury.

The rich built great country houses. A famous landscape gardener called Lancelot Brown (1715-1783) created beautiful gardens. (He was known as ‘Capability’ Brown from his habit of looking at land and saying it had ‘great capabilities’). The leading architect of the 18th century was Robert Adam (1728-1792). He created a style called neo-classical and he designed many 18th-century country houses.

In 18th century England the wealthy owned comfortable upholstered furniture. They owned beautiful furniture, some of it veneered or inlaid. In the 18th century, much fine furniture was made by Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779), George Hepplewhite (?-1786), and Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806). The famous clockmaker James Cox (1723-1800) made exquisite clocks for the rich.

Rich people had many pastimes. Horse racing was carried on for centuries before the 18th century but at this time it became a professional sport. The Jockey Club was formed in 1727. The Derby began in 1780. For the well off card games and gambling were popular. The theatre was also popular. In the early 18th century most towns did not have a purpose-built theatre and plays were staged in buildings like inns. However, in the late 18th century theatres were built in most towns. Assembly rooms were also built in most towns. In them, people played cards and attended balls. In London, pleasure gardens were created.

A kind of cricket was played long before the 18th century but at that time it took on its modern form. The first cricket club was formed at Hambledon in Hampshire about 1750. Also in the 18th century, rich people visited spas. They believed that bathing in and/or drinking spa water could cure illness. Towns like Buxton, Bath, and Tunbridge prospered. At the end of the 18th century, wealthy people began to spend time at the seaside. (Again they believed that bathing in seawater was good for your health). Seaside resorts like Brighton, Bognor, Southport, and Blackpool boomed.

Reading was also a popular pastime and the first novels were published at this time. Books were still expensive but in many towns, you could pay to join a circulating library. The first daily newspaper in England was printed in 1702. The Times began in 1785. Smoking clay pipes were popular in the 18th century. So was taking snuff. Wealthy young men would go on a ‘grand tour’ of Europe lasting one or two years.

Rich people in the 19th Century

In the 19th century, the middle class became more numerous and influential. The Great Reform Act of 1832 gave the middle class the vote. Further acts in 1867 and 1884 gave the vote to some working men (but in Britain, not all men could vote until 1918). Furthermore in the 18th century land was the main form of wealth. The rich were usually landowners. In the 19th century owning land was still important but there were many rich families who owned mines or factories.

Life for the rich was made more comfortable by gaslight (from the 1840s) and at the end of the century electric light. In the late 19th century gas was also used to heat water.

Also by the end of the 19th century, rich people began to have telephones in their homes. In the 1840s the spread of railways made travel much faster and more comfortable for the rich. (They also spelled the end for highwaymen). At the end of the century, the first cars appeared. At sea, steamships made foreign travel easier.

In the 19th century, wealth did not guarantee health. However the rich were much less likely than the poor to suffer from diseases like cholera. The invention of anesthetics made operations and childbirth much less painful.

Rich people still had many servants to do all the hard and unpleasant work. Rich families usually employed a butler, a footman, a cook, and several maids as well as gardeners. Girls from upper-class families were taught by a governess. Boys were often sent to public schools like Eton.

The traditional pastimes of the rich continued. However several new sports and games were invented during the 19th century. Although a form of tennis was played since the Middle Ages lawn tennis was invented in 1873. Snooker was invented in India in 1875.

Rich people in the 20th Century

In the 20th century, Britain remained a very unequal society with a huge gulf between the rich and the poor. A small minority of the population owned most of the country’s wealth.

However, the divides between the upper class, middle class, and working class became less obvious. In the early 20th century only a small minority could afford goods like telephones, cars, and washing machines. In the late 20th century Britain became an affluent society and consumer goods became common. Furthermore, in the past, it was usually possible to tell somebody’s class by their clothes. In the late 20th century it became much more difficult as the clothes of ordinary people greatly improved.

Opportunities in late 20th century Britain were certainly not equal. However, it was much easier for people from relatively humble backgrounds to become rich. During the 20th century, the traditional pastimes of the rich continued such as yachting and horse racing at Ascot. The children of the rich still attend public schools.

Last revised 2024