Current History at The Newport Historical Society

(Editor's note:  This address was given by Executive Director of the Newport Historical Society Ruth Taylor to a group of guests from Newport at the Sailfish Club in Palm Beach. it defines and analzes the work of this important institution.)


Who is the Newport Historical Society and what does it do? I am here to talk about that today, and in doing so, I am hoping to introduce the NHS those of you who don’t know us, and to maybe add to, or even change some of the ideas of those who think that you do.


Anne Fritchman Hamilton, founder of the Newport Antique Show

Ten years ago the NHS had become financially fragile, and our audience was tiny. The institution wasn’t doing much except surviving, and I will confess that it wasn’t doing that in a very interesting way either. But all that has changed. 


We have become modern, lively, and useful. Currently, we have an in-person audience of 30-50 thousand individuals each year, and we reach 150,000 each year on the web. We have an active online presence, are engaged in advising planning efforts at the City and State level, and are working with some of the most celebrated national organizations of the moment, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Museum of the American Revolution.

The only extant map of Valley Forge in the NHS collection



In fact, as we engage with strategic planning, we are seeking to be as effective and broad in reach as a relatively small organization can possibly be. As part of the process, we are identifying our assets and signifiers: the tools that we have available to do our work in a unique way.


John Richmond arriving

Certainly, the specific history of Newport is an asset – and the NHS is the custodian of the whole sweep of this history over 4 centuries. This includes an extraordinarily important early history of religious freedom. But it also includes a series of legacies that carry forward: a history of creativity in crafts, art, and the art of living, of a devotion to the importance of individual liberties and the intellectual freedom that can accompany this – we in RI were among the first to resist what we saw as growing oppression by the British crown, and played a significant role in the American Revolution. A maritime history that includes being the birthplace of the American Navy, and the long-time home of the America’s Cup races. An African American story that includes slavery, the abolition movement, and a strong tradition of entrepreneurship and achievement in the black community. An economic history of piracy, international trade, and early developments in the banking and insurance

industries. A history of wild women, who preached, did business, built mansions, and in all ways subverted the norms of female behavior.


Sailfish adorn the walls of the Sailfish Club


Our collections, which embody all of these stories and more, are another great asset. You can see some highlights of the collection here, but it is large, comprehensive and fine. Not at all what you would expect in an ordinary New England small city. Let me highlight a couple of things: 


* We have the printing press that Benjamin Franklin’s brother, James, used to print the Newport Mercury starting in the 1720s and an electrical generating machine that is almost identical to the one Ben Franklin commissioned for himself in Philadelphia.

* We have the only map of Valley Forge that was drawn at the time of the encampment by Continental Army staff.

* We have an African spirit bundle left under the floorboards of our Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House by an enslaved inhabitant.

* We have clothing made in the 17th century for the earliest European settlers, and clothes made by Christian Dior and the house of Worth for summer colonists in the 20th century

* We have documents written and signed from every President from George Washington through Abraham Lincoln, and we have Lincoln’s White House desk chair, and Washington’s hair.

* We have a marine chronometer used in the race to determine longitude at sea, and

* We have a sword given by the Marquis deLafayette to Newport’s Daniel Lyman.

We have objects and documents that connect New port’s history to Moby Dick, to Anna and the King of Siam, to the Statue of Liberty and to all of the world’s great wars.

Ruth Taylor, Susan Jacquet, Charlotte Willis & Elizabeth Leatherman


But you don’t have to trust me – a good chunk of our collections can be found online, and more are being added all the time . And even better, this summer, you can join us for a tour of the collections facility and view some of these amazing items from the vault.


Patti Rakolta, Linda PUrdy & Kim Herrlinger

Our strengths in programming are another asset. We use traditional programming methods like conferences, lectures, exhibits, and walking tours; these are high quality offerings and will be available this summer. But, we also use some new tools – like video and other digital resources. Most entertainingly, we are employing a group of highly trained costumed interpreters to bring history to life on the streets of Newport in a series of staged recreations of historical events. Newport, with its unusual survival of so much of its early built environment, becomes a perfect stage for this kind of program, which reaches an unexpected audience – they walk around a corner in downtown Newport, and there we are.

