Far from a recent phenomenon, tourism has been an important part of New England for nearly two centuries, as Dona Brown shows in Inventing New England: Regional Tourism in the Nineteenth Century. With growing incomes, middleclass Americans began to travel for pleasure as early as the 1830s. And enterprising local business leaders responded to this new demand by providing places to sleep and sights to see. In doing so, Brown argues, they helped to invent an idealized and sentimentalized "New England" that may never have existed.
The Rise of the Tourist Industry
Travel had long been the province of the wealthy. Members of the European upper class typically visited major cities and civic institutions, and they often traveled with a "letter of introduction" which allowed them entrée into the homes and social circles of friends-of-friends from home. But by the 1820s, wealthy Americans began making a new type of trip, "the fashionable tour," visiting unusual natural settings, such as Niagara Falls and mineral springs in New York.
As income rose, tourism also grew across the New England landscape; indeed, industrial growth and tourism often developed side by side. As Brown notes, "every dramatic waterfall had its lumber mill or factory. And everywhere, on the other side of the falls, was a staircase, built by a nearby hotel keeper, to cater to his guests' enthusiasm for scenery." So, by the 1830s, traveling was no longer limited to the wealthy few. A middle-class tourist could enjoy the same sights and locales that had previously been available only to the upper classes, and it became difficult to identify a person's social status by the simple fact of being a tourist. The democratization of tourism had begun.
Local entrepreneurs seized the opportunity to meet the needs of the new, middle-class travelers. In New Hampshire, Ethan Allen Crawford, barely scratching a living off the land, shrewdly saw that Crawford Notch was the most direct route between Portland, Maine, and northern New Hampshire and Vermont. He also realized that the area's spectacular beauty was attracting tourists. So, he built roads and inns, and the first trail up Mount Washington, and then actively promoted its scenic wonders. Other entrepreneurs followed suit, and the White Mountains soon became a popular destination. A "letter of introduction" was unnecessary; all that was needed was money for a train ticket and a hotel room.
Guidebooks also became important, telling tourists what to look for, how to behave, and where to stay. The region's first, The Fashionable Tour or, a Trip to the Springs, Niagara, Quebeck, and Boston, in the Summer of 1821, spawned an industry. And by 1828, the industry was so well developed that one author was able to publish a mock guidebook, satirizing the required clothes and other conventions of modern travel. "A good portion of the pleasure of traveling consists of passing as a person of consequence," it read. Thus, tourism became part and parcel of the rising consumer economy, and travel to the "right" places became an important way to achieve and define one's social status.
Inventing the Past
As the industrial economy continued its spread across the countryside, urban residents longed to escape the harsh conditions of the cities - dirt, crime, illness, and immigrants. Many Americans developed a fascination with the "old days," which they vaguely associated with preindustrial farm and village life. And some local promoters, catering to the demand for nostalgia, responded by inventing a sentimentalized New England past for the tourist trade.
This was an especially attractive option where local industry was in decline. Nantucket, for example, had been a prosperous and worldly commercial island. But its whaling industry had peaked in the 1840s; and by the 1870s, the industry was dying, hammered on the supply side by a scarcity of whales and on the demand side by new illumination technologies, especially gas and oil. So Nantucket's well-traveled and sophisticated promoters saw an opportunity in tourism, and shrewdly created a romantic history of whaling and of Nantucket as a quaint, primitive village. This manufactured history included a chronicle of buildings, events, colorful individuals, even the "character" of the island people themselves.
When local agriculture declined in New Hampshire, state officials created "Old Home Weeks." These summer festivals provided tourists with an easy way to escape the squalid conditions of the industrial cities and return to images of wholesome farming and rural living. Never mind the poverty, back-breaking labor, and dependence on a short growing season that were the realities of farming in northern New England.
These efforts, says Brown, contributed to the "invention" of New England. The idea that New England was a distinctive region, rather than a strip of land along the sea, was rarely in evidence in early tourist literature. But, by the end of the century, both history (real and imagined) and distinctive landscape were bound together in a new regional identity and a new marketing tool. Geography alone did not dictate success. Cape Cod, for example, remained an isolated, backwater well into the twentieth century. Beautiful beaches, proximity to Boston, and railroad access were not sufficient to transform the Cape into a desirable tourist destination. Only after development of the automobile did an active policy to improve roads and promote tourism propel Cape Cod to its current status as a major tourist destination, a development which now seems as though it were inevitable.
Art Woolf teaches economics at the University of Vermont and edits The Vermont Economy Newsletter.