Being a writer, I am biased in favor of the printed word; but there are limits. I was reminded of them when I came across an engaging account of travel across the United States in 1882 by one Walter Gore Marshall, entitled Through America: Or Nine Months in the United States (available here on Google Books). The prosperous 1880s brought dozens of travelers from abroad, eager to explore the United States and then write travel accounts, Marshall among them. (Others included Robert Louis Stevenson, whose journey I have noted in an earlier entry.)
Marshall lauds the beauty of my home country, here along the Hudson River, opining that the best time to see the river is autumn, "when its well-timbered banks are clothed with those rich and glorious tints; when the maples, elms and oaks have put on their autumnal dress, and their leaves have turned to bright crimson and gold; when the whole of this part of the country, in truth, is decked in the gayest and most brilliant colours." Happily, that season remains vibrant in the twenty-first century, but the Hudson River in the 1880s was a much busier thoroughfare, filled with both "palatial steamers...with a band of music on board" as well as freight haulers. "Scores of canal barges laden with every variety of merchandise, may often be seen lashed together in one long line, tugged by two or more steamers. Once I remember seeing two tugs abreast dragging after them down-stream forty of these barges, which were strung together in eight lots, five in each lot. Following close behind these came a second string of twenty-six, with three steamers tugging them; behind these, again, came a third string of thirty-eight, towed by three steamers likewise. Thus there was a procession of one hundred and four barges in three detachments drawn by eight steam-tugs!"
But Marshall could not omit another less appealing feature of the river in his day, "the huge staring white-paint advertisemens of pills, plasters, etc., which here figure up as prominently as usual. Who is there who does not call to mind that conspicuous notice relating to "GERMAN LAUNDRY SOAP" planted at the base of the Palisades on the west bank of the river, and which can be plainly read from the opposite shore, though the river must be here more than a mile wide at least?" When Marshall boarded the New York Central on his train trip across the country, he found such defacements on view everywhere:
Standing in the long shadow of this year's Earth Day, though there is much to fear from the ravages being plotted by the current administration, we are provided at least some comfort in knowing that the billboard aesthetic of the previous century is receding.
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors