June 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 4
When we sing “America the Beautiful,” or for that matter plain “America,” with their apostrophes to woods, hills, and “purple mountain majesties,” and when we vacation, as free as you please, in what conservation has rescued from the wreck of all that landscape, it takes quite an effort to remember that what we do, and even feel, today is in fact something very new. To our first Puritan forefathers, the land was not beautiful at all but a bleak and dreadful wilderness. Leisure was sloth, enjoyment sin. Cotton Mather could go fishing, a pleasure excused as grim necessity, and, in later times, eighteenthcentury “invalids” could enjoy themselves at “restorative” beaches and spas, but the earlier ethic and its gospel of work were scarcely overcome until well into the nineteenth century. Then at last the philosophers and poets—men like Emerson, Thoreau, Bryant, Whittier—rediscovered nature, so that recreation and travel for pleasure became respectable.
About a century ago Americans began, in considerable numbers, to return to the out-of-doors. Spurred on by a few adventurous spirits, weary of the increasing confinements of the cities, endowed for the first time with vacations, even paid ones, they took walking tours, climbed mountains, camped, fished, and hunted. Games became popular among adults. Croquet, once thought a fairly strenuous pastime, appeared in the 1860’s, and tennis and golf in following decades. As the prejudices against idle leisure waned, resorts and watering places spread all over the eastern and then central states. A bicycle craze swept the nation, although one minister warned his flock that “You cannot serve God and skylark on a bicycle.”
Everything seemed to come at once: new wealth, and the desire to spend it; leisure, and the means for enjoying it. The difficulties of travel dissolved as steamboats and railroads made far places accessible. The boats served the sea resorts and newly popular islands, the steam cars would take you to the Adirondacks, to the Berkshires so dear to Bryant, and to the White Mountains, where an enterprising resort-keeper built a cog railway to carry his patrons to the summit. For the poor, there was the ubiquitous trolley, 40,000 miles of it in 1909, open to rhr hreezes as it carried hanpv crowds to the “trolley parks.”
As the woods filled with campers and the beaches with “bathers” in five-piece suits, the habit of annual summer migration grew upon the upper and middle classes. The East sprouted resorts, from Mount Desert Island, Maine, to Palm Beach, while more audacious souls set out for Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, suddenly reachable by rail. Where first a few artists and writers had ventured into the wilds, great resort hotels sprang up, vast structures like the one at lower right. The final accolade, so to speak, came at last from the noted German author of travel handbooks, Karl Baedeker, who decided soon after the turn of the century that the United States had become a fit place for gentlefolk to visit. He issued a guide. The traveller should, it noted, first dismiss his European prejudices against equality and be patient with “the absence of deference or servility on the part of those he considers his social inferiors.” Thereafter, He will seldom meet any real impoliteness.…Throughout almost the whole country travelling is now as sale as in the most civilized parts of Europe, and the carrying of arms, which indeed is forbidden in many States, is as unnecessary here as there.