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

Negotiating Class through Leisure

This thesis looks at class and leisure in Newport, Rhode Island, from 1870 through 1914. It explores how Americans negotiated class issues through leisure. A study of Newport during this period provides insight into American class relations and leisure consumption patterns during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.

America's First Resort
Newport, Rhode Island, has been a summer resort for almost three hundred years. From its earliest days as a summer haven for colonial gentry, Newport earned the distinction of "America's first resort."

Marble House
Marble House

The tiny town on the Atlantic coast grew from a community of merchants, businessmen, and intellectuals into the "society center of America." From 1870 to 1914, America's wealthiest families converged on Newport, building grand estates, establishing country clubs, and engaging in elaborate displays of wealth.

Newport: More than Fashionable
Gilded Age Newport has received much attention in the contemporary press. Pictorial works, architectural guides, decorative arts books, and socialites' biographies have depicted Newport as a resort for America's upper class.

While historical studies have placed this period within the broader framework of its eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century history, Newport's reputation as a fashionable, exclusive resort remains.

Middle-Class Vacationers

Newport, in fact, was a more complex, heterogeneous community in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The resort attracted not only upper-class families but a substantial number of upwardly mobile middle-class families and working-class hopefuls eager to participate, however briefly, in the American leisure experience.

At the same time, local merchants, domestic employees, and southern migratory workers provided the necessary labor to make each summer season a success.

Class Distinctions in Newport
Newport's upper-class summer residents legitimated their status through various forms of "conspicuous consumption," through public exhibition, and through privatization of space. They shared Newport, sometimes uneasily, with year-round Newport residents and with visitors of other classes.

Newport Merchants
Newport Merchants

Year-round, middle-class Newport residents coexisted with their upper-class summer neighbors, though at times there was tension over economic and political issues. Middle-class visitors sought to blur the distinction between themselves and the upper class by emulating their dress, behavior, and leisure activities.

Newport's merchants, laborers, and domestic employees depended on the summer tourist industry for their livelihood. Working-class visitors came to Newport to enjoy the public spectacles of the other classes and to participate in new forms of commercialized leisure.

Newport in the Media
The media became an advertising agency for Newport at the turn of the twentieth century.

Ad for Steamer Excursions
Ad for
Steamer Excursions

Newport gained pride of place in the society columns of major newspapers. Journalists discussed its fashionable people in mass-market magazines. Authors described its picturesque places in travel guides and guidebooks.

Transportation companies enticed visitors of all classes to Newport by announcing cheap fares or free passes on railroads, steamers, and trolleys.

Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001