Class and Leisureat America's First ResortNewport, Rhode Island1870-1914

Class Distinctions

Class distinctions shaped the development of American resorts. In Newport, these distinctions manifested themselves through:

  • Methods of advertisement

  • Modes of transportation

  • Length and location of stay

  • Choice of leisure activities

  • Relations between classes

Methods of Advertisement
Fall River Ad
Fall River Line Brochure
Various media advertised Newport to people of all classes. Newport gained pride of place in the society columns of major newspapers. Mass-market magazines described its fashionable people. Travel guides and guidebooks marketed the picturesque landscape and the wealth of opportunities for recreation.

The media helped make Newport attractive not only to upper-class families but to upwardly mobile middle-class families and working-class hopefuls eager to participate in new forms of leisure.

Modes of Transportation

The Commonwealth
The Commonwealth
Until the late nineteenth century, Newport's remote location helped maintain its exclusivity. However, as with Cape May, Atlantic City, Coney Island, and other seaside resorts, public transportation helped transform Newport into a resort community.

By the turn of the century, railroads, trolleys, and steamboat lines brought thousands of visitors to Newport. Inexpensive fares made it possible for people of all classes to visit there.

Length and Location of Stay
The Breakers
The Breakers
Each July and August, Newport's upper-class families occupied oceanfront estates along Ochre Point and Bellevue Avenue. Middle-class families rented small cottages or stayed in nearby hotels and boarding houses for less than a month. Working-class families typically took day trips to Newport that did not require an overnight stay.

Choice of Leisure Activities
To legitimate their claim to upper-class status, Newport's wealthy families engaged in various forms of conspicuous consumption. Their behavior became the model to which upwardly mobile middle-class visitors aspired. In turn, Newport's working-class visitors sought to emulate the middle class by engaging in similar leisure activities.

The Yacht Alva
The Yacht Alva
Sports and commercial amusements helped democratize American leisure in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While the expense of some sports—yachting and polo, for example—restricted them to the upper class, audiences of all classes could enjoy the spectacle of a horse race or a summer game of tennis in Newport.

In the early twentieth century, amusements, even in fashionable Newport, became more commercial to accommodate patrons' desires. Upper-class leisure included racing automobiles along the beach, middle-class leisure included carriage rides along Ocean Drive, and working-class leisure included rides on the merry-go-round and roller coaster at Easton's Beach.

Relations between Classes
William K. Vanderbilt Jr.
William K.
Vanderbilt Jr.
While transportation and new forms of leisure opened Newport to all classes, class segregation there mimicked class segregation in industrial cities. Designated geographic locations divided the social classes in Newport as elsewhere.

As Newport became a public resort, tension developed between upper-class summer residents, middle-class year-round residents and visitors, and working-class residents and visitors.

Summer residents attempted to maintain their distance from both year-round residents and summer visitors by restricting access to areas where they lived and socialized.

Year-round residents became resentful of their economic reliance on the summer residents and fought them on matters over which they attempted to exert political or legal control.

Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001