By Margie Amodeo
In his “Essay on American Scenery,” Thomas Cole wrote that whether an American “beholds the Hudson mingling water with the Atlantic – explores the central wilds of this vast continent, or stands on the margins of distant Oregon, he is still in the midst of American scenery – it is his own land; its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity – all are his; and how undeserving of such a birthright, if he can turn towards it an undeserving eye, an unaffected heart!”
Those who read the Adirondack Almanack regularly know it is not revolutionary to write that tourism in the Adirondacks became a model for tourism in the American consciousness. What has made such an impression on me, scanning over 1,200 postcards as a part of a digitization project in the Adirondack Research Library at the Kelly Adirondack Center of Union College, is how inextricably linked Adirondack tourists’ experiences are with American identity.
For most early 19th century Americans, the idea of experiencing wilderness was daunting at best. For many it was outright fearsome. Changing people’s interpretations of the wild through rebranding American wilderness would require carefully crafting a new narrative. Whether this new wilderness brand was a conscious marketing strategy or a natural progression is debatable. I see it as a bit of both.
While the Native Peoples of North America understood that they were a part of the natural world, until the 1820s most Americans took nearly all their cultural cues from Europe, which included their views on wilderness. Over the course of the century, the Hudson River School movement, the rise of the new American middle class, and advancements in transportation and infrastructure would change that.
The routine use of Hudson River School art to promote American wilderness made the works a kind of visual shorthand not only for American tourism, but America itself. Americans realized that their natural environment was one of the few bases by which their new nation could be compared to others and they were quick to defend it against European criticism. As early as 1781, when Thomas Jefferson penned his Notes on Virginia, he defended the nature and resources in the New World, so comparisons between the lands of the Old and New Worlds were not new. Celebrating nature would not be enough of a distinction for American pride; all nations had natural sites of which to be proud. America, though, had wilderness. In the minds of most Americans, however, that wilderness would remain uninviting for a very long time.
Surely, timing had much to do with it as well. The country was in the midst of defining its national identity, and this, combined with other factors, encouraged a brand of 19th century tourism that heavily promoted the significance of American scenery in the minds of American people as they were in the process of defining a national identity.
This evolution of the idea of tourism in America during the 1800s was arguably dominated and defined by Northerners, especially the people of New York State. The proximity of the Catskills and Adirondacks to the people, industry, and money of New York City was crucial to their development as tourist destinations. In their travels, tourists stopped at specific spots that made an efficient use of their time. They chose spots for proximity, ease, and emotional impact. The development of the ability to travel, in almost constant motion and in such comfortable settings, made tourism accessible to the new middle class. Tourists could now more easily and comfortably travel past Albany, on trains and in carriages, to the Adirondacks. Interest in wilderness tourism was further inspired by the works of James Fenimore Cooper, William H.H. Murray, Joel Tyler Headley and others. During this time, American tourism became grounded in a carefully formed narrative written within scenery that was seemingly wild (but often, especially by the end of the century, well tamed).
The growing national ethos would inspire the popularity of an “American Grand Tour.” Sites often included bridges, canals and mills that added visual interest and evoked pride in American prosperity. This new brand, exemplified by historical landmarks, triumphs in infrastructure, and wilderness, was perceived as a symbol of American moral values and a singularly exceptional American identity. Tourism also created a market for depictions of these American scenes. The prevalence of signs of human influence in our postcard images is truly remarkable. The prevalence of American flags is extraordinary. Whether intentional or not, these images of wilderness are branded with the flag, unifying the imagery. Postcards featuring not only national landmarks but hotels, institutions, homes, and boats include, prominently, the American flag.
The newfound ability to expose so many Americans to this new American brand through these carefully crafted experiences and images played an important role in securely shifting attitudes regarding nature and wilderness. They reassured tourists as they widened their scope and altered their urban attitudes.
The fusion of the beauty of nature and the sublimity of wilderness introduced by the Hudson River School movement inspired the burgeoning American middle class to become the first generation of American tourists. For the remainder of the 19th century and beyond, this branded picturesque statement about American scenery, and in fact about America, was a new literal and metaphorical map. Tourists used it to define what they wanted to see – and the lens through which they saw it.
Tourism also created a market for depictions of American scenes. When they left, like so many museum shop customers, they sought to take an affordable piece of this experience home with them and share it with friends and family. What collectors of these postcards created was a portfolio of this new brand – this American wilderness tourists’ experience.
Most of the postcards in the collection at the Adirondack Research Library were donated by Judge George Davis of Lowville. It is currently being digitized and will be made available online. The collection is on permanent loan to Union College from Protect the Adirondacks.
Cole, Thomas. “Essay on American Scenery”. American Monthly Magazine 1, (January 1836) 1-12
Ferber, Linda S. The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision. New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2009. 63. Print.
Gassan, Richard H. The Birth of American Tourism: New York, the Hudson Valley, and American Culture, 1790-1830. Amherst: U of Massachusetts, 2008. 53. Print.
Nash, Roderick F. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967. Print.
Notes on the State of Virginia. By Thomas Jefferson. 1785.