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On Holiday: A History of Vacationing

On Holiday: A History of Vacationing

by Orvar Löfgren, Orvar LÃfgren

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Löfgren takes us on a tour of the Western holiday world and shows how two centuries of "learning to be a tourist" have shaped our own ways of vacationing. We see how fashions in destinations have changed through the years, with popular images (written, drawn, painted, and later photographed) teaching the tourist what to look for and how to experience it.


Löfgren takes us on a tour of the Western holiday world and shows how two centuries of "learning to be a tourist" have shaped our own ways of vacationing. We see how fashions in destinations have changed through the years, with popular images (written, drawn, painted, and later photographed) teaching the tourist what to look for and how to experience it. Travelers present and future will never see their cruises, treks, ecotours, round-the-world journeys, or trips to the vacation cottage or condo in quite the same way again. All our land-, sea-, and mindscapes will be the richer for Löfgren's insights.

Editorial Reviews

National Post
A history of that anti-history; a treatment of our collective annual fortnight away as a strange and fascinating parallel reality that runs year-round.
Times Literary Supplement
Lofgren's decision to take our daydreams seriously, and to note how we try to translate them into reality given half a chance, is fruitful.
Library Journal
Lofgren, a professor of European enthology in Sweden, has written several books (i.e., Culture Builders: A Historical Anthropology of Middle-Class Life). Here he uses concepts and ideas from various social science disciplines, as well as frequent literary examples, to explore the history of tourism in the United States and Europe. He notes the inherent tensions in tourism: the desire to see everything v. the desire to get away from it all, the local v. the global, and the quest for novelty despite the commodification of tourism. He uses examples like vacation cottages, bus tours, the idea of "the beach," and souvenirs to make his arguments. The most interesting parts, however, are those that touch upon issues such as gender, morality, and class. Although the text occasionally wanders, overall it is interesting and well researched. Recommended for social science and social history collections.--Kathleen A. Shanahan, Kensington, MD Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Peter Skinner
The reader is well rewarded by his historical treatment, which carefully identifies national trends. Lofgren's use of descriptive and analytical first-person accounts of vacationing's many aspects is even more of a pleasure boat ride.
John Ghazvinian
Lofgren's introduction and conclusion in fact turn out to be the most intellectually striking parts of the book...What's in between is a highly memorable bricolage of anecdote, observation and truism. It is what makes On Holidaynot just a valuable addition to the shelves of students of tourism but also an enjoyable and accessible read.
The Nation

Product Details

University of California Press
Publication date:
California Studies in Critical Human Geography , #6
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Barnes & Noble
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On Holiday

A History of Vacationing
By Orvar Lofgren

University of California Press

Copyright © 2002 Orvar Lofgren
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520234642

Looking for Sights

Peak Experiences

Must lie in the sun and feel the rays on my skin
Must lie under the shade of the palm tree
Must stretch the sail and set out before the wind dies
Must show the kids the flowers on the hillside
Must taste the liqueur flavored with camomile
Must dive deep
Must explore the world beneath my feet
Must make love
Must, before the day turns into evening
Must enjoy both life and tranquillityThis almost paralyzing list of imperatives for carefree enjoyment was the start of a winter 1997 campaign for a new chain of Mediterranean summer resorts called Blue Village. Who could resist it? As a top-ten list of tourist "musts" it pulls together the results of a long learning process on what vacationing is supposed to be about. It also sets the stage for a discussion of what constitutes the basics of tourist experiences. Behind the standard question, what didyou experience on your vacation? lies the notion of tourists and vacationers in constant search of sights and attractions, impressions, events, or adventure.

Back from one trip or planning the next, you only have to leaf through the bulging advertisement section in the New York Times travel section to see how central this focus on experience is in the marketing world. Here tour operators and resorts promise to enrich our vacations, teach us to relax in all possible ways, with slogans like Priceless Memories Have Never Been More Affordable.1 Nowadays tour operators train their staff in "expectation management," "experience monitoring," and "satisfaction evaluations" or, in operations like Dream Vacations , stand ready to help you "choose the vacation experience that matches your vacation expectations."2 There is also a burgeoning market for self-help books like Travel That Can Change Your Life: How to Create a Transformative Experience in which you wade through hints for creating a richer travel experience or a good vacation mindset.3 After plowing through such a text you're not sure if you ever want to travel again.

Do we live in an age obsessed by having great experiences? An age in which places like Freemont Street in Las Vegas are malled in and redesigned as "the Freemont Street Experience," following the popular trend of tourist architecture as event? Some observers are rather too quick to answer Yes. One of them is the German sociologist Gerhald Schulze, who launched the concept of an Erlebnisgesellschaft —a society obsessed by the need to have rich and numerous experiences. His argument is that since the 1980s we face a rapidly rising demand and commodification of the eventful. We continually ask one another: how was it, how did it feel?4

Schulze analyzes an expanding market, where experiences become commodities but also wear out, producing a constant demand for escalation toward a more eventful life. Along with many others observers of

Figure 2.
Vacations as the prime time of family togetherness
form one of the most common themes in travel advertise-
ments. This ad comes from the 1996 Blue Village campaign.
(Photo Scott Gog, Fritidsresor)

contemporary society he sees an aesthetization of everyday life and a focus on the staging of events. As in the advertisement for Blue Village, one strategy of intensification is to invoke all the senses.5

Much of Schulze's debate sounds strikingly familiar and sometimes falls into the old genre of a critique of civilization: "today we are living in a commoditized and shallower culture, but back in the old days . . . " It is akin to remarks describing people of today as "cultivating experience," in contrast to earlier generations who "simply had it."

