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History Bytes

History Bytes: Gas Lighting in Newport

During much of December in Newport, sunset is stuck at 4:16 P.M. and people are scrambling to accomplish outdoor tasks before the street lights come on.  Street illumination with candles and smudge pots can be traced back centuries, but gas lighting in America can be credited to David Melville (1773-1856) of Newport. A pewterer by trade and manufacturer of housewares, Melville experimented with hydrogenous gas, made from burning coal and wood. In 1805 he illuminated his house and sidewalk on the corner of Thames and Pelham Streets with gas. By 1810 he had secured a U.S. Patent. With partnerships in Boston and Providence, Melville tried to promote his invention but costs were too prohibitive. He even tried to light the Beavertail Light House with gas in 1817, but lobbying from whale oil interests in Nantucket and New Bedford killed the proposal after one year, despite support from William Ellery and other congressmen. Discouraged, Melville returned to metalwork, but lived long enough to see the creation of the Newport Gas Light Company in 1853.

Image: Diagram of “Double gas apparatus at Newport Light House” from David Melville’s 1817-1818 Meteorological Diary

History Bytes: Newport Cabinetmakers

The Yale University Art Gallery recently unveiled the exhibit Art and Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture, 1650-1830 which features several pieces from the Newport Historical Society’s collections, including a side chair made by Job Townsend. The Townsends and their contemporaries the Goddards are renowned Newport cabinetmaking families linked in history through their craft and through marriage.

The first Townsends were early settlers of Providence, as well as the towns of Flushing and Oyster Bay, Long Island. These were New York Quaker communities with many Rhode Island connections. The Goddards descended from Henry Goddard, a weaver from Quedgeley, Gloucestershire (b. 1665), Dartmouth, Massachusetts and Jamestown, Rhode Island.

Later generations of Townsends and Goddards settled in the predominately Quaker section of Newport, “The Point,” and there established friendships through trade, community and the Quaker Meeting. Intermarriages between the families were inevitable, as in the case of two Goddard brothers marrying two Townsend sisters, helping to ensure dynastic survival.

Image: Witnesses at the marriage of John Goddard to Hannah Townsend, held at the Great Friends Meeting House on 6 August 1746, a virtual festival of cabinetmakers, joiners and artisans. Included is the family of Samuel Casey, silversmith of South Kingstown, and kinsman Governor Gideon Wanton.

History Bytes: Old Port Days

In the 1920s, Newporters looked internally to their own origins and the birth of the nation. Colonial revival decoration and architecture were increasingly popular and the great period of the 18th century was celebrated with festivals, house tours, music and costumes.

Old Port Days began in 1929 as an all-day block party on Washington Street to raise money for the restoration of the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House, Newport’s first historic house museum. The Old Port group hosted similar events through the 1930s and 40s, as well as provided educational programs about history and architecture. In 1963, Old Port morphed into Operation Clapboard, the beginning of the city-wide house restoration movement.

Above: Residents from the Point neighborhood wearing historic costumes greet visitors for tours of the “Hunter House” (St. Joseph’s Convent) in 1929.