The Birth of American Tourism: New York, the Hudson Valley, and American Culture, 1790-1830 (review)
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Early American tourism, New York State, Hudson Valley

The Birth of American Tourism: New York, the Hudson Valley, and American Culture, 1790-1830. Richard H. Gassan. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008. Pp. xii + 213. Cloth: $80.00, Paper: $29.95.)

Richard H. Gassan's The Birth of American Tourism is the latest addition to the literature of early American tourism, a field that has blossomed [End Page 332] in the last twenty-five years, with important contributions from scholars like John F. Sears, Dona Brown, Cindy S. Aron, Thomas A. Chambers, Jon Sterngass, Charlene Boyer-Lewis, and Catherine Cocks. As its title suggests, the defining feature of Gassan's contribution is its tight focus; he explores the roots of American tourism in New York's Hudson Valley during a forty-year period. This rigorous and narrow focus allows Gassan to construct a clear, direct narrative about the "birth of American tourism"—something that has so far escaped the field—but it also places inherent limits on his analysis.

For Gassan, the birth of American tourism happened in the early 1790s in the small upstate New York settlement of Ballston, where an ambitious land speculator and entrepreneur named Nicholas Low sought to take advantage of some mineral springs on his property by constructing an American version of the great British spa towns. Low used his wealth and his New York society connections to build a small but successful resort that provided health and pleasure to leisured elites, just like its forebears at Bath and Tunbridge Wells. Ballston Spa thrived from the turn of the nineteenth century through the war of 1812, after which it was surpassed by the neighboring Saratoga Springs, where superior water and a more open competitive environment spurred rapid development. Both resorts benefited from their relative proximity to the growing cities of the northeast and, more importantly, from New York State's heavy investment in transportation infrastructure that began with Robert Fulton's successful steam navigation of the Hudson in 1808 and extended through the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. Gideon Davison, a printer in Saratoga Springs, pioneered the American use of the tourist guidebook in 1822, which established his town as the pivot point of what he called the "Fashionable Tour." By the 1820s, Gassan argues, this combination of local boosterism and infrastructure investment had laid the groundwork for American tourism.

The Hudson Valley also plays a significant role in Gassan's account. Not only did it provide fast and easy access to interior destinations like Ballston, Saratoga, and, later, the Catskills and Niagara Falls, but it also offered its own scenic delights that attracted tourists. Gassan argues that early American tourists understood the rugged terrain of the Hudson Valley in the eighteenth-century British mode of picturesque tourism. This romantic tradition was adapted to the new American landscape by popular authors like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper and successful artists like Thomas Cole, all of whom shaped tourists' desire [End Page 333] for and perception of specific Hudson Valley destinations. As transportation improved in the 1820s, tourists pursued their search for the picturesque deeper into the Catskills and westward to Niagara Falls—the ultimate sublime sight—and extended the "Fashionable Tour" throughout New York State and into neighboring Canada. This circuit of spas and scenery, well established by 1830, represented the birth of full-blown American tourism, which would soon be replicated in New England and elsewhere.

Gassan's story is sharply focused and easily comprehensible, and he spins it in an appealingly informal, conversational, and sometimes even humorous tone. But beneath the smooth contours of his narrative lies a host of unanswered questions. For example, what of other early resorts, like Lebanon and Stafford Springs in New England, and the elusive "southern spas" that Gassan claims prospered during the war of 1812? Why did they fail to integrate themselves into a "Fashionable Tour" the way the New York destinations did? More attention to the contingency of tourism in the Hudson Valley would make for a more powerful analysis. And who were the tourists on the "Fashionable Tour?" Gassan most commonly refers to them as "gentry...