The Gilded Age mansions in Newport, Rhode Island are a time capsule, providing a glimpse into a lifestyle of wretched excess that gripped the upper echelons of U.S. society during the late 19th century. 

And as the Dowager Countess of Grantham quipped, “Nothing succeeds like excess”.

Our friends John and Leanne were visiting, and are always up for a jaunt to Newport. We visited The Breakers together on their last visit.

This time our destination was a behind the scenes tour, called “A Servant’s Life”, at The Elms. I’m fascinated by the inner workings of these monolithic houses, and The Elms gives a unique perspective.  

The original owner, Edward Julius Berwind, was a coal baron and apparently as interested in the guts of the house as he was in the decoration of it. He was fascinated by technology; the Elms was fully wired for electricity with no backup system, very unusual for the time when Newport families believed that electricity was a passing phase. And no wonder! Electric light bulbs lasted only 6 to 8 hours, thus required constant replacement. Ha! We complain about them burning out after a couple of years!

The tour began at the circular driveway entrance to the basement, concealed by thick wisteria, designed such that guests in the upper floors could not see the comings and goings of all the tradespeople and their vehicles.

I imagine this must be spectacular in the spring, when the wisteria is blooming!

Upon entering the basement, the first thing that strikes one is the height of the ceilings, (which have to be 12′ to 14′) and how clean and pleasant are the surroundings. The walls are entirely covered in white subway tile, the floor is paved with terrazzo edged with a tile in Greek key pattern, and the doors themselves are oak, often with glass inserts. It’s all all designed for easy maintenance and to provide the maximum amount of light..

Our guide was well versed in the history of the house and clearly knew what he was doing. We went immediately up to the top floor to begin the tour – get the climb over with! I was impressed with my tour companions’ fitness. We climbed up four stories, (82 steps) and not a huff or puff from anyone. 

The focus on practicality and comfort was again evident. This modern-looking glass tile insert in the floor allowed additional light into the floor below. The servants’ quarters on the third floor were light and airy. The bedrooms were all single occupancy (very unusual for the time, when 3 or 4 to a room was common) and very spacious – about 12′ x 12′. Each bedroom had a lock, and the key was kept only by the occupant. All in, very comfortable accommodation, especially for the time. 

The third floor had a total of 16 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms. The bathrooms were frequently employed. The footmen all wore full livery made of wool, in the heat of Newport summers. The rule of the house was that if a trickle of sweat appeared on the brow of a footman, he was to remove himself and bathe for 45 minutes until he cooled down. Footmen were for show, as well as for service, and having them present creditable appearance was paramount.

The Berwinds employed 43 servants; 27 inside the house and 16 outside. The indoor staff travelled with the family when they returned to New York for the winter. The outdoor staff remained in Newport to maintain the property. Not all the staff stayed at the house. Once they got settled in their positions, many elected to find rooms in town and maintain some independence. Married staff, especially, tended to live off site. 

One servant remained by this call box on the third floor at all times, to answer requests from any of the myriad guest rooms and despatch assistance as required. At the turn of the century, distinguished persons did not use the telephone. When they wished to communicate with someone, they sent a note, despatched by a footman, who waited for a response to be penned, and then brought the return note back to the original sender.

The staff were largely immigrants, as you can see from the 1915 and 1925 census lists. The class hierarchy dictated that Butlers and Housekeepers were invariably English and Cooks were French. It was here we learned the term “Useful Man”, provoking snickers from some of the female tour participants and muttered comments about “that’s an oxymoron”.  Useful Man (one James Coxheney, shown on the 1915 list) stood ready to spring into action to adjust a window shade an inch or two to block out the light, or other such momentous tasks, necessary for the comfort of the guests.  

The Elms opened in the summer of 1901. The Berwinds entertained on a grand scale, holding parties for between 200 and 300 guests several times a week. The servants worked 12 to 14 hour days, seven days a week. No time off for two months. It was gruelling and exhausting work. At the beginning of the summer of 1902, the staff went on strike, demanding shorter work days and some time off. Mr. Berwind, accustomed to dealing with labour disputes in the coal mines, replied succinctly that they were all dismissed. So all the servants packed up and left. A complete new staff was hired post-haste, but ironically, under very different conditions. This new crew got a 10 hour day and one afternoon off a week. Times were a changing…

At the end of the long hallway on the third floor, a door opens onto the parapet which runs around the perimeter of the house.  It’s about 12′ wide, and the servants could sit out and enjoy the sunshine on fine days. Single female and male staff stayed on one floor, which was a bit of a shock for the female staff, accustomed to separate quarters for male and female staff back in Europe. Uneasy with this egalitarian arrangement, they requested additional security in the form of iron grates on the windows that faced the parapet. This is the view from the top of the house, showing Newport Harbour.

