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Downton Abbey: Where would they vacation in America?

Downtown Abbey's Crawley family might have felt at home in the mansions of Newport, R.I. during the Gilded Age in America. Well, maybe not Downton Abbey dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith. But is anything ever good enough for her? 

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The tour begins at the servants' entrance, which is covered by an arbor and therefore hidden from view so residents upstairs wouldn't see deliveries. The guide then leads people up five flights of stairs to the servants' quarters, leading visitors to wonder how someone like Downton's war-wounded Mr. Bates could manage such exertion several times a day. (An elevator is now available for those who need it.)

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One servant's bedroom is furnished as it might have been at the time. One displays census records that show the names, occupations and countries of birth of the Berwind household's domestic staff: around a dozen maids, footmen and others from countries as varied as England, France, Germany and Sweden, a difference from the servants at Downton, who are mostly English, save a few including the Scottish housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, and Irish chauffeur turned son-in-law, Tom Branson.

Another includes the story of the dismissal of the entire staff in 1902 after they asked for more time off, said John Tschirch, director of museum affairs at the mansions, who did much of the research on which the tour is based. The Berwinds replaced them with new servants brought up from New York.

Other bedrooms display photos of servants, as well as journals and other documents, many provided by servants' descendants. One shows a maid standing next to a rocking chair on the home's roof, which was a de facto porch for the staff. In the window next to her are flowers in pots.

In another photo, the Berwind household's longtime butler Ernest Birch, who married the cook, sits on a chair outside the mansion surrounded by footmen. One, much like Downton's footman-turned-valet-turned-assistant butler Thomas, seems to be throwing a little attitude.

Census records from 1895 show that around 10 percent of the population in Newport was domestic servants. Tschirch said staff would have "kitchen ratchets," parties in the kitchens of the different mansions, with food galore.

"That's where all the gossip was," he said. "You think of a social summer resort, the stories the servants could tell about each other, the people in town, the fashion."

Much of the information has come from servants' relatives who heard the Preservation Society wanted to hear from anyone who had lived or visited there, not just the owners. Tschirch said all kinds of family lore has surfaced, including a story about the cook, Mrs. Birch, whose finger was clawed by a lobster and had to be removed.

They're still looking for more, he said.

"The descendants," Tschirch said, "are beginning to feel that these houses are part of their family histories, too."

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