Schulze makes some good points in showing us how experiences are framed and marketed, but I reject the notion that we now are living in an Erlebnisgesellschaft , fundamentally different from earlier periods. His analysis seems to me surprisingly ahistorical. If we study the making and remaking of tourist experiences during the last two centuries, a much more complex picture emerges. Tourism constitutes one of the most important sites in which individuals have explored and cultivated sensual experiences over the last few centuries. Here we find a constant debate and reflection on the nature of good or true experiences, a rich or elevating event, as well as a framing and ritualization of the eventful. The participants tirelessly describe, measure, compare, rank, or criticize the forms and contents, the colors, flavors, and feel of experiences.

In the following I explore some of the ways in which tourist experiences have been produced in different periods and cultural settings. Searching for a starting point I choose to present the reflections by two northbound travelers in eighteenth-century Sweden.


In early May of 1732 the twenty-five-year-old botanist Carl Linnaeus rides out from the university town of Uppsala on a journey to Lapland. Countless observations fill his travel journal right from the first day. He comments on the changing soil conditions, registers the vegetation in ditches and meadows. He describes song birds, the proportions of fir trees, and the behavior of young geese, and notes peculiar-looking rocks.6 It is not a text without poetic dimensions, but it is a totally different prosefrom the one used by the twenty-nine-year-old Carl Jonas Linnerhielm in his account of a voyage through the same landscape half a century later. Linnerhielm is not out to collect minerals or flowers; he collects views and moods. His description of the landscape includes a constant ranking of aesthetic values. The first manor house he passes "is a mean and flat location," but the next is "beautifully situated, with an air of grandeur." Here Linnerhielm finds a rather perfect view, composed of rolling meadows with shady trees and a winding stream, all very suitably framed by sloping forests.7

Both travelers describe resting by a stream that first day of their journey. Linnaeus immediately starts pondering about the ways in which the current shapes the elevation of the sandbanks. Linnerhielm finds "a babling brook . . . so clear that the finest grain of sand was visible" and starts to play: "By adding a few small stones I increased the slow speed of this stream, without diminishing its clarity, which gave my soul the most pleasurable images and rewarding after thoughts."8 Linnaeus and Linnerhielm are traveling through the same landscape, in 1732 and 1787. They both belong to the age of the collector, but their frames of reference are quite different. Linnerhielm puts it very directly in the foreword to his first volume of travel writings: "I travel to see, not to study." What constitutes this new kind of seeing?

His first voyage in 1787 and many subsequent ones resulted in three travel books, printed between 1797 and 1816 with his own illustrations. He has been called the first proper tourist in Sweden, a landed gentleman traveling for pleasure and nothing else. The two travelers not only represent the roles of the scientist versus the tourist, they understand the landscape very differently.

Linnerhielm is a member of what is still a rather exclusive European brotherhood that later became a mass movement. Many of his spiritual brethren are found in England. One of them is the clergyman James Plumptre from Cambridge, who starts out on a journey through the Lake District in the summer of 1799. He begins the story of his travels by listing what he calls his traveling "knick-knacks," which included drawing pads, notebooks, a small watercolor set, a telescope, a barometer, maps, the pocket edition of William Cowper's poems, abridged versions of various tour books, and also a Claude-glass. This fashionable item was a small convex mirror that miniaturized the reflected landscape and gave it a darker, more artistic tint: it was an instrument for focusing, framing, and composing, named after the landscape painter Claude Lorraine, famous for his special light effects.9 By using lenses of different tints, the traveler changed a single landscape: moonlight, dawn, winter. Like Linnerhielm, Plumptre was in search of picturesque views, which could be fixed through the lenses of the Claude-glass, sketched in watercolors, or described in the travel diary.

Linnaeus's saddlebags also contain traveling knickknacks: a looking glass, a list of the region's plants, a bunch of papers for pressing flowers and making sketches, a microscope, clean shirts, a comb, and a wig, but there is no room for a Claude-glass—at that time it had not yet left the artist's studio. Instead he carries a measuring rod. Linnaeus is moving through another kind of aesthetic, moral, and political terrain. His ambition to collect useful information, to gather facts, parallels that of many other of his contemporary travelers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In many ways his journey fits into an earlier tradition of traveling for a practical purpose, for commerce or fact finding. The trader's eye looked for information on local economy and society. Even nonscholars often journeyed with a scholarly frame of mind: always on the lookout for useful knowledge. Maximilian Mission's guidebook, A New Voyage to Italy from 1695, for example, suggested that the traveler should carry with him a fifty-fathom cord knotted every foot for determining the heights of towers.10

The Linnaean tradition continued in the specific genre of scientific explorations, but it was travelers like Linnerhielm and Plumptre who laid the foundations for modern tourism. The perspectives represented by Linnaeus and Linnerhielm could also coexist among the early tourists. In his restless development of American politics, industry, and aesthetics Thomas Jefferson also found time to discuss landscape and tourism. In his Notes on the State of Virginia from the 1770s he describes the Natural Bridge, a good example of what travelers in those time liked to call "Nature's oddities." He starts out with a scientific description of this cliff formation straddling a stream, in the style he had learned from Linnaeus,but all of a sudden the language changes into a style that Linnerhielm would have liked.11 "It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime to be felt beyond what they are here. So beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing as it were up to heaven the rapture of the spectator is really indescribable!"12

Collecting Sceneries

Linnerhielm's baggage does not include a measuring rod or a knotted rope, but he carries a well defined mental measuring tape. Like Linnaeus, he is out to weigh, evaluate, and describe, but the object is sceneries and situations. Landscapes are classified as boring, ugly, too regimented, appealing, enchanting, or perfect. Already in early tourism we meet the paradox: the need to communicate the experience of a personal and unique confrontation with the landscape, in words or watercolors, creates a comparative framework. The experience of other travelers invades your own. Is this as rich or strong an experience as those others claim?

