Tourism in America: Travel Writing and New Institutions


W.H. Bartlett, Fairmount Gardens, With the Schuylkill Bridge


Stimulated by the popularity of landscape gardening and painting, 
and by the publication of a series of widely read essays on the 
sublime, the beautiful and the picturesque, well-to do English 
people were seized by a mania for traveling in search of 
picturesque and sublime scenery.
			---John Sears, Sacred Places, (3)

The British mania for the sublime and picturesque found a natural outlet in the United States, especially once this country's infrastructure began to develop. The canal and rail system built in the early 19th century soon carried increasing numbers of both European and American tourists. While the accessible port cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore still remained popular, many now ventured into the hinterlands-- to Niagara Falls, to Natural Bridge, and to Mammoth Cave. The itineraries became standardized, to a point. The 'American Grand Tour' ran from the Hudson River, to the Catskills, along the Erie canal to Niagara Falls, and back through the White Mountains and Connecticut valley. Artists, writers, and publishers helped to formalize the iconography of the 'New World' by reproducing the most notable scenic views, and by distributing them for popular consumption.

Beginning in the 1820's, the now complete and landscaped also Water Works became a 'must see' for visitors to the city; as one British writer typically noted they were "the boast of Philadelphia" (Alexander, 262). The historian Jane Mork Gibson reiterates this claim; "for foreign and native travelers in the nineteenth century making the grand tour of the United states it was unthinkable to be in Philadelphia without visiting the Fairmount Waterworks" (5). Not coincidentally, the Fairmount site was the favorite subject for painters and illustrators, and quickly became the most reproduced scene in the "Athens of America." As John Sears has written, tourism helped the United States define itself as a culture. In this manner, the nation could both distinguish itself from Europe and seek the 'Old Country's' respect and approval. Thus Philadelphia's success as a city is determined in part through the eyes of its visitors. This fact carries an added burden when one considers that most tourists considered America's natural features, its mountains, lakes, and waterfalls, as its most impressive aspects.


Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary

However, many travelers flocked to the cities in order to view America's new structures for controlling and helping the criminal, the insane, and the deaf, dumb, and blind. These new prisons and asylums helped to order the city, and gave hope for those who sought to rid it of its more problematic elements. The water works did not exactly fit into either of the categories of the new institutions or the 'sublime' nature.

Especially in the eyes of those European visitors who were less impressed with American 'wilderness', the Water Works, in their skillful conjoining of pastoral nature and technology, came to represent the best of the New World . As Christopher Mulvey notes, writers such as Anthony Trollope looked for analogues to the familiar "English park surrounding the country house" (262). And the Fairmount Water Works fit this image, at least on the surface. Thus the 'charm' and 'beauty' of the site also contrasted with the awesome power of Niagara Falls the most famous example of 'sublime' nature. The untamable, primal power of the Falls represents one side of New World nature, while the skillfully planned and managed Water Works present nature at the service of man, and present the technology require to tame the river as 'artful'. In this way the Water Works differed from other new institutional/ public works tourist attractions, such as the park-like cemetery such as Cambridge's park-like Mt. Auburn cemetery and Philadelphia's Eastern State penitentiary. While cemeteries exhibited a certain charm, a charm matched by the landscaped environs of the Water Works, they could not offer the bonus of technology, especially one that did not have to compete with or destroy the natural (and man made) beauty of the site. And while the new institutions sought to reform and control the criminal, the deaf, and the insane, the Water Works site helped make the average city dweller more sane, social, and happy.


Travel Writing and the Water Works

In the period between 1820 and 1860, especially in the 30's and 40's, making the 'American Tour' and writing about one's views and experience's of this country's manners, new institutions, and scenic wonders became a common practice for the European traveler. Hundreds of such travelogues/social commentaries were published in the 19th century, both by Europeans and by Americans viewing their own country. For most foreigners wishing to write the definitive intellectual work on America, de Tocqueville's magisterial Democracy in America provided the standard. The fact that his book resulted from a tour of this country's new prisons (including Philadelphia's heralded and reviled Eastern State penitentiary) indicates that the motives and means for viewing this country varied greatly. The fair-weather expatriate Frances Trollope's acerbicDomestic Manners of the Americans was produced after (and certainly was colored by) a failed business venture, her 'Bazaar' store in Cincinnati. Charles Dickens wrote his American Notes after his very popular 'celebrity author' tour of the States, during which he viewed (rather critically) most of the new institutions. As well, Many non (or not yet) famous people also recorded their impressions of America, and like most who saw the Water Works, they were impressed by their beauty, power, and efficacy.

