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

Working-Class Newport

Newport's working-class residents consisted largely of seasonal workers that supported the summer tourist business. Migratory workers found employment at hotels, boarding houses, restaurants, and farms.

Newport's working-class summer visitors included laborers and factory workers from nearby industrial towns.

on the Cliff Walk
In their desire to emulate European nobility, Newport's upper-class families hired European servants to run their households. They employed English butlers, Irish maids, English and Irish nannies, and French governesses at the estates.

In contrast to the amount spent on upkeep and entertainment, upper-class families paid their domestic workers low wages. One Newport summer resident recalled:

"Newport summer residents paid twenty dollars a month to their Swedish cooks and English butlers, and eighteen dollars a month to their Irish chambermaids and waitresses, and even less to their parlor maids and kitchen maids and scullery maids." [1]
The resident went on to describe the role of the housekeeper at the estates:
"The housekeeper directed the servant staff and ensured that the estate affairs went smoothly. The housekeeper kept track of the servants' on duty and off duty hours. It was her responsibility to see that the uniforms were spic and span, that the silver was always shining, and that the floors were polished like chestnut surfaces. She kept count of the flat silver and the linen. She had to see to it that the servants reached the Catholic Church safely on Sunday morning, and that the men servants were not smoking in bed at night, risking burning the house down." [2]

Marine Workers
on Long Wharf
Newport's shipyard and marine businesses provided employment for fishermen, machinists, and craftsmen. The repair shops of the Fall River Line were located at Gravelly Point. [3]

The New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad opened repair shops in 1901 near those for the Fall River Line. Hundreds of men worked in the steamboat shops; some women worked in the upholstery section and in the main office. [4]

Other workers were stewards and waiters on the steamship lines that carried summer passengers to and from Newport.

The nearby agricultural communities of Middletown and Portsmouth provided employment for Portuguese farmers, who made up 13 percent of the towns' populations. [5]

African American farmers from the South worked the fields during the summer months. Other working-class African Americans were teamsters, blacksmiths, and gardeners.

Labor recruitment chains brought many African Americans from the southern states to Newport. Many arrived in Newport for work that began before June.

Lindsay Walker, a native Virginian, was influential in bringing other Virginians to Newport for summer work.

Workers, Newport Country Club
Workers at the
Newport Country Club
Irish and Italian carpenters, masons, roofers, and painters worked on construction of Fort Adams and the summer estates. Italian marble workers were specifically hired to work on William K. Vanderbilt's Marble House. [6]

In the Winter Months
Long Wharf
Long Wharf
Repair Shops

Newport's dependence on the summer industry often resulted in winter unemployment. A study of Newport's social conditions in 1912, sponsored by the Newport Civic League, found that less than three-fifths of the heads of families surveyed worked all 12 months of the year.

Only about 14 percent of those surveyed were employed 7 months of the year. In addition, almost half of the heads of families surveyed made less than $12 a week. [7]

Americans and Irish earned more than African Americans. Wages did not increase during the summer months to offset winter unemployment.

The study suggested that industrial conditions in Newport made regular employment impossible. The committee recommended establishing manufacturing industries such as pottery and jewelry manufacture, which they believed would find a market in Newport. The report also recommended redistributing workers through the State Employment Bureau during the slow months. [8]

Aquidneck Cottage Industries provided work to people unable to find employment and trained young people in the home industries. Townsend School, run by a charity, gave Newport working-class girls an opportunity to learn the domestic arts. [9]

Summer Visitors
Visitors from Providence and Pawtucket, Rhode Island; Fall River, Massachusetts; New London and New Haven, Connecticut; and as far away as New York City came to Newport in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A vast network of railroad, steamboat, and trolley lines facilitated travel there.

Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001