The eighteenth-century pioneers of modern tourism developed the kind of virtual reality called the picturesque: a certain way of selecting, framing, and representing views. It taught tourists not only where to look but also how to sense the landscape, experience it, and it is still part of our travel kit although the term has lost its more precise eighteenth-century meaning. Today the term may refer to a rugged landscape, a quaint village, or an old quarter of the town.

In the making of the tourist quest for the picturesque in the late eighteenth century, art played a key role in teaching the pioneers where to look and how to look in the landscape.13 And there was a desire to teach nature to imitate art. The "paintability" of the landscape came into focus, drawing on the new developments in landscape painting during the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, but the making of the picturesque was also shaped by an ongoing dialogue between many arts: aesthetics, literature, music, and—not least—gardening.

The first step in the transformation of this concept of the picturesque from an aesthetic theory into tourist practice emerged among the pioneergenerations of the Grand Tour to the classical sights of southern Europe. Aristocrats from the north learned to view the landscape in a different frame of mind as they passed the Alps, and they also brought home paintings of masters such as Claude Lorraine and Salvator Rosa as well as travel books in the newfangled genre of voyages pittoresques , with plenty of etchings, as souvenirs. The interest in southern travel and the consumption of landscape painting ' la mode created a veritable export industry among Italian landscape painters. For the northern buyers these sceneries introduced a new way of seeing and judging the landscapes at home. Although this process was most marked among the English gentry, we can follow it all over northern Europe and America. For many the model landscape of the picturesque was found in the famous tourist setting of Tivoli outside Rome. A Swedish visitor writes home in 1787 that here you can learn about the picturesque: "Never before have I grasped this term better than here," he declares and continues by pointing out that a good painter is never satisfied with what nature has to offer in one and same scenery. No, he adds more objects: "a ruin, a castle, a hill, a valley, a forest, a plain, a stream, etc.; in order to make the painting much more interesting and variable through such a composition."14 If nature itself can bring forward such a richness, it comes close to being an artful composition and thus it can be called picturesque, he concludes. The landscapes around Tivoli had such a perfect mix of paintable qualities that you didn't have to rearrange them in your mind, they could just be painted as they stood.

The craving for the picturesque was found all over Europe, albeit with national variations, but it was in England that its combination with travel was institutionalized. A central role was played by the schoolmaster William Gilpin, whose travel guides in the Lake District, published from 1782 onwards, instructed the traveler where and how to look for the picturesque and how to capture it in sketches with the aid of a Claude-glass. Already by 1807 a British observer stated that summer traveling with the object of studying the picturesque now was looked on as essential.15

Learning the picturesque thus meant being able to locate landscapes with special qualities. It was the interplay of certain elements, shadow and light, foliage, irregular and varied landscape features that made a truly picturesque view. The picturesque motif often carried an air of nostalgia, epitomized in the idyllic rural life. Signs of decay, an old cottage, a ruin, a tombstone further stressed this atmosphere. Melancholy laments over the passing of time, as well as the insignificance of human beings became important parts of the picturesque sensibility.

The task of the tourist was to track down these paintable landscapes and lift them out of the duller surroundings, fixing them as pictures, then represent them in sketches, watercolors, and words. A traveler in the Lake District in 1779 describes his successful capture of a truly picturesque scene: "On the Right, from behind a piece of Rock which projected, breasted forth a Torrent of Water which I caught in my Glass (through a tree romantically fix'd in the Bare Rock & twisted) shining like diamonds, a Picture the finest my eyes ever beheld."16 There was an element of hunting and gathering in this pursuit. Using the technique of framing, you could impose some kind of order on the unknown and untamed landscapes that confronted you. The wild was still seen as chaotic.17

The making of the picturesque has often been seen as the first step in developing "the tourist's gaze," but such an argument misses the fact that the picturesque above all was about sensibility: a search for atmosphere and sceneries that opened your senses and sent your thoughts flying. It is striking how rapidly this language of aesthetics and emotions spread over the Western world. Linnerhielm travels within a constant frame of the picturesque. He is an avid reader of English sentimental journeys, French voyages pittoresques , and German explorations of pastoral idylls. He makes constant references to the two artists he worships, carrying their sceneries as a measuring rod—Salomon Gessner, the Swiss poet and artist, author of the bestseller Idylls from 1756, and Claude Lorraine: "I wonder what Claude would have thought of this landscape," or "This is scenery worthy of Gessner."

The Theme Park

The cosmopolitan nature of the new elite tourism meant that people could become part of an international community of travelers without ever leaving their home region. Another important element of pioneertourism helped these domestic travelers: the romantic English garden. The new model of the perfect landscape not only circulated in etchings and texts but materialized all over Europe during the eighteenth century. This "modern garden," as the British pioneers often called it, was a reaction against the earlier regimented aesthetics of the French baroque garden, with its symmetry and disciplined nature. Throughout the Western world new parks were now being laid out in the English style, in a deliberate attempt to produce nature at its best. Now landscape architects abhorred "all that is regular," yet at the same time they spoke of the importance of touching up or concealing unsuitable aspects of nature. The landscape was to acquire a set of suitable accessories and serve as a training ground for pioneer tourists. Here they learned to experience nature in novel ways and to sharpen their sensibilities.