In her Domestic Manners of Americans , Francis Trollope (mother of novelist Anthony Trollope) gives a glowing account of the famous Water Works. Her depiction is all the more impressive when we consider that Trollope's book generally debunked the 'paradise' of America, both to the delight of the Tories, and outrage of the American Public. Mrs. Trollope had arrived in America in 1827, a hopeful immigrant with grand dreams of opening a department store. That she did--her Cincinnati "Bazaar" was quite an anomaly in that frontier town. And while it generated much excitement, it failed miserably as a business, sending Trollope and family back to England as paupers, with only her bundle of scrupulously recorded observations. Their publication in 1832 caused an excitement that would last for some time, and help launch the literary career of this failed merchant. On Philadelphia she writes:

The Americans all seem to greatly admire this city, and to give it preference in point of beauty, to all other in the Union, but I do not agree with them.
There is one spot, however, about a mile from the town, which presents lovely scene. The water works of Philadelphia have not yet perhaps as wide extending fame as those at Marley, but they are not less deserving it. At a most beautiful point in the Schuylkill River the water has been forced up into a magnificent reservoir, ample and elevated enough to send it through the whole city. The vast yet simple machinery by which this is achieved is open to the public, who resort in such numbers to see it that several evening stages run from Philadelphia to Fair Mount for their accommodation. But interesting and curious as this machinery is, Fair Mount would not be so attractive had it not something else to offer. it is, in truth, one of the very prettiest spots the eye can look upon. . .

The statue is not the work of Phidias, but its dark, rocky back- ground, the flowery catalpas which shadow it, and the bright shower through which it shews itself, altogether make the scene one of singular beauty; add to which, the evening on which I saw it was very sultry, and the contrast of this cool spot to all besides certainly enhanced its attractions; it was impossible not to envy the nymph her eternal show bath.

Trollope makes a common point, noting that the machinery of the Works is interesting, though much enhanced by the pastoral surroundings.

Dickens is impressed with the sheer prodigality of water use in Philadelphia. He also points to the Works' combination of beauty and usefulness. The Americans, as noted by Franklin and others, like to combine the two attributes whenever possible. In his American Notes for General Circulation, Charles Dickens recalls his 1840 tour of Fairmount:

Philadelphia is most bountifully provided with fresh water, which is showered and jerked about, and turned on, and poured off everywhere. The Water-Works, which are on a height near the city, are no less ornamental than useful, being tastefully laid out as a public garden, and kept in the best and neatest order. The river is dammed at this point, and forced by its own power into certain high tanks or reservoirs, whence the whole city, to the top stories of the houses, is supplied at a very trifling expense. (53)
Dickens' assessment of the Water Works contrasts with his vituperative attacks on Philadelphia's famed prison, the Eastern State penitentiary. As John Sears has written, Dickens' great "interest in the landscapes of human suffering" was not unusual for his time; as stated, new institutions for the criminal, the insane, the deaf and dumb were almost as popular tourist attractions as were America's sublime and picturesque natural sites. Perhaps one reason they impressed so was, as the historian David Rothman claims, because they instilled order in the face of rapidly changing and growing cities (Sears, 92). So to, the Water Works had instilled order and a certain amount of cleanliness to Philadelphia--to the extent that visitors were impressed with the cleanliness of the city as well as the prodigious use of water by its citizens. Brockden Brown had been correct when he predicted "schemes for improvement" and/or "changes in manners" in the city's population. The Water Works, certainly a 'grand scheme', successfully altered the water using habits of the entire city--as well as altering the physical appearance of a major metropolis.

