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


Class Segregation

Newport's economic reliance on the summer tourist industry created tension between year-round and summer residents. Summer residents also clashed with the middle-class and working-class summer visitors who came to Newport at the turn of the century.

Mutual Exclusion

As early as the mid-1800s, Newporters expressed resistance to the town becoming a summer resort. The Newport Mercury editorialized:

"While we throw no obstacles in the way of summer business and are quite willing for all who can to reap the fullest benefit from the summer visitors, still we are firm in our belief that the greatest calamity which has ever befallen Newport is making it a fashionable resort in the summer." [1]

Elizabeth Drexel and Harry Lehr
Elizabeth Drexel Lehr
In her memoir, socialite Elizabeth Drexel Lehr recalled relations between the summer and year-round residents as tenuous:
"The cottagers...were only concerned in excluding the townspeople from any of the pastures they considered their own. They themselves might wander at will in the lovely old town with its quaint old-fashioned streets nestling down by the waterfront. But the inhabitants must not dream of returning the compliment. Not for them the sacred purlieus of Bellevue Avenue and Ocean Drive, where they might catch a glimpse of the forbidden splendors of villas which were only occupied for six or seven weeks in the year." [2]
She also described Newporters' attitude toward the summer residents:
"The townspeople despised the 'cottagers,' the summer colony of millionaires, and boasted of their ability to make them toe the mark. What harm was there in charging the idly rich prohibitive prices for two months and then living in comfort for the rest of the year on the proceeds?" [3]

No Trespassing

Newport's year-round residents clashed with the summer residents in the 1880s when fox hunting became a popular sport. Hounds imported from Buckinghamshire, England, led fashionable hunters through the Rhode Island fields. Farmers disliked the hunters' disrespect for their crops and ended the sport's popularity by forbidding them to trespass on their property. [4]

Cliff Walk
Cliff Walk
The summer residents, in turn, began limiting access to their own property. In the 1890s Newport residents debated the right to use the Cliff Walk, a scenic trail along Ochre Point between the summer estates and the ocean. Newport guidebooks widely advertised the Cliff Walk as an attraction, and members of all classes promenaded there.

Some summer residents attempted to keep trespassers away by sinking the Cliff Walk in front of their estates. They complained that citizens were abusing the privilege of using the walk, citing trespassing and property vandalism among the reasons for altering the path. [5]

Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer commented on this in her memoir:

"[It] may perhaps seem churlish on the part of the rich proprietors to try as they do to exclude the public from access to their grounds, but they could tell many tales of the annoyances they have received from trespassers." [6]
As an example of their transgressions, she explained:
"At one place where the lawn slopes to the Cliff Walk it is no unusual thing for people to walk up to the house, sit on the piazza, or even enter the rooms." [7]
While the 1893 Baedecker's United States travel guide advertised the Cliff Walk to visitors, it noted that William K. Vanderbilt's Marble House was kept from "the vulgar gaze" by a fence. [8]


No New Trolleys
Trolley
Newport Trolley
The summer residents' disdain extended to the increasing numbers of visitors of other classes coming to Newport in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

When the Newport Street Railway proposed constructing a trolley system, Newport society "raised a whirlwind of opposition," according to a June 16, 1889, column in the New York Times.

A group of summer residents, including H.A.C. Taylor, J.J. Van Alen, Frederick W. Vanderbilt, and Edward R. Wharton, filed an injunction against the trolley crossing Bellevue Avenue, on the grounds that the trolley system would hurt businesses, reduce property values, and frighten their horses. The group took the matter before the Supreme Court in Providence, but the court denied the injunction and work proceeded on the line. [9]


Controversy over Newport's trolley system emerged again in 1897, when the Newport and Fall River Street Railway Company announced plans to connect Newport's trolley lines with those in Fall River.

Newport's summer residents again protested this move, while residents in nearby Portsmouth and Middletown approved it because they claimed it would bring "a big boom for their lands." The trolley line between Newport and Fall River opened in June 1898. [10]


Bailey's—The Exclusive Beach
Bailey's Beach
Bathers at
Bailey's Beach
Dissatisfied with the growing numbers of visitors of other classes coming to Easton's Beach, the public beach in Newport for many years, Newport's upper-class families adopted Bailey's Beach as their exclusive playground.

Owned and operated by the Spouting Rock Beach Association, Bailey's Beach became the ultimate test of one's acceptance into Newport society. Elizabeth Drexel Lehr described the protocol at Bailey's:
"Only the elite could bathe at Bailey's Beach. It was Newport's most exclusive club. The watchman in his gold-laced uniform protected its sanctity from all interlopers. He knew every carriage on sight, fixed newcomers with an eagle eye, swooped down upon them and demanded their names. Unless they were accompanied by one of the members, or bore an introduction from an unimpeachable hostess, no power on earth could gain them admission. If they wanted to bathe, they could only go to Easton's Beach—'The Common Beach' as the habitues were wont to call it. There they would have the indignity of sharing the sea with the Newport townspeople, referred to by Harry Lehr [her husband], who was fond of quoting the sayings of Louis XIV, as 'Our Footstools.'" [11]

At the Casino
Casino
Newport Casino
The Casino was also a site of class conflict in Newport. James Gordon Bennett Jr., publisher of the New York Herald, founded the Casino in 1880 as an alternative to Newport's exclusively-male Reading Room. Unlike that club, the Casino was open to both men and women.

In the 1880s, the Casino was one of the primary places for society to be seen. Croquet, tennis matches, archery contests, concerts, and balls were commonly held there. While the Casino had an air of exclusivity, members of other classes could attend Casino events for a fee. [12]

The establishment of the United States National Lawn Tennis Tournament opened the Casino to Newporters and out-of-town guests. Members of all classes could enjoy this new sport, but upper-class families retained the best seats. [13]

Tennis Crowd
Visitors Watch
a Tennis Match
As the tournament became nationally known, the Casino board admitted middle-class players, mostly college men. These players came to resent the atmosphere of the Casino and campaigned for relocation of the matches to New York. In addition, local children hired as ball boys for the matches went on strike during one of the tournaments. [14]


"To Cultivate the Most Pleasant and Cordial Relations"

Newport's Mayor Boyle called for better relations between year-round residents and summer residents in his 1898 inaugural address:
"Our city is solely dependent on combined attractiveness and on the coming of those who have so largely contributed to its upbuilding and beautification, and any act or spirit which causes the depreciation of its capital, whether it be the mean and selfish defacement of the Cliffs or the narrow policy of opposition, blind to the city's best interests, should be condemned and discouraged. Our best and wisest policy is to cultivate the most pleasant and cordial relations with the Summer colony, and this, I repeat, we can pursue without the loss of the slightest right, and to our advantage." [15]
And so, while summer residents publicly exhibited themselves to year-round residents and summer visitors, they resented intrusion into their designated spaces. Bailey's Beach, Bellevue Avenue, and the Cliff Walk were areas they attempted to reserve for themselves.

Year-round residents, in turn, resented the summer residents' intrusions upon their town two months each year. And, summer visitors, eager to see for themselves what the media had presented to them about Newport, ignored the summer residents' attempts to maintain areas exclusively for their own use.

By the turn of the century, Newport's shores had opened to people of all classes.

Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001