In his journey north Linnerhielm stops at the newly constructed English garden at the manor of Forsmark. He walks around full of praise for its delights, its many surprises and moods, thrown between the wild and the idyllic. He saunters along winding paths and little brooks. Behind every corner there are fresh surprises: a shady arbor, a bridge, a sculpture, or a little hall of mirrors, a Greek temple. For Linnerhielm the walk through the park is a serious business—this is a cultic site of the emotions. One of his contemporaries describes the same park as "a wilderness, not sweet and beautiful, but strong and beautiful."18

The present-day visitor to Forsmark, armed with Linnerhielm's description, is unlikely to share this enthusiasm. The park has remained much the same, but everything seems so small and paltry, and above all tame. Walking through the same landscape as Linnerhielm, we lack the cultural conditioning that made this stroll so powerful to eighteenth-century visitors. They experienced rapid shifts between the idyllic and the wild and were able to project moods and visions with the help of hints and fragments and read the many hidden subtexts. Tiny landscape details had far-reaching literary, historical, and aesthetic connotations, stimulating the mind and creating a massive symbolic space out of this little park, in which Linnerhielm found "everything prepared to surprise." As modern visitors we lack these cultural lenses. We walk the same grounds but move in a different mindscape.

Figure 3.
The English garden at Forsmark in the days of Linnerhielm's travels.
(Drawing by Elias Martin)

Close to Forsmark Linnerhielm visits another manorial garden, which still retained the old-fashioned French style, and reflects that his idol Claude Lorraine never would have drawn any inspiration from these "stiff and geometrical plantations."19 But the "naturalness" of the English garden was a highly staged naturalness. It was an attempt to elaborate "nature," and the irony is that many English gardeners derived their early inspirations from landscape painting, not least Lorraine's sceneries.20

The new parks rapidly became a popular destination for pleasure trippers. The way they were used tells us about the new sensibilities and technologies of sightseeing. In the English garden visitors learned to position themselves in order to take in a view and identify a picturesque sight. Here they cultivated the art of outdoor daydreaming, linking landscapes of fantasy and contemplation with the terrain through which they walked. The careful staging of the stroll would carry visitors from scenery to scenery and into new moods: from melancholy and nostalgia to drama and excitement. A dreaming stroller could sit down on a bench under the shady trees and let her thoughts wander elsewhere: inside toward the self, back in history with the aid of the classical monuments, away from society and everyday life to the land of utopia.

Linnerhielm's Danish contemporary Christian Molbech enacts this process during his visit to a Danish pleasure garden, built in the: 1790s. With Linnerhielmian enthusiasm he describes the walk from surprise to surprise. He crosses a small bridge and wanders along a mysterious and shadowed path and suddenly encounters "the Norwegian chalet." Here in this solitary setting it is possible to let the mind fly, he notes, and he is "transported to the Norwegian mountains, where buildings like these belong."

After enjoying the stillness by the Norwegian chalet he hastens along through "this world of fantasy." Passing a meadow he enters a shady and solitary grove where the thatched dwelling of the hermit is situated. On the table inside the hut there is an hourglass with two skulls, and above the door an inscription: "Death is certain, but the hour of Death uncertain!"21

The cottage or hermit's cave was a standard element in the English garden. At Forsmark the park's wildest part vividly impresses Linnerhielm. Where the path turns by a rock he finds a grotto and "in its shadows a hermit, sitting with a book in his hand. He is dressed in a deep purple cloak and has a gentle but serious expression" (the figure was made of wax and was later eaten by rats).

More ambitious garden projects tried to supply real hermits. In 1791 a Swedish newspaper mused over the attempt of a British gentleman to recruit a live hermit. Applicants were required to endure seven years in total silence in the hermitage of the garden, to wear sandals and simple dress, not to cut their hair or nails, to drink water from the babbling brook, and to sit with a Bible, some optical elements, and an hourglass in view of visitors. The remuneration for these seven years would be 700 guineas, but alas the chosen applicant endured only three weeks.22

The standardization of sceneries, surprises, and follies was made possible by study tours to England and above all by the international circulation of garden plans and instructions. Toward the end of the eighteenth century there were a number of popular handbooks on the landscaping of romantic gardens. Amateurs and professionals could find blueprints and do-it-yourself hints, which described the production of follies and surprises, as well as models of suitable hermit cottages. One result of this standardization was that tourists could feel at home in any English garden, be it located in Germany, Denmark, Scotland, or North America. Park after park sprang up, fitted out with the same, fairly fixed assortment of sceneries and props. The entrance ticket was the cultural capital of classical learning needed to interpret the many symbolic hints.

The formula of the romantic park turned out to have great staying power. It became the blueprint not only for urban parks of the nineteenth century but also for a coming world of tourist theme parks, from open-air museums to Disneyworlds and adventure lands all over the globe; a new surprise behind every corner of the winding paths, a little flag marking a scenic photo spot. In the same way the language of the picturesque is still with us, in travel catalogs, picture postcards, and guidebooks.

The rapid spread of the new sensibilities in the form of the picturesque created a highly cosmopolitan, albeit still thin, layer of tourist pioneers in Europe and North America. To understand this rapid internationalization of tourist practices and standards, we have to look at the social situation of these pioneers. Many were rural gentry, clergy, and teachers. They shared a background of higher education but also a position of relative isolation. Out there in their parishes and manors they longed for the kind of intellectual communion many of them had encountered during their early university years. Like Linnerhielm they were alone with their libraries and most of them could not afford to travel on the grand, international scale of the higher aristocracy. They perfected the art of intellectual daydreaming, investing in new books on travel and gardening, and were in constant mental (and sometimes in written) communication with their colleagues or mentors out there in the world.

Their aspirations to describe, represent, evaluate, and compare also produce an urge to communicate: to show off, to write, to force others into comparison. Competition requires social exchanges—you cannot remain silent. Early tourism thus is very much about establishing norms and genres of representation. Pioneers such as Linnerhielm and Plumptre grapple with the terms of these new modes of experience. There is much open reflection on how to select, judge, and represent.

