​The Gilded Age's real-life "Dollar Princesses"

Mary Leiter, the Chicago-born heiress to a dry-goods fortune, married George Curzon, heir to the title of Barony of Scarsdale, up-and-coming Member of Parliament, and future Viceroy of India.

CBS News

The gilded girls of America's so-called Gilded Age sometimes looked across the sea for something American men can't offer: a title. Their search is being remembered these days on our TV screens. Here's Jan Crawford:

It's one of "Downton Abbey"'s central plotlines: Cora Lady Grantham (played by actress Elizabeth McGovern) was once Cora Levinson, heiress to an American fortune. She marries Lord Grantham, a British aristocrat, and saves his crumbling estate, claiming the title of Countess for herself.

Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham: "Twenty-four years ago, you married Cora against my wishes for her money! Give it away now -- what was the point of your peculiar marriage in the first place?"

The point, of course, is obvious: Money and status.

In the show their romance plays out like a fairy tale -- and that story line isn't all that far-fetched.

Dame Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville in "Downton Abbey."

Lady Cora is an example of what came to be known as the "Dollar Princesses" of the Gilded Age: A time in the late 19th century when young American heiresses -- rich with new money and rejected by established high society -- turned their sights to Europe, seeking status through marriage and lofty European titles.

"The heiresses, I'm sure, found the appeal of wearing a tiara or being presented at court an amazing fulfillment of a dream -- if not theirs, their mothers' perhaps," said Jeff Groff, a curator at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. It's the former home of America's own brand of royalty, the du Pont family.

A just-ended exhibit of "Downton Abbey" costumes drew record crowds, highlighting America's fascination with all things British, both now and then.

Groff said what was so interesting about the many real-life Coras during the Gilded Age was that, "So many of the great American fortunes were in manufacturing, railroads, finance, trade -- things the British aristocracy would normally turn up their nose up in the air about."

While America was finding new fortunes, Europe was facing hard times -- and a once-thriving British upper-class was feeling the impact.