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


Leisure Patterns

"The American masses have discovered summer," declared a 1902 article in World's Work. "If one looks at the United States from one ocean to the other in July and August, he will see millions of people at play—people of every social and financial gradation; for few are so poor as not to take at least a short vacation." [1]

1909 Map
1909 Map
of Newport
A 1903 article in World's Work offered a broad view of Americans' expenditures on leisure during this period:

"If the cost of moving and caring for our great army of summer migrants for one season were put into one huge sum the amount would probably equal the capital of all the big trusts combined. In the process of changing hands the millions are distributed among railroads, steamboat lines, stage lines, hackmen, express companies, hotels, boarding-houses, guides, servants and helpers innumerable." [2]

Vacations for All
By the early twentieth century, Americans of all classes were able to enjoy some time away from work.

Rosecliff
Rosecliff
Upper-class Americans could easily afford the expense of their summer travels. Shipping, railroads, and real estate had made many multimillionaires in the Gilded Age.

Upper-class families spent the summer season at fashionable resorts such as Newport, Bar Harbor, and Saratoga Springs. Upper-class leisure included networking with peers and engaging in public displays of wealth.

Many middle-class Americans received a half-day's leave from work on Saturdays. Some businesses awarded a week's vacation with pay, others a week without pay. Many workers who received sick leave saved these hours and added them to their regular and holiday leave in order to take an extended vacation each year.

Atlantic House
Atlantic House
Some employees took extended trips to resorts, 100 to 200 miles from home, staying in inexpensive hotels or boarding houses. [3] In Newport, Middle-class leisure consisted of sightseeing, social climbing, and recreation.

Working-class families developed an interest in vacations, too, but they worried about their ability to afford them. An article in the Independent began with a letter from a working man to the magazine, asking: "How shall a city family, that just about gets around with a balance at the end of the year, and does it by economy, get a vacation without running into debt for it?" [4]

Hygeia Spa
Hygeia Spa
The author of the article advised the letter writer to take a "simple vacation" to the country with his family. There, he could rent a homestead, garden, fish, and most importantly, rest. Wrote the author, "almost anyone can have a change of scene and escape routine of toil at a trifling expense." [5] But an extended vacation may not have been possible for this family, because working-class men and women typically received only one day off per week.

Working-class individuals took day or evening trips to resorts in the summer. Working-class leisure included various commercial amusements, including vaudeville, spectator sports, and amusement rides.

Consumption of Leisure
Leisure became a commercial industry in the late nineteenth century. Mass production and distribution of goods demanded the development of a market to consume those goods.

WKVJr. in Auto
William K.
Vanderbilt Jr.
in Auto, c. 1900
Consumption of leisure, in turn, became a way of determining class identity. [6] Class status largely determined the places Americans chose to visit and the types of leisure activities they participated in there.

Newport was one place where Americans negotiated class issues through leisure. Like other nineteenth-century resorts, Newport was a class-segregated community. Upper-class, middle-class, and working-class Americans frequented separate areas of the resort.

Upper-class Americans sought to legitimate their status by engaging in various forms of conspicuous consumption. They contributed to Newport's class segregation by restricting certain areas for their own use.

Middle-class Americans sought to blur distinctions between themselves and upper-class summer residents by emulating their dress, behavior, and leisure activities.

Working-class individuals came to Newport to observe the other classes and participate in new forms of commercialized leisure.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, ©2001-2003