A Newport, RI Holiday


On December 30th and 31st, our little family and my sister-in-law's family headed to Newport, RI, to see the beautiful Newport Mansions decked out for the holidays.   It was a short trip with just a one-night stay, but on Friday, we had a chance to see the Sparkling Lights at the Breakers, and on Saturday, we had a chance to do the popular Servant Life Tour at the Elms.  

For some quick background information, the Newport Mansions were once considered "summer cottages" that were built by wealthy business tycoons during the Gilded Age. The Gilded Age, which encompasses the years between the end of the Civil War in 1865 to 1900, was considered a time of extravagance for just a few businessmen who amassed their wealth during the Second Industrial Revolution. While the late 1800s was considered a time of invention (electricity, the incandescent light bulb, the telegraph/radio, and petroleum refining, to name a few), it was also considered a time when "the wealthiest one percent of American families controlled 51 percent of the nation's real and personal property" (P. Kiger "How Robber Barons Flaunted their Wealth during the Gilded Age")    The richest of these families were known as robber barons, a title they were given because they used unethical business practices, exploited workers, and created monopolies, all to accrue fortunes (worth in the billions today). Another interesting fact during these times is that the government had no ability to break up monopolies or even tax them!

To understand the lifestyle of these robber barons is to understand the extravagance that existed in Newport during this period. For one, this elite class didn't just compete in business; they also competed in terms of homes, decor, material possessions, and even social events. Although the Newport Mansions were only used as summer homes, their owners built them for lavish summer entertaining, which meant they needed to be big and furnished with Europe's finest luxury items. Silk, marble, gold, mosaics, paintings, tapestries, and jewels were all the norm. The wives of the robber barons changed their clothing five to six times a day as they freshened up for each social engagement, and they flaunted jewels along with their beautiful gowns--some coming from faraway places like Paris and London. Food, drink, and dancing was the norm, along with all-night costume parties with massive guest lists. To learn more about the opulence of this time, I highly recommend reading P. Kiger's full article here.

Going to see the Sparkling Lights at the Breakers was a fun family experience. While the adults had visited the Breakers Mansion before (many years ago), it was a new experience for Little Lewie and his four cousins. We first toured the inside, getting to see all the magnificent rooms decorated for the holidays. Then we followed a spiraling maze of colored lights around the grounds, which led us to a snack place where we could purchase hot chocolate, s'mores kits, and other goodies. The kids loved being able to toast their marshmallows while overlooking the grandeur of the mansion and the "sparkling lights" in the backdrop.  

While touring the mansion, the opulence of the Gilded Age was right in front of us. Being the "grandest" of all the Newport Mansions, the Breakers has 70 rooms and a 45-foot high Great Hall that sits on 13 acres overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Cornelius Vanderbilt II, President and Chairman of the New York Central Railroad, had the house erected in 1895 as a "summer home," which boasts Italian Renaissance architecture complete with marble statues, fountains, high ceilings, ornate murals/paintings, and grand balconies. Here are just a few more photos, mostly with us, of the estate:

This bathroom is larger than our living room at home!

During our second and last day at Newport, we had lunch at the Red Parrot and then drove to the Elms for their popular Servant Life Tour. We thought the kiddos might enjoy seeing the secret living quarters of the servants, the passageways, and the coal cellar, while the adults might enjoy learning about how the servants worked behind the scenes in such a way that it seemed as if these mansions were run by magic.

The Elms, a French-style chateau, was another mansion erected to serve as a summer home--this time for the millionaire Edward Julius Berwind who founded the Berwind-White Coal Mining Company. Known as a coal baron, Berwind was "the world's largest individual owner of coal mining properties," and he worked with another business tycoon, J.P. Morgan, to expand his coal mining empire. Interestingly, he was "director of the International Mercantile Marine company, which owned the White Star Line and the RMS Titanic." He also controlled the steamship business in New York and Philadelphia, where he was the sole coal supplier to run the ships. (During the tour, we learned that Berwind had a passion for technology and engineering, which resulted in the Elms being one of the very first homes in America to be wired for electricity. He also had an electric icemaker!)

The Servant Life Tour focused on the "hidden" parts of this mansion, which included the servant quarters, the laundry rooms, the boiler rooms, the basement kitchens, and the coal cellar. As expected, the glitz and glamour were reserved for the main parts of the mansion, so the other parts, away from the public eye, were modest at best.   

For example, when looking at the Elms, it appears as if there are only two floors, but few people know the fancy part at the top (without the windows) is actually a third floor where the servants slept. They did have access to the rooftop for sunlight and fresh air, but they were very much hidden from view. Here is what the third floor looks like on the inside:

Surprisingly, the rooms were quite large, and Mr. Berwind tried to add some extra comforts for the servants in order to tempt them to stay employed with him. Still, when they signed up to work at the Elms, they were committing to working 16-hour days with only one day off per week. They also were not allowed to be married or have families. Many of his servants were immigrants from Ireland; however, he did hire some "professional servants," such as the butler and the cook, who received higher wages.

The tour provided a wealth of information, complete with original photos and documents of some of Mr. Berwind's staff. As expected, the life of the servants was hard; however, I never knew that the noble women of the house changed outfits about five times per day and that the sheets to all the beds in the house had to be laundered and ironed twice per day (even if they were not used). It felt like the servants often had to do work for work's sake, and I wondered if they ever grumbled among themselves as to why they had to put in all the extra effort for seemingly no reason at all.  

The tour ended with a visit to the basement. In the winter, the mansion was heated using coal, and they brought us to the coal cellar, which had a distinctive tunnel. (Evidently, Mr. Berwind had the coal unloaded blocks away, so the tunnel could be used to bring it to the mansion discreetly.)

Overall, our Newport, R.I. trip was a beautiful and interesting experience of a dark past, for underneath the glitz and glamour of the Gilded Age was a culture of incessant superficiality, materialism, gluttony, and snobbery.  Robber barons made money from unethical practices, often resulting in a number of human rights abuses and environmental attrocities. They stepped on the toes of others only so they could live a life of excess and brag about their immense fortunes.  

Now, of course, thanks to the Newport Historical Society, the mansions have been preserved and become houses of "the people."  They're used for community events (like high school dances), for large events like the Newport Flower Show or the Sparkling Lights at the Breakers, and for educational tours and lectures. As we visited the two mansions, we couldn't help but notice the tremendous amount of upkeep they require.  We all had some minor allergy symptoms from the unavoidable dust and mold!

At the end of the trip, I felt like we had our own small fortune to brag about and that was our family. Lewie was awe struck by the mansions but said the best part of our one-night adventure was spending time with his cousins.  I couldn't agree more. The kiddos were so well behaved, and I had no idea, the youngest, Lilly, is a little historian in the making. I LOVED watching her marvel at old photos, documents, and all the rooms in the houses. (She literally beamed with excitement throughout the entire two-hour servant tour!)  "That's so cool," she repeated over and over again.  As I watched the expressions of the kids, each with their own cell phones or parents' cell phones taking pictures, I couldn't help but think in my head, "yea, this is pretty cool, indeed."


  1. I was there once a long time ago and more recently went to the Biltmore. These places are interesting to see!

    1. You're so right, Dara. It's hard to imagine such a life of extravagance! They are pretty fascinating.


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