Kathleen Becket, Susan Jaquet & Diana Bell


Recently, the State of RI made an application to be considered for status as a World Heritage site. I was chair of the Statewide commission that lead the effort. We based our request on the fact that Rhode Island was the first place in the modern, Atlantic world to codify, legally, the principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state. RI did this in our Charter of 1663, obtained from King Charles II – but initiated, and most likely written, by Providence’s Roger Williams and Newport’s John Clarke. The big ideas about liberty and tolerance on which Rhode Island was founded were earlier, more comprehensive, and longer lasting than any other American colony. There is a strong argument to be made that without the ideas, and the example, of Rhode Island, American democracy would not have developed as it did.


Kim Herrlinger, Susan Bell & friend

We also knew that the National Park Service was looking for sites that celebrated American religious diversity – and of the course the founding principles of RI attracted Quakers, Jews, non-believers, every variety of Protestant and even some Catholics, who lived and worked and made money together in Newport – creating an environment that also contributed to the development of an American economic system that has been the envy of the world.


So why did we get turned down? Because the case we made – carefully documented and without hyperbole – was simply not considered credible by the experts assembled to assess the application. This is demonstrably nonsense. But it identifies a challenge.

Newport, and Rhode Island’s history is not well known, taught, or understood. The reasons for this are varied, but the result is that even people who have studied American history, and think they know the broad outlines of the history of the first colonies, do not know anything about Rhode Island. And, as we are learning, when people know what they think they know, it takes a bit of an earthquake to change that paradigm. NHS wants to be that earthquake – in the nicest possible way. But we need your help, and the help of a growing group of ambassadors and supporters to do so.


Elizabeth Leatherman, Molly Mele, Eileen Douglas & Nick Mele


Public history organizations like museums and historic sites have come under fire a bit lately – there is a notion that the public is not interested in history. This is clearly not at all true; we demonstrate our interest in history every day in our pursuit of genealogy, in our devouring of historical fiction and costume dramas, in the incredible success of Hamilton: An American Musical, for example. We love history – but we need to make a connection, and we don’t want to be bored. Luckily, history is as fascinating as humans are. It is also very useful – not a dry or pointless activity at all. And at this moment in our lives, with so much change all around us, history can provide context, examples, and data about how we have managed things, or failed to, in times past. 


Peter Denton, Ernest Jacquet & Audrey Denton

Newport and Rhode Island’s history – with its economic, cultural, religious, political and military achievements – has many lessons that are useful for today. It is our desire to offer this history to the public, to make it entertaining enough to catch their attention, and accurate enough to be useful, that drives us. And while we have made great strides in the past ten years, we have a way to go to get to a place where we can be fully sustainable and consistently effective. As we build our audiences, our support is also growing, but we continue to need a broader circle of consistent supporters.


Matt Hamilton listens to Ruth Taylor's address



So, right now I am not asking you all for anything but this – please look through our materials here, and look at our website when you get home. Most importantly, visit us when you are in Newport. A calendar of special tours in here on the table, and I hope you can join us at one, but there are many opportunities to engage with us, and with Newport’s history. I hope you do so, and I know you will be entertained and delighted, if you do.


                                                                   --Ruth Taylor


Rochelle Ohrstrom (r.) and daughter Lysandra



Bob Evans & Dick Brickley


Jane Elebash & Jay Page



A 1766 plate donated to the NHS by Anthony & May Underwood


Ruth Taylor welcoming guests


The Historical Society building


A sponsored musical performance


Mrs. Taylor making a point


Citing NHS' accoplishments and growth


Mr. Underwood officially presenting the 1766 plate


Projecting a new fashion trend in blazers


Anthony Underwood


Scott & Carol Williams


Charlie Willis & Bob Evans


Kathleen Beckett, Sarah & Bernard Gewirz


Toby Pell & Paul Miller


Charlie Burns & Victoria Leiter Mele


Tania Smith & Sherri Grace


Tom Blake & Jack Grace


David Thalmann & Bill Leatherman












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