It’s that time of year! Just as the District starts to recall its swampish origins and mosquitoes rival the Nats baseballs for size, the wealthiest of Washington’s residents flee for more clement climes.
Modern destinations include Aruba, Barbados, Lake Como, or Jackson Hole. But where did their well-heeled predecessors go?
If you were a rich American in the Gilded Age, Newport, Rhode Island was your retreat of choice- second only to the exquisite mountain spa estates of the Catskills and the Blue Ridge (more on those to come).
The City season (New York City, you ignoramus, there’s only one worth mentioning) lasted from October to February and featured nightly entertainments ranging from operas to balls hosted by some of the richest people in American. Rather, the richest ladies in America, because the social scene was ruled by a coterie of women who would make Napoleon cringe.
1890 portrait of THE Mrs Astor- imagine that gimlet gaze turned on you!
Mrs Astor was one of the first to start organizing and codifying New York society, creating the extremely stratified construction that became famous in Gilded Age novels. This was in direct response to the mid-19th century population boom in New York, related to immigration, industrial prosperity in the wake of the Civil War, and westward expansion. Chicago suddenly became the home of new-minted millionaires, as did San Francisco and Denver. As social doyenne and the lady on top, Mrs Astor enlisted the help of social commentator Ward McAllister (an Astor cousin by marriage) to run her elitist marketing campaign.
McAllister was encouraged by his patroness to act as “tastemaker”, writing about the activities of those who really mattered in various magazines and newspapers of the day. Mrs Astor carefully cultivated McAllister’s desire for recognition and used him to ensure that his taste was her taste- without the vulgarity of public exposure herself.
Where Astor and McAllister’s worlds collided (besides New York) was the little seaside town of Newport, Rhode Island. McAllister had traveled to Newport in the summer during his childhood, escaping the steamy summers of Savannah, Georgia. It was a popular destination for wealthy Southerners,and later, successful Northern families from Pawtucket, Lowell, and the Pennsylvania coal fields began buying summer homes there.
The Astors purchased a “cottage” called Beechwood in 1881 and had the house renovated by the architect Richard Morris Hunt. Additions included a ballroom that could hold four hundred, genesis for McAllister’s description of the cream of New York society as “The Four Hundred”- making it clear that only those who were invited to Mrs Astor’s events were considered part of the elite group. If Mrs Astor went to Newport for the summer, her acolytes must follow.
Beechwood, as viewed from the ocean.
This prompted a flurry of construction, as other wealthy families sought to be included in the newly-christened “Newport Season”, a summer counterpart to the New York Season. Everyone wanted a cottage, though it is difficult to consider anything with over a hundred rooms a cottage. Famous examples include:
Marble House (built 1888-1892 for those upstart Vanderbilts)
Ochre Court (built 1892 for the Goelets)
and Vernon Court (built 1900 for the Van Nest-Gambrills and now home to the American Museum of Illustration, with the world’s largest collection of Norman Rockwell drawings)
My personal favorite is Stanford White’s heart-shaped staircase at Rosecliff- sigh…!
As more and more of the hoi polloi crowded into Newport, vying for the title of most extravagantly wealthy (most outré and so terribly American), social cliques began forming around those who chose to summer elsewhere.
Enterprising hoteliers capitalized on the idea of resorts as travel and leisure activities became more widely available (factors involved lots of money floating around, a vast railroad network, and the concept of a “vacation” that became popular in the late 19th century). Enormous, highly fashionable hotels went up around local attractions such as hot springs, private beaches, racetracks, and even golf courses. President Theodore Roosevelt set a political fashion for the Blue Ridge with his cabin retreat at Pine Knot, and George Gould make Lakewood, NJ popular with the railroad and industrial sets.
Eventually, the plebes caught up and everyone wanted a vacation with fun stuff to do that didn’t involve a desk. Fifty years later, ta da! Disneyland.
Now, scroll back up and imagine Mrs Astor confronted with “Mr Toad’s Wild Ride”…
Thanks so much to fellow bloggers! See these great articles for more Gilded Age fabulousness:
Museum of the City of New York, “Festivities of the Gilded Age Season”
Edwardian Promenade, “The New York Social Season”
The Gilded Age Era, blog