Where Our Research Takes Us: 1880s Newport

by K.B. Owen

…or, more specifically, sea-bathing in 1880s Newport, where my latest book, THE SECRET OF THE FORTY STEPS, is set, during the summer of 1887.

sea-bathing in 1880s Newport

Forty Steps, along the Cliff Walk. Date of photo unknown, approx 1900-1910. Newport Discovery Guide (dot) com.

You may have heard of Newport, Rhode Island … the place with all the opulent summer mansions (whimsically termed “cottages”), where wealthy industrial tycoons such as Vanderbilt retreated from the workaday cares of their railroad/steel/coal/shipping empires.

Aside from the parties, promenades, and musical entertainments, one of the chief attractions of summering in Newport was the seaside. What’s not to love about sun, fresh air, and bracing salt water?

But what to wear when sea-bathing in 1880s Newport? Evening gowns and tiaras obviously wouldn’t cut it. I wondered if visiting the beach served as the great equalizer between the classes, at least in terms of attire.

I changed my mind after a bit of research.

I’m sure you’ve seen the typical bathing costume for women during that time. For us 21st century folks, it’s hard to see past the fact that there’s so much material involved–wool and flannel, no less(!). From our perspective, it practically falls into the “why bother?” category. Here’s a fashion plate from Harper’s (originally published 1880-89), for example:

sea-bathing in 18802 Newport

Look – you can see limbs! Courtesy of Dover Publications, Inc, 1974 (used with permission because under 10 images)

Wow, that’s a lot of fabric. But there’s more to the above illustration than how hot it looks. As it turns out, a wet bathing suit was not the great equalizer between classes. Notice how elaborate these bathing costumes actually are–trimmed with ribbons and lace, cut in a way that’s flattering to the figure, lots of accent buttons…even the shoes are fancy.

By contrast, middle-class bathing attire looked more like this:

sea-bathing in 1880s Newport

Capital City Courier (Lincoln, Nebraska), June 8, 1889.

The newspaper article that accompanies the sketch of this plainer bathing costume makes a number of distinctions between “fashionable Newport” and the seaside places frequented by the “more modest” middle-class. It’s pretty clear who the paper’s target audience is (apologies if it’s hard to read):

sea-bathing in 18802 Newport

(Umm…did anyone point out to the reporter the irony of writing in such detail about a wealthy woman’s bathing dress, even as she claims to “have no patience” for writing about it?) From the Capital City Courier.

So, what did the men wear while sea-bathing in 1880s Newport? In many cases…nothing.

That wasn’t a typo. Zip. Nada. It’s amazing what sticks in your mind when you pull up these research bits, you know?

Don’t worry–the gals weren’t around to see the gentlemen in their altogether.

But how did they pull that off? (Get it? hahaha).

I can at least tell you how they did it at Newport’s First Beach (also known as Easton’s Beach…only half a mile from the major hotels, mind you). They used a flag system–a red flag flying meant it was time for the men-only swim, and no suit was required. Scram, ladies.

A white flag meant the fellas had to get their clothes back on, and the ladies could return to the beach.

I know your next question: were there binoculars back then?

Yes, indeed.

New Release! The latest lady Pinkerton mystery

THE SECRET OF THE FORTY STEPS, The Fourth Chronicle of a Lady Detective

Money, love, and murder in 1880s Newport high society…

Pinkerton detective Penelope Hamilton is summoned to fashionable Newport to investigate the two-year-old death of a wealthy matron. Did she fall from the Cliff Walk’s Forty Steps in the middle of the night, as was presumed, or was she pushed by her much-younger husband?

The case is personal this time, since Pen’s client is her own mother—breaking her near-decade of silence—and the man under scrutiny is to marry Pen’s cousin in a week’s time.

The lady detective discreetly enlists the help of a local, but the inquiry quickly unravels when he turns up dead. To make things worse, Pen’s identity as a Pinkerton is uncovered by Newport’s most prominent summer resident, whose complaint to her boss brings Pen’s estranged husband and fellow Pinkerton, Frank Wynch, to Newport.

With her cousin’s wedding day nearly here and no answers yet, Pen has no choice but to accept Frank’s help while dodging his romantic overtures. Nothing like a little danger to heighten an already-fraught relationship, as they work to expose a desperate adversary…who could prove deadly to them both.

Available at these online retailers:

Amazon  ~  Apple  ~  B&N  ~  Kobo

Posted by K.B. Owen. K.B. taught college English for nearly two decades at universities in Connecticut and Washington, DC, and holds a doctorate in 19th century British literature.

A mystery lover ever since she can remember, she drew upon her teaching experiences in creating her amateur sleuth, Professor Concordia Wells…and from that series came lady Pinkerton Penelope Hamilton.

There are now seven books in the Concordia Wells mystery series, and four stories in the Penelope Hamilton series.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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  • Reply
    Shannon Esposito
    June 23, 2020 at 3:06 pm

    Ha! Interesting. Funny men can’t get away with swimming nude now days. (Unless at an actual nude beach) Personally I think swimming nude with a tiara would be the best. 🙂

    Ps. Good luck with the new release!

    • Reply
      K.B. Owen
      June 26, 2020 at 11:41 am

      Hahaha, Shan! That’s a mental image that will stay with me for a looong time. *wink* And thanks for the good wishes.

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    June 23, 2020 at 3:32 pm

    I’m laughing out loud at the image of nude with a tiara, Shannon!

    Kathy, I love your research posts. And I really enjoyed this story! Hope you have a wonderful book release day!

  • Reply
    June 25, 2020 at 12:54 pm

    I hope in your book one of the ladies uses her binoculars. I love a bit of naughty.

    • Reply
      K.B. Owen
      June 26, 2020 at 11:42 am

      LOL, Vinnie! What a surprise. *wink*

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