The Birth of American Tourism: New York, the Hudson Valley, and American Culture, 1790-1830.
Richard Gassan's The Birth of American Tourism makes a salutary contribution to a growing body of scholarship on the development of tourism and leisure during the early years of the nineteenth century. Like Thomas Chambers, Charlene Boyer Lewis, Jon Sterngass and others, Gassan looks to the elite social milieu that coalesced around a small number of supposedly health-promoting mineral springs as the origins of an extensive American affinity for leisure travel and tourism. Focusing on Ballston Spa and Saratoga Springs, he explores how the development of leisure facilities and a tourist mentality ramified throughout the Hudson Valley and beyond to make a significant impact on American culture. The book departs somewhat from previous treatments of the same topic in its emphasis on the cultural as well as the social history of resorts and tourism.
Gassan's first chapter details the evolution of Ballston Spa, one of the earliest venues celebrated for its mineral springs, from a health resort to social gathering place for elite travelers during the summer months. Initially catering to invalids or convalescents, Ballston changed character when it became a rendezvous point for wealthy young people of marriageable age. When, as Washington Irving put it, "Style made its baneful appearance," (26), Ballston transformed to a haunt for the upper class and aspirants to it. Improvements in transportation after about 1810, most notably the steamboats that plied the Hudson River, made Ballston more accessible and affordable while facilitating the addition of amenities, such as performances by traveling entertainers. The second chapter demonstrates how these developments came to fruition in Saratoga Springs, which rapidly eclipsed Ballston Spa as the premiere destination for well-healed summer tourists. By the early 1820s, Gassan demonstrates, entrepreneurs had built large elegant hotels with extensive grounds, fashionable libraries, and well-stocked wine cellars. Through clever marketing and advertising, Saratoga's promoters, Gassan argues, invented the modern resort and ushered in a "new tourist culture" that emphasized "comfort over privation for medicinal purposes," recognized [that] "tourists were readers, reading would be a crucial part of the spread of the tourist idea," and "appealed to women, who tended to travel in larger groups than men, and never alone," (43).
Subsequent chapters take a cultural historical turn, using art, literature and print media to highlight the spread of a tourist mentality among the American upper and middle classes. One chapter, for example, examines what Gassan terms a "revolution of seeing," in which American artists, critics and travelers popularized the picturesque as a mode of apprehending the natural world. The success of the Hudson River School, he argues, depended in part on artists' abilities to present images that incorporated the wildness, terror and sublimity of nature with more reassuring natural scenes familiar to tourists familiar with the length of the Hudson. Other chapters investigate the role of literature and travel guides in extending the emerging tourist culture. Influential literary figures such as Washington Irving, Timothy Dwight and James Fenimore Cooper capitalized on the new enthusiasm for tourism in New York by incorporating locales and references familiar or useful to travelers into their writings. Cooper, in particular, set the scenes in his Leatherstocking novels with landscape features familiar to tourists and leisure travelers. In The Last of the Mohicans, for instance, Cooper has Hawkeye and his companions rest at a mineral spring after escaping from Huron warriors. The route to the spring, and its brackish taste, would have been familiar to tourists, for Cooper "directly identif [ied] it as Ballston Spa," (108). In this way, Cooper both increased sales of his novels and popularized further the tourist sites they described. As Gassan demonstrates, this kind of emphasis on leisure travel in literature, coupled with the burgeoning print media of the early nineteenth century, promoted a "tourist culture" and expanded tourists' options in New York State beyond merely Ballston Spa and Saratoga Springs. Niagara Falls, in particular, became a popular destination, offering opportunities to experience the sublime. After 1825, travel on the Erie Canal offered wealthier passengers luxurious accommodations combined with the leisure to appreciate both the surrounding landscape and the engineering marvels of the waterway itself.
Gassan supports his thesis about the emergence of tourist culture with evidence drawn from other forms of popular culture, print media and consumer goods. Playing on the public's familiarity with tourist destinations, manufacturers produced collections of prints and decorated dinnerware with well-known scenes from the Hudson Valley. Contributors to gift books, travel guides, newspapers reports and magazine articles also fed the public's fascination with tourism and leisure travel. Prominent dramatist and critic William Dunlap's 1828 play, A Trip to Niagara; or Travelers in America, lends credence to Gassan's emphasis on the growing importance of tourism in American culture. The play, commissioned by the managers of New York's Bowery Theater, was little more than an excuse to display a moving diorama of familiar scenes from a steamboat trip up the Hudson River. Despite a thin plot and hackneyed characters, the play exploited successfully public enthusiasm for tourism, and proved a success with critics, who lauded it as a distinctively American play, and with audiences, who thronged the Bowery's box office to see it.
The Birth of American Tourism provides a fresh and interesting perspective on several elements of early national American culture. Its discussion of some points, such as the actual influence on readers, audiences, and consumers, of tourist-themed products, could have been expanded and clarified. Occasionally, as in Gassan's discussion of tourism and literature, the argument rests on a very few, albeit influential, works, and might have benefited from a larger evidentiary base. Nonetheless, these reservations do not detract from the volume's overall worth. Cultural historians, students of the early American republic, and anyone with an interest in the evolution of leisure and tourism will find much of value and interest here.
Scott C. Martin
Bowling Green State University
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|Author:||Martin, Scott C.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
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