The tourist pioneers were eager to draw the line between themselves and the unsophisticated and uneducated others, whom they saw as lacking aesthetic competence. In his description of the natural bridge, Jefferson complains that local people have no eyes for monuments like these and thus echoes the complaints of his contemporaries. The common folk in Europe and North America just worked the land—they did not seem to be able to take in the landscape. A similar argument appeared in Ralph Emerson's essay on "Nature," in 1836. The farmer may own the fields but cannot lay claim to the view. Only poets and artists can integrate all the parts of the scenery into a true landscape experience.23 (What the tourist pioneers did not realize was that the farmers and peasants had their own and very different aesthetic views of that same piece of land.)24

New Sensations

The cult of the picturesque also illustrates another tourism mechanism, the tension between routinization and improvisation, between the predictable and the surprising, which produces a craving for fresh sights and novel experiences.

A side effect of the standardization of the attractions in the romantic garden was boredom. Linnerhielm inspects the grave of the Roman hero Belisarius, one of the attractions at Forsmark, but complains of having just seen the same sepulchral monument in the manorial garden of the next parish. Is this Roman hero buried everywhere? The winding paths are now too foreseeable.

The hunt for the picturesque could thus grow stale. As we have seen, the mentality of the picturesque became a way of evaluating the landscape. Tourists like Plumptre and Linnerhielm continually talk about the picturesque in terms of more or less, which could wear the landscape down: too many beautiful, or pleasing, sceneries. The effect shows up in the travel journals' dutiful records. All those superlatives and exclamation marks turn into routine. In Bishop Percy's notes from his 1775 Scottish tour we can observe this struggle: "the immense Group of stupendous Mountains beyond it to the North, rising up in gigantic scenery beyond one another, form a succession of Picturesque wonderfully great, astonishing & picturesque fine Picturesque beyond all descriptions, & to which no Language can do justice."25 In exasperation the bishop crossed out the last two "picturesques," making his point forcefully. The cult of Claude slowly turned into the derogatory label of "Claudianism," and in Jane Austen's novels we find ample examples of battles between those who were still infatuated by the picturesque and those who had started to satirize it. The pleasing views came to seem less pleasing to the senses, the pen, and the brush.

Alongside the fervent and tear-filled emotions aroused by the romantic park, we can discern a longing for more powerful and dramatic impressions. In the midst of all the idyllic harmony there grew a need for a heightened sensation, a cult of the sublime—" all that surprises the soul, all that creates a sense of fear," as Diderot defined the concept.26 During the eighteenth century the idea of the sublime traveled from philosophy and art theory into tourism. In this journey the concept, like the picturesque, went through several transformations, as well as a trivialization.

The novel cult of the sublime, as a yearning for the wild and surprising, emerged in the new motifs chosen by romantic landscape painters.

They scorned pastoral idyll and the calm sea in favor of "nature's great upheavals"—surprises and shocks. This doctrine appeared in an 1828 Swedish handbook on landscape painting, which discusses how various natural phenomena may evoke differing emotions, and how nature should ideally be on a gigantic rather than a gentle scale. A good artist must paint high mountain regions, steep waterfalls, volcanoes, landslides, floods—in short, "nature's oddities," as a way of evoking what the author calls "profound emotional disturbances."27 Storms should rage both in the landscape and in the beholder's soul. The sublime refers not only to the majestic or magnificent, but also to the terrifying or awesome, the presence of forces stronger than man, be they demonic or godly. Moments of the sublime must grip the onlooker, through the dialectics of the repelling and the fascinating. Landscape gardeners tried to introduce elements of the sublime, a craggy rock, a small cataract in their parks, but such items could not satisfy the new longing for the wild.

The Ultimate Waterfall

It did not take long for the quest for the sublime to become institutionalized. One of the favorite attractions was the waterfall, which for the tourist pioneers came to represent the perfect mix of "terrible beauty": a wild, but not too wild, nature.

On the road to Lapland in 1732 Linnaeus visited the famous Swedish falls at Dlvkarleby. The scenery impressed him, but his attention focused on the geology and flora of the setting, as well as the power of the falls, the effect of the mist, and the possibilities for salmon fishing. Half a century later Linnerhielm arrived there and of course described his visit in quite different terms. The first sight of the falls simply rendered him speechless. He had to return next day for a second look: "Arriving I felt the same elevated pleasure as last time and admired with surprise all this terrible beauty. . . . As I left at last, it was as if my senses had been given freer reins, I felt the sweetest tranquillity."28 After this experience, waterfalls became the staple of his itineraries along with romantic gardens, ruins, and picturesque sceneries. His next waterfall experience wasdescribed as "a pleasant shudder," while another reaction typical of the times was "quivering rapture." The waterfall was fascinating not only because it was accessible; the untamed torrent also became something for new freedom-worshiping romantics to identify with. All over Europe tourists found themselves drawn to waterfalls as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk , which affected all the senses: the roaring sound of the falls, the changing colors, the sensation of the cold mist rising from the falls, the taste of fresh water.

Among eighteenth-century travelers schooled in the tradition of the Grand Tour, the famous waterfalls of Tivoli and Terni were the model of comparison. Looking at a mighty Swedish waterfall, a Swede recently returned from his southern tour judged its qualities in comparison with the cascades of Terni.29 But were the falls of Terni really wild and sublime enough? If waterfalls offered the truest sublime experience, the mighty Niagara Falls on the border between Canada and the United States were to become the greatest natural wonder in the world: "the most romantic of awful Prospects Imaginable," as an early visitor put it.30 Already in the late eighteenth century they attracted American as well as European tourist pioneers as an icon of the sublime.

