WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels with the WPA State Guides: Newport Rhode Island, The Gilded Age 

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

Newport, Rhode Island during the Gilded age (post-Civil War – World War I) is a particular focus of the Rhode Island State Guide. In contrast to the colonial, religious roots of the city and its sea-faring enterprises before the Civil War, the establishment of a unique culture of ostentatious wealth and privilege in the second half of the nineteenth century both fascinated and repulsed the guide’s writers. Devoting over seven pages to the era, they just couldn’t get enough of it. 

Here is a representative sampling: 

“Following the Civil War the social life of Newport, which had been rather simple and restrained for more than a half century, suddenly expanded and became much more sophisticated. The city … became the summer playground for wealthy northern families. 

Probably America will never again see such lavish entertaining as took place at Newport during the summer seasons of the ‘gilded years,’ 1890-1914. Into six or seven weeks of each season were crowded balls, dinners, parties of every description, each host or hostess striving to eclipse the others in magnificence. Huge sums were spent in the prevailing spirit of rivalry. Mrs. Pembroke Jones set aside $300,000 at the beginning of every Newport season for entertaining, and some hostesses spent even more. Sometimes a single ball cost more than $100,000. So much prestige was attached to spending July and August at this exclusive resort of the period that to have neglected to do so 

would have exposed a definite gap in one’s social armor. Some might talk of the charms of a summer spent in Europe, but their acquaintances knew that they stayed away from Newport because they were afraid of their social position; for Newport was the millionaires’ playground, from which all unacceptable intruders were excluded by a set of ironclad though unwritten rules. 

Harry Lehr [w]as the Four Hundred’s playboy; Mrs. William Astor, the leader of society. They were dubbed the ‘Queen and her Jester.’ Mrs. Astor reigned supreme and her decisions as to things social were final. She could make or break the ambitious climber. 

The greatest social event of the year was the annual ball at the Astor house. Mrs. Astor and Harry Lehr scanned the Social Register and decided who should be invited; since the Astor ballroom only held 400, the invitations were limited to that magic number. 

Newport Society was composed of a series of cliques, presided over by reigning queens, and to offend any one of them was to court disaster. Harry Lehr was the most popular man in each of the little cliques, and the first to be consulted when a party was in prospect. One day Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish and Lehr announced that they were to give a huge dinner party for the charming Prince del Drago from Corsica. On the night of the dinner all the guests assembled, eagerly expecting a thrill, which they certainly received when at eight o’clock in walked Lehr holding by the hand the guest of honor, a small monkey correctly attired in full evening dress. The dinner was a great success, but newspaper reporters accused Lehr and Mrs. Fish of having held up American society to ridicule. 

Another of the decidedly ‘different’ entertainments was the ‘Dogs’ Dinner,’ to which Harry Lehr invited about a hundred dogs and their masters. The menu was stewed liver and rice, fricassee of bones, and shredded dog biscuit. The dinner was greatly appreciated; the guests ate until they could eat no more, and Elisha Dyer’s dachshund so over- taxed its capacities that it fell unconscious by its plate and had to be carried home. A reporter happened to crash the party and the next day scathing columns appeared in the newspapers. Preachers throughout the country denounced Lehr for wasting on dog food money that would have fed hundreds of starving people. 

The Gilded Age’s grand mansions on Cliff Walk and Ocean Drive (many of which are now museums and can be visited today) were sardonically criticized by the Guide: 

An 11 -mile highway loop connects up the estates of the area [affording] scenes of that spectacular effort of America’s first big crop of millionaires to establish themselves as the top crust of the social pie. Just as the returning generals and colonial administrators of ancient Rome, the new- rich of the Roman Empire, spent fabulous sums reproducing the art works of the older Greek civilization and sent their antique- dealers scurrying to the older cities to buy up statues by Praxiteles and other choice bits to adorn their show-places, so the new American millionaires built elegant copies of the chateaux and palaces of Europe, or, more often, grotesque combinations of the most expensive and ornate features of half a dozen of them, and raided Europe for ornaments and furnishings. Many of these structures remain along the drive, weathered now and softened by thick shrubbery. 

The mansions are described in (justifiably) sarcastic tones. Here are two: 

The Breakers … is a pretentious palace of Caen stone with red tiled roof. The original house, owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, was burned in 1893. Soon afterward $3,000,000 was spent to make the present mansion the most striking and magnificently appointed of Newport ‘cottages.’ This three-and-a-half- story stone structure, of which R. M. Hunt was the architect, has on one side a semicircular porch resembling the apse of a cathedral. The center of the house has a two-story loggia facing the garden. The interior is embellished with mosaic work and carved stone. Some of the interior walls are finished in light-green Cipollino marble. A mosaic in one of the ceilings portrays a bathing chamber in ancient Pompeii. The loggias and the tympani of the arches are decorated in Italian Renaissance designs. 

The Marble Palace, 1.7 m. (L), the home of Frederick Prince, … is in the Renaissance vernacular. An imposing Corinthian portico, extending to the roof, dominates the front. The exterior is of white Rutland marble and stone from Caen, France. A curved balustraded driveway hides the base of the portico. 

The front doors are protected by ornate Louis XIV metal gates that cost more than $50,000, and required the labor of 50 men for more than a year. They are 25 feet wide by 16 feet high and are of bronze and iron, with gold leaf on the inside. 

The vestibule of the house has walls and floor of yellow French marble, with a paneled ceiling 60 feet high supported by heavy columns. The dining-room from floor to ceiling is finished in different shades of Numidian marble, carved with 

figures in bas-relief. The walls of the drawing room blaze with crystal and gold. The walls and ceiling of the mistress’ chamber are of carved black walnut with padded silk panels. The master’s chamber is finished in light woods. The portable furnishings of the house are worth more than a million dollars. 

You get the idea. 

Instead of visiting the Newport 400’s homes, I decided to have a look at their cars. Automobiles were a new invention and a major preoccupation with the swells: 

Automobiles were introduced in Newport about 1899. An automobile parade given on September 7, 1899, by a number of cottage residents is said to be the first parade of horseless carriages in the country. There were nineteen automobiles in the parade, prizes being won by Mrs. Herman Oelrichs and Mrs. Stuyvesant Le Roy. Electric runabouts were the most useful and fashionable cars with the summer residents, for they were easily managed by ladies. The society women gave pet names to their automobiles, such as ‘Puff-puff,’ ‘Angelica,’ and ‘Toby.’ 

A number of these spectacular vehicles can be seen at the Audrain Automoblie Museum on Bellevue Avenue. I found it impossible to choose a favorite among the Rolls Royces, 

Deusenbergs and Packards. Each one was not only splendid but was of infinitely better taste that the mansions of its owner. 

The Gilded Age began to draw to a close after World War I and the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act . For decades after, the houses of Cliff Walk were threatened with destruction but, in the past 30 years, the Newport Preservation Society has worked to preserve them. Today, just as in 1939, modern visitors find them pretentious but impossible to ignore. The Audrain museum was virtually empty when I visited but I saw streams of tourists visiting the nearby mansions on the same day. 

Fern L. Nesson August, 2021