This is the Tea House, where Mrs. Berwind would entertain female guests in the late afternoon. A footman would bring a tray of delicious scones, tea cakes and sandwiches from the main house.

Weeping Beech trees dot the landscape at these Newport Mansions. They’re absolutely magnificent. The elm trees, for which the property was named, were wiped out by Dutch Elm disease, but property owners have been diligent in replacing them with other species.

I found this picture of the area under the canopy of one of the weeping beech trees. It was taken almost 20 years ago on one of our previous trips to Newport. Wouldn’t it make the most wonderful play house for kids?


Back down the stairs we went, and passed what was for me, the piece de resistance of the whole tour. The Butler’s Pantry! I quickly snuck in a few shots. (On a side note, I had forgotten my “real” camera, so was left with my iPhone. John had brought his point-and-shoot camera, and between us we managed pretty well). 

The butler’s pantry is on two floors, with a dumb waiter in one corner to ease the movement of delicate tableware.

We have to go back for the “inside of the house” tour at some point, probably in the fall, and I’ll post more then. 🙂


Back in the basement, we went through the laundry area. One look at the implements used to process laundry at the turn of the century is enough to make me very thankful for my automatic washer. That round implement with the wooden dowels is the original agitator, with the agitation being done manually. Oy!

Here is one of the many storage cabinets in the basement.

It stored the many lightbulbs needed to maintain the house. The dangling lightbulb socket in the middle is a tester, so that bulbs could be checked before the party in question climbed the ladder to change the bulb – a frequent occurrence!

The family brought their silver with them when they travelled, and specially constructed trunks with depressions for the individual pieces of silver were used to transport it.  


We went through the basement box room containing wonderful vintage luggage, some of it Louis Vuitton. Very valuable, apparently! 

We saw the true guts of the house. Mr. Berwind, ever practical, had a rail track installed so that great coal scuttles could be pushed straight into the furnace room.

It could not have been easy  – those cars weighed a ton or more!

There is a turnstile for the coal scuttles in the middle of the basement floor.

Three enormous coal-fed furnaces warmed the house and heated the vast quantities of water needed for all those baths. Full-time engineers tended the furnaces, as they were quite temperamental. The temperature in the furnace room never got below 115 degrees F, so it was not a pleasant task.

In the winter, huge blocks of ice were cut from nearby ponds and stored packed in sawdust in an icehouse on the property. The blocks were brought to the house and placed in this container, where they would remain frozen until needed. They were swung out of the storage container on big ice hooks and then taken over to the sink to be chopped up.

This is the icebox, original to the house. It’s the precursor to a modern refrigerator.  

Here is the modern fridge that eventually replaced it!

The pastry chef worked right outside the icebox, as the chilly ambient temperature ensured the delicate pastries and ices did not melt before they could be served.

The end of the tour took us through the kitchens and back to the circular driveway.

All that luscious, gleaming copper!

Lunch beckoned, so we didn’t go on the main house tour. John had to use the facilities before we departed, and managed to snap off a couple of quick pics of the main floor on his way. It’s well worth a return visit (when I have my full camera).

In case you’re wondering about the fate of the Berwind family, unlike many of their counterparts, they continue to prosper into today. “The Elms” still features in their current line of business, which among other things, is the production of Elmer’s glue. 🙂

When looking for the picture of the inside of the weeping birch, I also found this shot of my family goofing around outside The Breakers, c. 1998. Note the wild hair on my better half, and his now-thankfully-departed moustache. (I think the kids managed to persuade him that it was ageing about 10 years ago, and off it came.) Working to the right are Lauren, Kirsten, Stephanie (with her arms spread wide) and I think Adam is crouched down behind Steph. They’ve all grown a bit (?!), and most of them have little ones of their own, the eldest of whom is about Lauren’s age in this shot. Wow – time does fly…

Enjoy the weekend, folks!

I’m sharing this post with Between Naps on the Porch.