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

From Religious Haven to Popular Destination

Newport, Rhode Island, is located at the southern end of the island of Aquidneck. Surrounded on the north and west by Narragansett Bay, and on the south and east by the Atlantic Ocean, Newport was an isolated maritime settlement for the first two centuries of its existence.

Religious Haven
Settled in 1639 by a group of dissenters from the Puritan Church, Newport became a haven for different religious groups. Members of the Quaker, Catholic, Antinomian, and Unitarian faiths settled peaceably among the town's merchant traders and seafarers. Newport's Jewish settlers were important figures in the town's early history, establishing the first American synagogue in 1763. [1]

Slave Trading Center
Newport, 1700s
Map, 1700s
Newport merchants actively engaged in the triangular slave trade between America, Africa, and the West Indies. Newporters shipped rum, flour, and iron to Africa's Gold Coast in exchange for slaves. The slaves were sold in the West Indies. West Indies ports shipped molasses for sale to Newport's distilleries. Slaves were also shipped directly to Newport for sale. [2]

Newport's reputation as a slave trading center drew planters from southern colonies and the West Indies. Inspired by the town's mild climate and pleasant scenery, many of these visitors returned to Newport each summer.

Leading Port
Newport Harbor
By the late 1600s, Newport was one of the colonies' leading ports. Newport's harbor and inland resources contributed to its prosperity in colonial times. Whale oil and candlemaking were important industries.

The Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 damaged Newport's economy, as did an 1807 law abolishing the slave trade. Newporters revived the town's economic base through exportation of local goods and establishment of hotels and boarding houses to accommodate summer guests.

Social and Intellectual Center
By the mid-nineteenth century, Newport had shifted from a mercantile to a resort-based economy.

Newport's summer residents included old-monied families from New York, Boston, and the South. Artists, writers, and other intellectuals also made Newport their summer home.

Ocean House
Ocean House
The Ocean House (1840) and the Atlantic House (1844) were Newport's first large hotels. Newport's other establishments included Bateman's Boarding House, Aquidneck House, Perry House, the Kay Street House, the United States Hotel, and the Cliff Avenue Hotel.

Summer estates began to appear, including George Noble Jones's Kingscote (1841) and William Wetmore's Château-sur-Mer (1852). [3]

Fashionable Resort
By the 1870s fashionable society had discovered Newport. The 1875 edition of Bachelder's Popular Resorts and How to Reach Them hailed Newport as "the fashionable queen of all American watering resorts, for summer pleasure." [4]

Ochre Point
Ochre Point
Newporters Alfred Smith and Joseph Bailey contributed to Newport's transformation into a fashionable resort. They purchased 140 acres of oceanfront property on Ochre Point and convinced the town council to extend Bellevue Avenue down to the property. Smith then sold parcels of land to wealthy industrialists, earning a large profit on the investment. [5]

From the 1880s forward, Newport was the summer home America's wealthiest families. [6] The resort attracted people primarily from the East Coast, who built palatial estates along Bellevue Avenue and on the rocky coastline of Ochre Point (see Newport map).

Popular Destination
Easton's Beach
Easton's Beach
Newport's reputation as a fashionable resort drew not only upper-class families but middle-class and working-class Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

An 1888 article in the Newport Mercury reported that excursionists, "who come in goodly force," occupied the bath houses and pavilions at Easton's Beach. [7]

An 1894 article in Scribner's confirmed the popularity of the resort:

"On Sundays it is given over to excursionists and servants, as was quite to have been expected, of course, with the increase of Newport's general popularity and its facilities of access by rail and water. But even on week-days it has 'developed' immensely in a popular direction." [8]

Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001