“Ticketed Through”: The Commodification of Travel in the Nineteenth Century


The means and meanings of travel in the United States changed drastically between the beginning of the nineteenth century and the eve of the Civil War. Historians have labeled this massive transformation the “transportation revolution,” a construct that illuminates its economic causes and effects but which reveals little about the changing experience of travel in this period. This article suggests that it is informative to focus instead on the commodification of travel that took place during the transportation revolution. Travel went from being a good produced by the travelers themselves to one produced by entrepreneurs, offered for sale in a travel marketplace, and consumed by passengers. The commodification of travel happened gradually, partially, and unevenly throughout the nineteenth century and across the geographical space of the expanding nation, and individuals’ access to commodified travel varied significantly with their race, class, and gender, as well as with the varying goals of their travel. Nevertheless, it represented a fundamental conceptual shift in the way travelers thought about travel, and made it a potential source of pleasure and recreation for a broad swath of the traveling public. This change was both celebrated and mourned by those who experienced it. This article analyzes three examples that explore the uneven and contested process of commodification that travel underwent in the first half of the nineteenth century and the new meanings that travelers assigned to their journeys in the process.