The first extensive descriptions of the falls belong to the scientific Linnaean genre. Linnaeus's disciple Pehr Kalm visited the falls in 1750, and in his long-winded commentary there is no trace of the sublime.31 With the help of French officers and soldiers from the nearby fort, he travels in a birch canoe and struggles several miles across hilly country. Arriving at the falls, he measures the temperature of the water and then sits down by the edge to record his observations, with pen and ink. Like the traveler recommended to carry a measuring rope, he spends a long time contemplating the exact heights of the falls, how far the roaring sound may travel in different weather conditions, the reach and effect of the spray, hanging like a mighty mist over the landscape. Kalm does confess (unlike Linnaeus observing the falls of Dlvkarleby) that the sight makes the hairs on his neck stand on end, but we have to turn to later visitors to find a more emotional description. The next generation was interested in measuring their rapture, rather than the water temperature. For them the falls supplied an intense and personal experience of being in communion with nature, but even the early tourists at Niagara grappled with the problem of translating this experience into the language of sublimity. How could you communicate the overwhelming greatness of this moment? Some pioneers chose the same strategy as Linnerhielm and declared themselves speechless and then hastened to list the superlatives. In these narratives of Niagara we follow the vocabulary of the sublime: breathtaking, awesome, grandiose, gripping, moving, majestic, overwhelming . . .32

Another problem had to do with the emergence of a tourist infrastructure at Niagara. As the falls became more accessible, through the Erie Canal, finished in 1825, and later thanks to the railways, and as hotels and sightseeing platforms were erected, the falls lost some of their sublimity. And as access became easier, the element of adventure and danger diminished and thus devalued the experience for some. A Lieutenant Francis Hall coined a maxim that would become a stable element in adventure tourism: "the effect produced upon us by any object of admiration is increased by the difficulties of approaching it."33

For some men the advent of women tourists signaled this change—it threatened the masculinity of the Niagara experience as wilderness adventure. It also tied in with changing male ideas about the gendering of emotions. The strong sublime experience was for men, while the meeker picturesque views suited the sensibilities of women.34 What is, striking, however, is that many of the most passionate descriptions of visits to the falls came from women tourists, and they were often very personal experiences: "My dreams are very wild here. I am not calm here. A great voice seems to be calling on me," one woman stated, and another wrote about "the terrible loveliness" and continued, "I feel half crazy whenever I think of it." Harriet Beecher Stowe "felt as if I could have gone over with the waters; it would be so beautiful a death; there would be no fear in it . . ."35

For those middle-class women who now had the chance to travel, tourism could be liberating in more than one way. Not only was it a chance to escape from the routines of everyday domestic life, it was also a chance to transgress traditional boundaries. Niagara came to represent a new kind of freedom for them.

Figure 4.
The sublimity of the Niagara experience made it a suitable honeymoon 
destination. The result was thousands of photos like this: the happy
couple against a background of torrents of water.
(Photo Local History Department, Public Library, Niagara Falls, N.Y.)

For both men and women the search for the sublime had a strong element of sacralization, but that religious feeling called for silence and serenity, preferably also the chance to be alone or only with chosen fellow travelers. With a growing number of visitors the criticism of mass tourism mounted and de Tocqueville vented a classic opinion: if you want to experience the real Niagara, you have to hurry up—soon it'll be too late.36

As Niagara became an icon of the sublime, celebrated in tourist guides, travel books, and poetry and depicted in all kinds of visual media from oil paintings to cheap prints, a new kind of tourist angst developed: what if the sight did not live up to your heightened expectations, based on earlier representation? What if the images were more wonderful than the real thing? The art of "being utterly Niagarized" became increasingly complicated.37 How could you place yourself at a vantage point where hotels, zealous guides, or other tourists did not disturb the view or the tranquillity; what time of day, what kind of weather conditions were the best?

Among the new tourist groups were the honeymooners. The first "cooing couples" were mentioned in the late 1830s, when honeymoon travel was still a newfangled idea. The development of Niagara as a favorite honeymoon destination was probably linked to the original quest for the sublime, a place for passion and romance, but also to the rapid transformation of the scene into fashionable social life and entertainment. The year 1838 saw not only the first mention of honeymooners but also the advent of the first billiard rooms.38

For many who came here on their first vacation, Niagara became a training ground. How do you approach a great landscape attraction, how do you spend your holiday in leisurely ways, get your photograph taken, select souvenirs, go on guided tours, socialize with other tourists from very different regions and stations of life? How do you handle the newfangled idea of a honeymoon? Guidebooks gave hints on how to construct a tourist program, how to select and combine, and how to behave yourself in this new situation.

The old tourist elite viewed the new groups with disdain, and the classic battle against "vulgar tourism" escalated. Niagara was describedas the demise of the sublime into the ridiculous, the wild into the domesticated and tame. In the battle of cultural distinctions between different kinds of tourists it took on a new aura: that of the tacky, overexploited tourist trap. The growth of an ironic genre lamenting the vulgarization of Niagara was thus one of the effects of the broadened popular appeal.

For some, Niagara offered an amusing place to visit and a chance to view a fantastic scenery, thanks to the blessings of civilization and technology; for others it became a place to avoid. Those in search of sublime communion with the wild had to find more primordial wildernesses.

Mountain Fever

The interest in waterfalls constituted the first step out into the wild, but the demand for greater emotional storms led people above all toward the mountains, the sort of scenery that earlier generations of nature lovers in the eighteenth century had spoken of with distaste. When Carl Linnaeus first saw the Lapland mountainscapes in 1732, his reaction was vehement. He wondered if he was in Asia or Africa; everything was unfamiliar and chaotic, and he could see nothing but "bare mountains on bare mountains, no forests, no houses, no fences, no roads, no singing birds, no sun setting."39 This was a repulsive wildness. We find a similar reaction from Samuel Johnson in his travel account, A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland from 1775. He saw the mountains as hopeless sterility: "dismissed by nature from her care and disinherited of her favours."40

Both in Sweden and Britain such verdicts soon came under challenge. The new generation of romantic British poets viewed the mountains as a scenery filled with all the blessings of the sublime. Here, in the terrible and majestic wilderness, you try to make contact with a divine force. Gilpin's handbook also established criteria for ranking the beauty of mountain sceneries.41

As in the case of the waterfalls, we find a search for the most sublime mountain sceneries. General agreement emerged relatively soon. If the picturesque ideal's first model was the pastoral landscapes of Italy andthe south, the most sublime mountain sceneries were those of the Lake District and Scotland. But Switzerland's peaks shortly took precedence.