More Travelers' Views on Philadelphia and the Water Works



The Water Works and the 'New Institutions'--
Cemeteries, Asylums, Prisons


Laurel Hill Cemetery

From the 1820s through the 1850s, America's cities saw the rise of a handful of institutions whose novelty and innovative methods for re-structuring urban life attracted many commentaries and visitors. Some of the new attractions included Hartford's American Society for the Deaf and Dumb (1817), the Ossining state prison (1825), Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary (1829), Cambridge's Mt Auburn cemetery (1831), and Philadelphia's Laurel Hill cemetery (1836). These sites were only popular as tourist attractions in this "era of romantic optimism" which not coincidentally spanned the 'golden age' of the Water Works. However, "the reliance on moral influence and useful labor which inspired their founders soon gave way to a bureaucratic approach that emphasized security and discipline" (Sears, 99). As this transition occurred, interest in the institutions waned.

In the romantic era however, the new prisons were of special interest. De Tocqueville and Beaumont were sent to this country in order to observe new developments in rehabilitation, especially at New York State's Auburn prison and Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, where they admired the system of solitary confinement, in which prisoners were to reform themselves by reflecting on their crimes. In this regard they were rather typical, as guide books from the time urged visitors to explore these 'wonderful' new developments. However, Charles Dickens saw, rightly, the cruelty in such a system, calling it "immeasurably worse than any torture of the body." (109)

Still, he admired the symmetry and beauty of the site's physical landscape, though he may not have been as enthusiastic as R.A. Smith who described the "pleasure ground" of the prison as "beautifully undulating and interspersed with clumps and groves of forest trees" (Sears, 93). Smith transfers descriptions generally used for the pastoral park (public parks were called 'pleasure grounds') to institutions that sought to control and contain the insane/criminal by removing them from the streetscape of the city, and hiding them in this new type of 'pleasure ground'. . However, this new institutions also sought to reform, rather than (only) to punish inmates. And the insistence on the 'middle landscape', of the picturesque grounds, points to ways this type of landscape was employed to soothe and entertain the average city dweller.

The need for green city, or at least suburban, spaces was in some ways fulfilled by the creation of the cemetery-park. In the mid to late 1830's Boston, Philadelphia, and New York built large suburban cemeteries--MT Auburn in Cambridge, Laurel Hill, just up the river from the Fairmount Water Works, and Greenwood in Brooklyn. These sights quickly became popular weekend haunts for picnickers, families, and lovers. By the end of the 1840s tens of thousands of visitors flocked to these semi-rural oasis, and a decade later the numbers surged tenfold.

What made these sights so popular? An 1844 guide to Laurel Hill gives us a clue: "Every mind capable of appreciating the beautiful in nature must admire its gentile declivities, its expansive lawns, its hill beetling over its picturesque stream, its rugged ascents, its flowering dells, its rocky ravines, and its river washed borders." This passage could come straight from a primer for writing the picturesque. The cemeteries offered some of the most expansive and accessible versions of the pastoral: they were planned, but not too crowded or compact; train lines and carriages ran regularly, and the parks featured well- maintained horse and foot paths. As well, the tombs and gravestones were monuments that reflected both the increasing wealth of the population, and provided a certain status-voyeuristic element to the experience.

The cemetery monuments also mimicked the prevailing architectural trends of the day--from gothic to Greek and Egyptian revival. As R.A. Smith wrote about Laurel Hill's Doric architecture; its "noble features of unassuming grandeur" produces the "sublime in the greatest degree" (131). There is in this passage a certain slippage in the meaning of sublime--unless he meant to imply that gravestone invoked terror. The fact that people walked over the dead, that cemeteries were meant as solemn places of remembrance worried some social commentators. "People seem to go there to enjoy themselves, and not to indulge in any serious recollections or regrets," complained A.J. Downing. (144) His observation contradicts that of Smith, who claims that the monuments did cause feelings of sublime--i.e. 'feelings of regret or fear'. In any case, the cemeteries were not ideal parks. Visitors' displays of wealth, mirth, and frivolity provoked some to try to find a more appropriate place for this experience. So reformers such as Frederick Law Olmsted and Downing sought the creation of spaces like (Olmsted's) Central Park. And Philadelphia followed suit with Fairmount park. However, the mid nineteenth-century trend in designing and engineering the ideal urban space was not exactly new, as some claim. Certainly, the construction of the Water Works represents an earlier example of this movement, as does William Penn's plan for his 'greene country towne' also anticipate many of the goals of the urban planners/reformers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


The Diseased City
Writing the Fever Nature, Technology, Greek Revival Bibliography