Monday, July 4, 2022

The Rebranding of American Wilderness, as seen through historic postcards

historic postcard

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. 

historic postcards

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. 

historic postcard

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. 

historic postcard

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). 


historic postcardThe 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.

historic postcard

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. 

historic postcards

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.

Margie Amodeo is the Coordinator at the Kelly Adirondack Center of Union College. In the Adirondack Research Library, she has encouraged and facilitated research by faculty, students, and the community since 2013. The collections at the ARL focus on the grassroots environmental movements that, figuratively and quite literally, shaped the Adirondack Park.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

10 Responses

  1. louis curth says:

    Was the branding of wilderness a marketing strategy or a natural progression? Margie Amodeo see evidence of both among the post cards.

    To me, growing up in the southern Adirondacks during the 1950s, Adirondack post cards are like bones and broken bits of pottery from an era of “wilderness” experience shaped by visitors who still traveled by train to Riparius and bought their cards at the variety store opposite the station.

    Soon that “wilderness experience” was supplanted by the auto tourists traveling on that Adirondack mainstay, the rough and rutted Rt. 9. They sent their picture post cards from Chestertown, selected from the racks of cards on display beside the soda fountains at Jansers Drugs and T.J. Fish. Glens Falls photographer Richard K. Dean’s name would adorn many of them.

    Much like William H.H. Murray and Seneca Ray Stoddard, the tourism that followed World War II helped yet another generation of visitors to discover the Adirondacks and to become devotees and defenders of this place. It also benefitted many local people and brought growth and prosperity to many parts of the Adirondacks that we are still wrestling with.

    In its own own over-commercialized way, this progression of events put many of my generation on course to discover a deeper understanding of what wilderness was all about and to become its staunch defenders. The humble Adirondack post card is a fond artifact from that era.

    • Thank you for sharing your story, Lou! I really like the analogy of bones and broken bits of pottery. We’re so fortunate that generations of people saw the value in saving these postcards. All you need is one generation to dismiss them and toss them out to lose that connection to the past.

  2. JB says:

    Leave it to a historian to crack the lid open on big questions. This is why we need history.

    The story of the American picturesque is really a story about the American quest for mobility: colonialism, extractive frontiers, urbanization, tourism. Our society is more mobile than just about any other, and, when faced with a problem, we always seem to look to elsewhere for solutions. “Picturesque” implies exceptional, but it also implies foreign, unfamiliar, unreal. The real trick is to find the sublime in the unexceptional.

    • Balian the Cat says:

      Dare I add “awe & exaltation” to you list, JB.

    • Your comment reminded me of sentiments expressed by Asher B. Durand in his Letters on Landscape Painting, published in The Crayon. In rereading some of them I found this, written in 1855, that surely supports your comment. “The humblest scenes of your successful labors will become hallowed ground to which, in memory at least, you will make many a joyous pilgrimage, and, like Rosseau, in the fullness of your emotions, kiss the very earth that bore the print of your oft-repeated footsteps.”

  3. Todd Eastman says:

    The European experience of wildness (not wilderness) could be found in the mid-1800s in the rugged Alpine peaks of the Alps and the Arctic zone of Scandinavia.

    The barren glacier-scoured terrain was used for grazing in the zones below the icefields and jagged peaks.

    Like the Adirondacks, the opportunities for tourism became the driving force as the high Alpine valleys with their tiny seasonal villages became developed to host tourists and their money.

    • Do you have any recommendations for those of us interested in reading more on this evolution in European tourism? I’d really like to know more about how it compared and contrasted with the history of the Adirondack experiment.

  4. LeRoy Hogan says:

    Very nice thank you

  5. Daniel Way says:

    Very interesting article! I agree that the Hudson River School had a very powerful impact on America’s view of the natural world in general and New York in particular. One artist, who was a photographer more than a painter, was Seneca Ray Stoddard. He had as much impact as the others you mentioned, especially since he made not only photographic post cards and prints, but stereographs- which were a sensation starting in the 1870’s.

    • The scope of Seneca Ray Stoddard’s work is remarkable. His illustrated guide books on Lake Champlain, Lake George, and Saratoga are a real window into those areas of the Adirondacks in the late 19th century as well. I wonder to what degree his work was influenced by his being a native Adirondacker and to what degree his work was affected by his desire to create a clear narrative for tourists.

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