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

Upper-Class Leisure

During the Gilded Age, Newport became a fashionable place for upper-class families to "see and be seen."

Upper-class entrepreneurs spent at least six weeks each year at their summer estates. They traveled to and from the city on weekends to visit their families and conduct business with their peers. In their absence, their wives assumed the fiscal and social responsibility of running the estates.

Conspicuous Leisure
Calling, coaching, attending clubs, and observing or participating in sports were all forms of what economist Thorstein Veblen called "conspicuous leisure." [1]

A Coaching Party
Coaching, a popular English pastime, came to Newport in full flavor. Coachers paraded their horses, carriages, and well-dressed occupants along Bellevue Avenue. Gentlemen wore riding uniforms and carried women and their escorts on top of the carriages.

Newport's upper-class summer residents favored other leisure activities that mimicked those of their European counterparts. Fox hunting, archery, polo, yachting, and lawn tennis were activities that enabled participants to express their prowess; at the same time, these sports allowed for emulation.

By the turn of the century, these sports were supplemented by horse racing, automobile racing, and golf. Numerous clubs showcased upper-class sports, such as the Newport Racing Association, the Newport Yacht Club, and the Newport Golf Club.

Social Rituals
Invitation from
Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish
An invitation from society matron Caroline Schermerhorn Astor—or later, Alva Vanderbilt, Mamie Fish, or Theresa Fair Oelrichs—signaled acceptance into Newport society. Acceptance meant that one had to adopt the rigid social rituals of the upper class.

Women's activities followed a strict daily schedule. Beach bathing (in full-skirted costumes and black stockings) came first, followed by Casino concerts, coaching, calling, and attending dinner parties and balls.

Upper-class men attended exclusive clubs such as the Reading Room and the Clambake Club, spent time on their yachts, or participated in athletics when they were in town. [2]

Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001