The longing for the freedom of the wilderness found its prime expression in what was called the thirst for the Alps. Jean-Jacques Rousseau expressed his longing for mountain streams and "threatening abysses at my side!"42 This pure, magnificent landscape gave rise to elevated thoughts. A Norwegian traveler wrote of Switzerland in 1790 that the country's patriotic constitution and magnificent scenery combined to beautify the place.43 The cult of the Alps was a combination of aesthetics and politics. Travelers yearning for freedom found an ideological model in Switzerland, with its heroic and democratic history.44

Huge spaces, clear air, intoxicating solitude, and a sense of freedom made the mountain expanses into a romantic and revolutionary utopia. Even an idyllist like Linnerhielm in his later years began to acquire a taste for "the awesome majesty of the mountains," and for him as for many others the adjective Swiss acquired immense prestige. As eighteenth-century Swedes had searched for Italian features in their own landscape, now one spoke of "a Swiss view" when confronted with a pleasing Nordic prospect. In the United States many places, from the Catskills in the East to the Santa Cruz mountains in the West, competed for the tourist label "the Switzerland of the USA," and we find similar rhetorics about mountains as the terrain of freedom here.45

The quest for mountains meant a redrawing of the tourist map in both Europe and North America. Switzerland developed a booming tourist industry, soon followed by another marginal country: Norway. The European alpine thirst transformed Norway's mountain regions into Scandinavia's first international tourist attraction—for the British in search of the wild these mountain regions on the Atlantic coast were more easily accessible than Switzerland. The same mountains that Norwegian visitors still in the 1820s described as "wild and awful" or "a melancholy lifeless and monotonous desert" were described a decade later in enthusiastic terms by one of the first visiting Englishmen. Neither the Swiss Alps nor the Himalayas can compete with the beauty of these Norwegian views, he writes in his travel book from 1833, which was to attract a steady flow of English visitors to Norway.46

Nationalizing the Sublime

The Norwegian example also illustrates the ways in which the romantic longing for the wild became intertwined with another international quest: that for national identity. Inspired by the British reevaluation, Norwegians started to look to the mountains in their attempts to forge a national culture as an alternative to the forced political union with Sweden since 1814.

As in Switzerland there was a link between landscape aesthetics and politics. The new greatness of this landscape did not, however, derive from its similarity to the Swiss Alps but from the fact that it constituted something truly Norwegian. The mountain peasants who inhabited these regions came to be seen as the true Norwegian folk. This urge to nationalize nature emerged at the end of the eighteenth century but became a strong force during the first half of the next.47

In the foreword to Linnerhielm's first travel book from 1797 we already find traces of national pride. He was greatly irritated by the way his mentor Gilpin, in his 1792 book Observations relative to picturesque beauty , made it clear that British mountains had a higher aesthetic quality than others: "The mountains of Sweden, Norway and other northern Regions are probably rather masses of hideous rudeness, than Scenes of grandeur and proportion."48 Another contemporary Swedish nature lover stated the new faith in Swedish scenery in a more blunt way: "A Swede should love Swedish mountains most."49

And yet the nationalization of the landscape was not an even process. It is most evident in countries that saw themselves as marginal to the grand narrative of Western civilization—the Scandinavian countries, the United States, and, later, Canada—where the wilderness and the quest for the sublime became a central arena for national culture-building. They invoked an abundance of nature to offset their lack of high culture.

This reevaluation of the landscape was perhaps most striking in the United States. The reasons for this are many. John Sears analyzes the making of "sacred places" in early American tourism and attributes them to both a strong religious tradition and a postrevolutionary nationalism.50 Others point to the marked inferiority complex of nineteenth-century

Figure 5.
The mountains soon developed into the model 
for active vacations. In this advertisement for 
Glacier National Park all tourists are on the move. 
(Minnesota Historical Society Library, St. Paul)

American intellectuals, the constant harping on the lack of culture and history in the new nation: "No monuments, no ruins, no Eton, no Oxford, no Epsom, no Ascot, no antiquity, no legends, no society in the received sense of the word—the grievance runs from Hawthorne to Henry James."51

The idea that America was an adolescent nation lacking in culture directed the focus onto the wilderness. When John Ruskin wrote: "I could not even for a couple of months live in a country so miserable not to possess castles," his words struck home for American travelers who deplored the lack of picturesque ruins.52 But couldn't the rugged mountains and the craggy rocks, the strange and twisted trees of the primeval forests compensate for this? A new language of "organic ruins" developed among American tourists, and in the sublime tradition there was a marked religious element in this new celebration of the American wilderness, the awesome panoramas, and the mighty mountain cathedrals.53

Already by the 1820s a mountain tourist industry was developing in the eastern United States. With the help of steamboats and railways the Catskills along the Hudson River and the White Mountains became easily accessible. Authors and painters played a crucial role in producing this romantic scenery. One of them was "America's first wilderness painter," the British-born Thomas Cole, founder of "the Hudson River school" of landscape artists. His hero, like Linnerhielm's, was Claude Lorraine, and he went on painting pilgrimages to Italy, later to transform the European picturesque and sublime into his American panoramas.

