White Mountains

   Posted by: rring   in Americana, Classes, Students

[Posted by Jane Smith for AMST 838: America Collects Itself, from Colony to Empire]

SweetsercoverThe 1890 edition (with updates) of an 1876 guide to the White Mountains edited by Moses Foster Sweetser (1848 –1897) is a fascinating glimpse into late nineteenth century outdoor travel and travel writing.  Bent’s Bibliography of the White Mountains, published in 1911, billed it as “the most comprehensive guide to the White Mountains that has been published,” and this seems to be an accurate claim.  Sweetser is incredibly thorough, both in describing the natural beauty that awaits his readers and in helping them plan every detail of their trips. Published at a time when the advent of paid time off and inexpensive train travel opened up recreational opportunities  for the middle class, Sweetser’s  guidebook offers all the tools for planning  a “do it yourself ” vacation.


M.F. Sweetser edited other travel books for Houghton Mifflin during the late nineteenth century, including guides of the Maritime Provinces and New England, among others. AMST 8380002His handbook for travel in the White Mountains appeals to the hearty outdoorsman interested in hiking the trails of the area, as well as to families or others focused on relaxing stays in grand resorts or smaller hotels.  Extensive sections on geology, topography (with fold out maps), nomenclature, history, scenery and an unusually long section devoted to “Indians” take up the front portion of the guidebook. Sweetser is a stickler for details, at one point carefully explaining to his readers missing topographical graphics, an admission that is charmingly quaint in our Google Earth era. “It was intended to have also panoramas from Moosilauke and Mt. Lafayette, but protracted cold and snowy weather settled down when the Guide-book party moved in that direction, and prevented the drawings.”



SweetsermapDetailed descriptions of train routes, walking trails and accommodations, arranged by geographic area, dominate the last part of the book.  The number of train routes (and train companies) seemingly servicing every nook and cranny of the White Mountain area is impressive, especially when compared to our current scaled-down Amtrak service.  Sweetser  also includes a comprehensive overview for 1890 in the front of the book, noting minute changes in train or stage service and lodging updates, such as his comment about the fabled Glen House, “The new Glen House is one of the foremost summer hotels in the world, and its surroundings have been much adorned of late.”

Sweetser seems as comfortable with the scientific and practical portions of the guidebook as he is with the subjective and descriptive passages.  His depiction of the ideal season to visit is more exuberant than we might see in contemporary guidebooks.

“From the middle of June to the middle of July foliage is more fresh; the cloud scenery is nobler; the meadow grass has more golden color; the streams are usually more full and musical; and there is a larger proportion of the ‘long light’ of the afternoon, which kindles the landscape into the richest loveliness…”

Nor does he hold back his opinion of a less desirable scene, “The Ossipee Ponds are less attractive, on account of the dull surroundings and desolate shores.”

A good portion of the book concerns what Sweetser calls “pedestrian tours or what we would call “hiking.”  In text aimed only at men, he proclaims that these walking tours, “afford ground for rejoicing to lovers of American physical manhood.” Sweetser orients much of the book, particularly those sections dealing with outside adventures, around the Appalachian Mountain Club, formed in 1876. The club had 700 members at the time of the 1890 printing (as compared with 150,000 today) and was created specifically to explore the White Mountains by MIT Professor, Charles Pickering.  Sweetser leverages the organization’s credibility and reputation throughout the book.

One of my favorite sections in Sweetser’s guidebook contains practical advice for men planning pedestrian tours while in the White Mountains. In the days before performance fabrics, he suggests the following attire.

“A flannel shirt, with a rolling collar of the same material, is about all the chest-covering which is comfortable in warm weather walking. Linen collars and cuffs are quickly melted by perspiration; the waistcoat is quite      superfluous; the coat (a light English shooting jacket, buttoning across the breast, is the best)….”

He then gives the following resourceful advice for footwear.

“Shoes should be selected with great care, and should fit neatly… the bottoms of the soles and heels should be garnished with rows of the soft iron hob-nails to prevent wearying slips….

Sweetser also offers a method of repelling the black flies and mosquitoes famous in the White Mountain area, “Various preparations of tar and oil, and other ingredients, are used to anoint the hands, face and neck…” Finally, with our modern day emphasis on hydration and the omnipresent water bottle, it is difficult to grasp Sweetser’s advice to those thirsty souls ascending the White Mountains.  He suggests that they, “carry a bottle of cold tea to be drank [sic] sparingly and at wide intervals” or that they, “drink from water found along the way – springs or rain found in the hollows of flat rocks…after a rain storm.”

The White Mountains was such a popular tourist destination in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that a bibliography devoted to guidebooks and other types of literature about this specific area was complied in 1911. Bent’s Bibliography of the White Mountains, originally published by Houghton Mifflin for the Appalachian Mountain Club, contained lists of magazine articles, newspapers, fiction, poetry, journal articles and artwork about this scenic area. Sweetser’s handbook  for the White Mountains also appears in one other significant  bibliography  with a lengthy but descriptive  title, Descriptive List of the five-hundred and forty-eight books published by Houghton Mifflin & Co. and Exhibited in the Model Library of the American Library Association at the Chicago Exposition of 1893.

Sweetser’s handbook is most intriguing for the details it reveals about travel and everyday life in 1890. While the scientific sections are a bit tedious, the rest of the handbook is an appealing and complete vacation guide, written with sincere enthusiasm. It is sad to think that the area has changed so much since Sweetser so thoroughly and eloquently described it in 1890.




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