Golf and the Gilded Age at Newport Golf Club

“‘Ochre Court,’ Residence of Mrs. Ogden Goelet”. Newport: Our Social Capital, 1905.

It’s probably no consolation for last week’s heat wave but if you were a well-heeled New Yorker living in the late nineteenth century, you would probably be spending the sultry days of summer living it up in Newport, RI. Not surprisingly, the story of Newport and New York’s richest dwellers is well documented at the N-YHS. An interesting source is the register of the Newport Golf Club (1893-1898). It records visitors, their address, the length of time they plan to use the course, the fees paid, and the name of the member who referred them. Even if you’re not a particular fan of golf, like their cottages, the register is a reflection of the larger story of the Gilded Age as told through Newport.

Interestingly, wealthy southerners first popularized the city as a summer getaway, that is until the Civil War facilitated a geographic shift. Consequently, New Yorkers became fixtures in Newport’s summer social season by the time the Gilded Age was in full swing.

If you’re at all familiar  with the area, you’ll certainly know that period was heavily characterized by overt displays of wealth, specifically in the form of  voluptuous summer houses or “cottages” that have become a main attraction of modern Newport. Although architectural marvels in terms of design and style, these massive structures invariably served as nouveau riche statements of respectability as well. In a sense, they sought to create a de facto American aristocracy with Europe as its model. This translated into facades and interiors heavily influenced by existing Old  World buildings and motifs, designed by the foremost American architects, which were at times beautiful and at others garish — and sometimes both.

The Newport Golf Club itself was founded in 1893. Although it is certainly not the first golf club in the United States, it is among the earlier incorporated clubs, and played an active role in the development of the American game. In fact, it was involved in the founding of the United States Golf Association while hosting both the first U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open championships.

Since golf had existed in one form or another for quite a long time before this, it may seem strange to be talking about its American “birth” so far down the road. However, save a few scattered references, golf’s foothold in North America had remained negligible until the very late nineteenth century. While it is likely only a small part of the explanation, it is telling that the well-to-do, especially the newly minted, took up the game in droves during the Gilded Age. After all, this was the “Royal and Ancient”, European game and a connection can be made to the houses of Newport and how dearly these interlopers wanted to replicate the style of their European counterparts. So it seems that in golf the wealthy may have found an activity that served a similar function as material culture. It also didn’t hurt that the expense essentially required one to be wealthy in the first place. As the New York Herald suggested in 1894, “this alone would serve to make it the game par excellence of our social elite.”

Getting back to the register, the names in the volume are a mixture of lesser known, but still financially successful, and the celebrity rich. Among the former is Edward Neufville Tailer, a dry goods merchant from New York whose name shows up on more than one occasion. And, it so happens that his diary at the N-YHS documents the first trip.

Names from the latter group include Cornelius Vanderbilt, Anthony J. Drexel, Stuyvesant Fish, August Belmont, Teddy Wharton (Edith’s husband), Ward McAllister and yes, even Ulysses Grant. Among the visitors were even the literal architects of Newport’s society, with Ogden Codman, Stanford White and Charles Follen McKim all appearing. But it’s names like Count Louis Szechenyi, Prince Xavier Drucki Lubecki, Count Kessler, Baron Seilliere, Count J. Sierstorpff, Lord Westmeath, Grand Duke Alexander of Russia, and the Marquis and Comte de Chasseloup-Leubat that bring us full circle. Here, in the pages of the club’s register, are representatives of the very establishment that the summer inhabitants of Newport were actually emulating.

If you’re a fan of the Gilded Age, you may be interested in the current exhibition at the N-YHS, Beauties of the Gilded Age: Peter Marié’s Miniatures of Society Women, open until September 9, 2012.




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