In the late 19th to early 20th century, America entered a Gilded Age of extraordinary industrial and economic progress. The Vanderbilt family, who made a fortune building railroads in their New York Central Rail company, along with several other powerful industrial families (coal, gold, shipping), were the closest American society ever had to royalty.
It was customary, at this time, for American society's very elite, to build and own summer cottages, as they were called, in Newport County, Rhode Island, for the sole purpose of hosting the most exclusive balls and parties during the summer season. And so for the two short summer months that these cottages would be occupied by its owners, Newport became the social capital of America, where any respectable American businessman and socialite would want to see and be seen.
M and I entered the enormous two-story 2500 square-feet ballroom of The Breakers, the heart of the mansion. I felt as if I had been transported to 17th century Italy. Warm Italian marble covered every inch of the ballroom, 18, 22 or 24-carat gold (different shades) adorned the walls, limestone sculptures celebrated the arts, sciences, and industry, and a huge sweeping staircase allowed for the grandest entry any young woman at her debutant ball could ever dream of.
These mansions were built with the best and most expensive materials imported from Europe (The Marble House mansion is entirely made up of marble, with 500,000 cubic feet of it). Entire rooms were often crafted by the best artisans in Europe, shipped to America in pieces, and then assembled. Marble baths were customary, which required that it be filled with hot water seven times before it would be warm enough to bathe. And of course, its owners would buy up entire collections of 16th and 17th century European paintings, tapestry, silverware, and China to fill up their enormous palaces.
In many ways, Newport cottages were constructed to be like European palaces, but not without the newest American technologies that allowed them to run with incredible efficiency. Electricity, a very early invention at that time, lit up every chandelier in the house. Running water, both fresh and sea (the latter was thought to be good for the skin when bathed in once per week) was in every bathroom. And the telephone allowed for one of the first intercom systems in the world (it was considered incredibly distasteful to call one up on the telephone, so they were solely used within the home).
With 48 bedrooms (33 of which were servant bedrooms) and 20 bathrooms, The Breakers required a staff of 40 to run smoothly.
Like their husbands, Newport women were often well-educated and studied art, music, history and the sciences. On a typical day, a woman could change her outfit up to 7 times - one for the beach, one for tennis, another for golf, one for afternoon tea, one for riding, and another for the evening. But of course, the most important goal of the summer was to host the season's most extravagant party. A successful socialite would need to host at least six balls of 600-people each during the season, each of which would easily cost half a million dollars in those day's money.
The lives and ultimate fates of these women paralleled the beginnings of social change in the early 20th century. Many women of these vast fortunes arranged for their daughters to be married off to European Dukes and Counts, in exchange of course, for a hefty dowry. Only through respectable marriage, they believed, could their daughters gain independence and power.
But some, like Alva Beaumont of the Marble House mansion, had little patience for traditions. Alva shocked society when she divorced her husband in 1895. Bold and courageous, she often took up gentleman sports and eventually became a leader in the Women's Suffrage Movement.
Lasting just 30 years, the Gilded Age ended just as quickly as it began - mainly due to the introduction of the Personal Income Tax that made these cottages simply too expensive to upkeep. They were due to be demolished in the following decades, but were saved by the Preservation Society of Newport County, who through generous donations, made multi-million dollar renovations that allowed these mansions to be opened up to the public.
In many ways, the Newport Mansions tell the extraordinary stories of the rise of early American society - a time of great opportunity underneath which lied deep social problems, and the regulations that followed that led to the demise of family fortunes and the rise of Corporate America.