A Dependent People: Newport, Rhode Island in the Revolutionary Era

By Elaine Forman Crane | Go to book overview
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A Mercantile Metropolis

IF THE AERIAL BALLOON had been invented a generation earlier than it was, and if someone had been wafting in one over Newport harbor on a fine spring day--say in the early 1760s--he (or she) might have noticed that Newport's spatial patterns reflected a thriving commercial center. This did not necessarily mean that the town was crowded--even by eighteenth- century standards. Tiny in comparison to the great cities of London and Paris (each of which had over half-a-million people), Newport at the height of its pre-Revolutionary population could not claim even 10,000 people. 2 It was urban, nonetheless. Newport was large and bustling by American criteria, even though the congested alleyways that were beginning to dot Philadelphia were still alien to it. The word "compact" describes Newport best; the town did not sprawl very far from the waterfront, which was the hub of activity. Wharves stretched for about a mile along the marvelously protected harbor. Sometimes, if the warehouses or wharves were filled to capacity, the tall ships, their billowy sails now semi-furled, would wend their way in and out of the old wooden piers searching for a likely spot to unload merchandise. The sea gulls, attracted by the smell of fish and spilled rum, screeched their delight, adding to the cacophony of the waterfront. Most of the ongoing conversations concerned trade, because in Newport everyone (or nearly everyone) had something to sell. Almost every Newporter was a merchant to some extent. The great merchants had their docks and warehouses and stores on Thames Street next to the water; the petty tradesmen cornered an extra counter in someone's shop. Shalloon and ozenbrig were sold at homes and in stores added on to homes. Gimblets and rattinet were bartered off a ship before it fully tied up. Kitterns changed hands on the dock after a round of serious bargaining, and hawkers and hucksters went from street to street haggling with their customers over a few pence worth of calamanco. 3

If further evidence of commercial activity (and prosperity) should be needed, it would be found in the impressive homes built on Water and


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A Dependent People: Newport, Rhode Island in the Revolutionary Era


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