The idea of socialites has probably been around for millennia – at least as long as there have been cities – but the concept as it is used today is a fairly new one, yet at the same time, old.
In the U.S., the category of socialites first came about as a result of the concentration of wealth during the First Gilded Age from 1877 to 1893. Largely due to the industrialization of the country aided by the building of a vast network of railroads, a new class of the very wealthy arose in the U.S. (something that would have horrified Thomas Jefferson). Socialites became known for giving lavish parties, entertainments or formal occasions. Often, they would associate themselves with celebrities of the day, but were rarely heard about outside the Sunday “society pages” of big-city newspapers.
With the crash and subsequent economic depression of 1893, the First Gilded Age came to an end, and socialites became far less visible. However, because of many fortunes made as a result of U.S. involvement in World War I, socialites came back during the Second Gilded Age of the 1920s. Typical socialites of the period were depicted by writer F. Scott Fitzgerald in his novel, The Great Gatsby, and were mercilessly mocked in the satirical lyrics of Cole Porter. Both men knew their subject well; as celebrities, they frequently associated with the very same socialites of whom they were critical.
Nonetheless, there was still a neat distinction between socialites and celebrities; today, the names of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Cole Porter are remembered and revered, yet hardly anyone remembers the socialites of the “Jazz Age.”
Since the beginning of America’s Third Gilded Age in 1981, however the line between socialites and celebrities have become a bit blurred. It is as if money buys fame without the achievements that are normally the basis of celebrity. It’s highly unlikely that the expolits of Paris Hilton would have been national news in the 1920s; yet too many Americans who cannot name their representative in Congress know a great deal about the nation’s socialites.
On the other hand, celebrities in many ways are now starting to look like socialites. In the old days, very few people knew much about the lives of prominent figures outside of their achievements; between 1932 and 1945, virtually no Americans outside of Washington DC knew that their President was a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair.
Today however, many Americans clamor to know more about the personalities and everyday lives of celebrities, just as they do socialites. Why this should be is unclear; perhaps in today’s media-saturated world; perhaps it makes the inaccessible seem just a little more accessible.