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

Upper-Class Newport

Newport's upper-class residents included merchants, intellectuals, old-monied families, and newly made millionaires.

Wealthy merchant families emerged in Newport in the decades before the Revolutionary War.

Abraham Redwood
Abraham Redwood
Many Newport merchants engaged in Newport's triangular slave trade. Newport was also home to a number of wealthy landowners, including Colonel Godfrey Malbone, who built Malbone Castle, one of Newport's first stately homes.

Abraham Redwood formed the Philosophical Club with Henry Collins, Newport's eighteenth-century patron of the arts. The Philosophical Club later became the Redwood Library Company. Collins deeded land to Redwood for the construction of Redwood Library. [1]

In the mid-nineteenth century, artists, writers, scientists, and philosophers made Newport their summer home.

Newport's intellectuals included:

Henry James
Henry James
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Julia Ward Howe

William Morris Hunt

Henry James

John La Farge

Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton
Emma Lazarus

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Edith Wharton [2]

Newport's intellectuals spent their summers at work and with family and friends. Social life centered around the Redwood Library, the Newport Reading Room, and the Art Association of Newport.

Julia Ward Howe organized the Town and Country Club, which included a number of Newport intellectuals. The group gathered at members' homes to read papers and discuss philosophy.

Old-Monied Families
In the mid-nineteenth century, Newport's summer residents also included upper-class families from New England and the South.

Summer estates began to appear on Bellevue Avenue. Savannah planter George Noble Jones hired architect Richard Upjohn to design the Gothic Revival Kingscote. He later sold the home to international merchant William Henry King.

Another international merchant, William Wetmore, hired local contractor Seth Bradford to design and build Château-sur-Mer. Architect Richard Morris Hunt modified the home in the 1870s.

These families were eventually absorbed by a new set of families primarily from New York. Many of them were members of "the Four Hundred," a tightly-knit group of men and women who dominated New York's social scene.

Samuel Ward McAllister
Samuel Ward McAllister
Samuel Ward McAllister, co-creator of "the Four Hundred," New York's premier social list, purchased Bayside Farm in Newport in the late 1850s and encouraged his society friends to join him there during the summer months.

McAllister was an adviser to New York socialite Caroline Schermerhorn Astor ("the Mrs. Astor"), who, by the 1870s, had made Newport her summer social capital. [3]

McAllister divided America's wealthy into the "Nobs" and the "Swells." The "Nobs" were the old-monied members of "the Four Hundred." The "Swells" were the industrialists then becoming fashionable in society.

Fashionable Families
The "Swells" that summered in Newport included the Vanderbilts, the Goelets, the Berwinds, and the Oelrichs. Eager to display their newfound wealth, these families erected palatial estates on Ochre Point and along Bellevue Avenue, modeling them after the estates of Europe's aristocracy.

Ogden Goelet hired architect Richard Morris Hunt to design his French Gothic Ochre Court. Coal magnate E. J. Berwind commissioned architect Horace Trumbauer to design the Elms, a French chateau. Steamship magnate Hermann Oelrichs hired Stanford White of the McKim, Mead, and White firm to design Rosecliff, modeled after the Grand Trianon at Versailles.

Cornelius Vanderbilt II
Cornelius Vanderbilt II
Cornelius Vanderbilt II, chairman of the New York Central Railroad, purchased The Breakers estate in 1885. When the house on the property burned, he hired Hunt to design a new house in the Renaissance Revival style. [4]

Vanderbilt's younger brother, William K. Vanderbilt Jr., hired Hunt to design the $11 million Marble House as a birthday gift for his wife, socialite Alva Vanderbilt. [5]

"The Struggle to Outdo...or at Least Not to Be Outdone"
Such elaborate behavior brought criticism. Writing in the August 1900 issue of Cosmopolitan, Montgomery Schuyler wryly observed:

"Even a multimillionaire, we may concede, has a right to his preferences, but this, the observer is driven to suspect, is not an affair of enjoyment so much as of emulation, the struggle to outdo one another, or at least not to be outdone." [6]
Paul Bourget
Paul Bourget

The desire of these upper-class families to model themselves after European aristocracy was a curious phenomenon to European visitors. French author Paul Bourget, visiting America in 1893, remarked:

"In America all men in society have been and still are business men. They were not born to social station; they have achieved it."

The newness of this wealth was a complexity to Bourget:

"These millionaires do not entirely accept themselves...They do not admit that they are thus different from the Old World, or if they admit it, it is to insist that if they chose they could equal the Old World, or, at least, enjoy it." [7]

Summering in Newport gave these families an opportunity to legitimate their status as members of the upper class. This process of legitimation took the form of conspicuous consumption of goods, elaborate displays of these goods, and attempts to privatize their space in Newport.

Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001