Cole helped to make the first fashionable wilderness hotel a success, visiting the new Mountain House when it opened in 1824, and he painted a number of scenic sights in the area. Perhaps the most famous was his "Falls of Kaaterskill" from 1826, but in his search for an Arcadian America he had to leave out the trappings of the tourist industry, which already had invaded this popular sight: a viewing tower, steps, and handrails. Instead he added a lonely Indian warrior, a symbol of wilderness that had already by then become nostalgic, as the natives of the Hudson valley area had more or less been wiped out.54 The Catskills falls became a well organized "tourist must," which made for cynical comments on the commodification. of the landscape by some visitors in the 1850s:The process of "doing" the sight, for those who have limited time, is very methodical. You leave the hotel and drive in a coach to the bar-room. You refresh! You step out upon the balcony and look into the abyss. The proprietor of the Falls informs you that the lower plunge is about eighty feet high. It appears to you to be about ten.

The proprietor of the bar-room is also the genius of the Falls, and derives a trade both with his spirits and with his waters. In fact, if your romantic nerves can steady the truth, the Catskill falls is turned on to accommodate poets and parties of pleasure.55

For twenty-five cents the sluice was opened and the tourist was then delivered back to the Mountain House in time for the formal dinner.

The institutionalization of sights was greatly helped by the ways in which the wilderness entered the parlors of middle-class homes. Engraved volumes like Picturesque Views of American Sceneries from 1820 and Hudson River Portfolio from 1826 domesticated the wild and created an appetite for "doing sights," and by the mid-century millions of landscape reproductions circulated on the American market, in books, magazines, and individual prints. There was also a rapid growth in the guidebook trade, which further helped to institutionalize tourist travel.56

The luxurious Mountain House became a sight in itself, as tourists started to go on "the fashionable tour," as an American counterpart to the Grand European tour. In the 1820s the circuit took travelers from New York City up along the Hudson River, viewing the Catskills, perhaps stopping at Saratoga Springs, and then to Niagara through the new Erie Canal. The tour combined the new interest in American nature with visits to historic sites, but also an interest in new technological wonders, which this early generation of American tourists had no trouble combining with the romance of the wild.

Such pioneer tourism became an important part of American nation-making, a territorialization of the national. In this process landscape and history merged in a powerful way: early Americans walked the very same ground where we are standing now. (The question was, of course, which Americans: indigenous inhabitants, or early white settlers?)

As the Hudson panoramas and the mountainscapes of the East became too tame, the American tour expanded westwards, in search of "realwilderness." The tourist discovery of the breathtaking Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada during the 1850s is one example of this new focus. In 1866 one of the early visitors described his first sight of the valley:

The overpowering sense of the sublime, of awful desolation, of transcending marvelousness and unexpectedness, that swept over us, as we reined our horses sharply out of green forest, and stood upon high jutting rock that overlooked this rolling, upheaving sea of granite mountains, holding far down [in] its rough lap this vale of beauty, of meadow and grove and river,—such tide of feeling, such stoppage of ordinary emotions comes at rare intervals in any life. It was the confrontal of God face to face, as in great danger, in solemn, sudden death. It was Niagara, magnified. All that was mortal shrank back, all that was immortal swept to the front and bent down in awe.57

Not only is this a model description in the international language of the sublime experience, it is also illustrates the new tone of national pride based on the perceived uniqueness and greatness of the vast American wilderness.

It is no coincidence that the idea of the national park developed in America—the first being Yellowstone in 1872—only to be exported over the world as an element in the international list of the necessary infrastructure of "what a real nation should contain." In the same manner the United States had been on the receiving end in borrowing ideas and blueprints for nationalizing its wilderness. The nineteenth-century American tradition of wilderness painting borrowed not only its sublime focus from Europe but also French and British painting styles.58 The end result was a specific American articulation of that wilderness, which was to be developed further in the powerful American tradition of wilderness photography, culminating in Ansel Adams's sacral representations of Yosemite. But as Rebecca Solnit shows, photography already played a crucial role in the establishment of this national park. It was not panoramas in oil but the new techniques of landscape photography that swayed bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., selling them on the idea of safeguarding this wilderness already in the 1860s. Landscape photography was still a stunning novelty, a powerful medium of persuasion.59 The nationalizing of the sublime, as in the early pilgrimages to the Niagara, the panoramas of the Hudson River, or the mountain cathedrals of Yosemite, had several effects. One is that no onlooker had to ponder about whether France's frequency and quality of picturesque sights compared to those of the United States, or argue about whether the mountains of Yosemite represented "as grand panoramic views of mountain and valley as [tourists] can find in Switzerland."60 In their unique Americanness these landscapes were not to be compared on an international scale. They were, so to speak, taken out of the tourist competition, but from this it also follows that to understand and take in their greatness, the viewer had to be a true American. Thus the nationalization of the sublime added a new dimension of the sacred: the feeling that in certain landscapes you were in communion with nature and with the spirit of the nation itself.

The tourist cult of the wilderness produced a new national pride in the uniqueness and freshness of the New World. Thomas Cole pointed out that "all nature here is new to Art. No Tivoli's, no Terni's, Mont Blanc's, Plinlimmon's, hackneyed & worn by the daily pencils of hundreds, but virgin forests, lakes & waterfalls."61

As we have seen, tourism itself threatened this rhetoric of virginity and freshness, expanding and improving its reach, through steamboats and railways. This new mobility, of course, also produced novel ways of experiencing the landscape.


Excerpted from On Holiday by Orvar Lofgren Copyright © 2002 by Orvar Lofgren. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Orvar Löfgren, Professor of European Ethnology at the University of Lund, Sweden, has written a dozen books. His best-known work is also in English: Culture Builders: A Historical Anthropology of Middle-Class Life (with Jonas Frykman, 1987).

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