Newport, RI

Reliving The Gilded Age in Newport, Rhode Island

Stuart Grant

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Marble House, Newport, RIStuart Grant

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in complete luxury and splendour?

Not to live in a house, but an estate. To have your own stables, your own ballroom, a horse drawn carriage, servants and chefs and have your meals served on bone china. Where, when you hold a garden party, you invite three thousand of your closest friends.

There was a time in America when a man could become anything, when the world was wide open and ripe for opportunity. Before the great wars and the taxes to pay for them, you could make a fortune and build an empire on a scale limited only by your imagination.

Historians say The Gilded Age was the latter half of the 19th century or more specifically the period from (1865–1914). I had a window into that world when I visited the Mansions of Newport, Rhode Island.

In the Gilded Age, America was at its peak. The rate of economic growth, technological change, industrialization and increase in living standards was never higher.

Families of great wealth dominated society — the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, and the Astors. They made their fortunes in banking, oil, steamships, manufacturing, coal and railroads.

They built palatial mansions overlooking the Atlantic coast in Newport, some with as many as 70 rooms, employing as many as 30 servants and built with the finest materials. Marble House was commissioned by the Vanderbilts and aptly named as it was constructed using a reported 500,000 cubic feet of marble at a cost of 7 million dollars. That’s 7 million dollars in 1888.

Note that these residences were used only in summer season. Essentially, cottages.

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Rosecliff Mansion, Newport, RIStuart Grant

Before telephones became a middle class entitlement, these mansions had their own internal phone system used primarily to summon servants.

In the social order of the day, it was a matter of great status to have a butler but not a maid. Maids had separate entrances, staircases and hallways hidden from view, whereas butlers were to be seen performing their duties in front of guests.

Delivery entrances were carefully concealed behind trees, walls and hedges so as to create an atmosphere of magic around where meals, linens and other supplies came from.

A Gilded Age valet had many duties above and beyond that of parking vehicles. One was preparing the master’s bath. In one home, the marble bathtub was so large that it had to be filled twice before bathing. There was so much marble that was so cold to the touch, the tub had to be filled once to warm it and twice to bathe. Many had a third tap for salt water piped in from the Atlantic.

When a guest was invited to the home it was considered bad manners to call and invite them over the phone. For this, a foot messenger was sent.

Alva Belmont was a maverick.
On marriage, she told her female friends, “First marry for money, then marry for love.”
On spiritual guidance, “Just pray to God. She will help you.”

Society matrons changed clothes several times a day. There were separate wardrobes not only for each meal of the day but for retiring to your sitting room and receiving guests between meals. To manage this, they had a ladies maid whose expertise in dress and grooming was heavily relied upon. This ritual carries on today on Coach Weekend where elegantly dressed women parade up and down the avenue in their finest gowns on horse drawn carriages.

At the dinner table, there was strict protocol and precision timing for every course of a meal. If you were a slow eater, the butler would whisk your plate away in order to keep the evening on schedule. With each successive course, guests were expected to alternate between speaking to guests on their right or left.

Servants were expected to conduct themselves with great decorum. They were to be alert and ready to serve but never to detract from the appearance of importance to their master.

They were told to:

* Always stand and keep your hands still while speaking to a lady or being spoken to

* Never talk to the ladies or gentlemen, unless it is to deliver a message…then do it in as few words as possible

* Should you be required to walk with a lady or gentleman, in order to carry a parcel or otherwise, always keep a few paces behind

They worked ten to twelve hour days but were not above a few pranks. One was taking silver trays and using them as sleds going down the staircase.

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The Breakers, Newport, RIStuart Grant

But the wealthy like all of us, had problems of their own. Local businesses would gouge them. Cornelius Vanderbilt and his first wife, Sophia, had seven children, three of whom predeceased them. In spite of these tragedies, he and Sophia ended every day in a prayer of gratitude, “Thanks be to God for he is great and has given us so much.

While men dominated the Gilded Age economically, the era held something for women too.

Alva Belmont was a maverick. After marrying into the Vanderbilt family she acquired, not only wealth, but enormous power as a matron of high society. She held strong opinions, played bridge and rode horses bareback. Beneath the lace and chiffon, beat the heart of an independent woman. Yet with all that power and influence, she didn’t have the right to vote. In the salons of the wealthy, she began meetings that would later form the basis for the Women’s Suffrage movement.

She would shock Newport society by seeking and being granted a divorce from William Vanderbilt and later take up with a family friend five years her junior. She was also a great quote.

On marriage, she told her female friends, “First marry for money, then marry for love.”

On spiritual guidance, “Just pray to God. She will help you.”

At the peak of the Gilded Age, there were over two hundred signature properties on the scale described. It was not to last. With the advent of the income, property and inheritance taxes, the cost of these properties grew increasingly onerous.

Unlike Europe, America did not have a long history of employment in the service of the rich as butlers and maids. With the burgeoning middle class wanting a slice of the American dream for themselves, these jobs were not seen as desirable and became difficult to fill. The problem of finding “good help” made the properties impractical.

The Great Depression erased many fortunes for Newport’s wealthy, forcing distressed selloffs. Many mansions were demolished in favor of much more utilitarian structures like strip malls, hotels and apartments.

Thankfully, the Preservation Society of Newport County has kept these treasures alive for us to enjoy. Seeing these marvels of architecture and luxury is a mind-expanding experience. They fill one with a sense of life’s grandest possibilities.

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The Elms, Newport, RIStuart Grant

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