Nanaline Duke: Collector and Influencer

About NRF / News / Nanaline Duke: Collector and Influencer

To celebrate Women’s History Month, we are highlighting women collectors, artists, and makers who are an important part of the stories we tell at NRF.

Although Rough Point is not featured in HBO’s The Gilded Age show, it was certainly part of the real Gilded Age.

Just as fictional Bertha Russell plays an important role in the success of her family—including her husband’s business interests—so did Nanaline Duke. She knew how to successfully navigate society and to help her husband make and strengthen business connections through society events like dinners. She was responsible for creating a comfortable, well-ordered home by furnishing, decorating and arranging the spaces, and managing the household staff.

Newport was a center for the social elite to spend their summers. The Duke family vacationed in Newport long before they purchased Rough Point in 1922. Over the next two years, Nanaline worked to make Rough Point a showcase and an attractive place to host society events.

She was very hands-on and corresponded with the design firms and decorators working on the renovations (as she was during the construction on the Duke house on 78th Street and 5th Ave. in 1909). Although American women may have had limited rights—and only were guaranteed the right to vote in 1920—they exercised their economic buying power. Besides being involved with the design of the rooms, Nanaline also purchased objects and furnishings for Rough Point.

This invoice from June of 1924 is a list from shopping excursions to a local Newport store, John H. Kazanjian & Co., specializing in “Oriental” wares. Items Nanaline purchased included 15 dining room chairs (and 15 wastebaskets!), 2 sugar bowls, 16 pillows, and many other assorted household goods.

There is a tendency to dismiss women’s shopping in this period as frivolous and unimportant. In fact, the press would later dismiss daughter Doris Duke’s behavior as “shopping” when she was in the process of amassing a significant collection of art from Southeast Asia and from the Islamic world.

But middle-class and wealthy women—through their purchases, their social rituals, and philanthropic work—helped shape American consumer culture (the rise of big department stores!), ideas about philanthropy and charitable giving, and collections of objects that are collected and stewarded in museums today.

Our upcoming exhibition, Inspired by Asia: Highlights from the Duke Family Collection, also explores the role Nanaline played in collecting art and design from Asia. Many of the objects on display at Rough Point today were purchased by Nanaline Duke—discover Nanaline’s influence on Rough Point’s design the next time you visit.



1) Portrait of Nanaline Duke, wife of James B. Duke. By Douglas Chandor (1897-1953) ca. 1931. Oil on canvas. On display in the Nanaline Duke building in Duke University.
2) Rough Point Receipt, 1924, courtesy of Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Durham, NC.