The Wilderness Cure

This post was written by Kate Burch, Library Page.

“…To a man whose life is chiefly within four brick walls, and whose every breath takes up some part of the street and its filth, whose daily work is such that his body and health are a daily sacrifice to the necessities of sedentary life,- to such a man there is nothing in the whole range of remedial agents to make him so sound and strong and well and in so short a time, like the two or three weeks he can spare for a trip in the woods.”

Camps and Tramps in the Adirondacks, 1880 (F127. A2 N8)

Forest and Stream, August 1917. SK. F1
Forest and Stream, August 1917. SK. F1

Every summer, millions of New Yorkers endure endless traffic, long lines, and crowded transportation to seek refuge from the relentless pace of the city by visiting quieter places. For many, that means a trip to the country, to places like the Adirondacks, the Catskills, and the New England Coast. The paths we follow to these destinations date to the late nineteenth century, when the people of New York found a remedy for the malaise of city life: the wilderness cure.

F127 .A2 T2

New York in the mid-nineteenth century was a vast and prosperous metropolis, but even the glamor of the Gilded Age could not mask serious problems. Overcrowded tenements teemed with garbage and disease, foul air and filthy streets made for a sickly populace, and the politicians and businessmen who ruled the city were greedy and morally bereft. Anxious, overworked, and miserable, New Yorkers found a restorative power in outdoor recreation. The clean air and water of the wilderness could heal the body, while the beauty and solitude of life in the woods revived the soul.

The growth of railroads, steamboats, and trolleys made wilderness travel accessible and affordable to a large population, and by the 1890s, camping was a popular national past-time. Competing transportation companies issued camp guide books, like this one from the Adirondack Railway Company, to advertise their routes as the best path to an idyllic retreat.

Henry C. Squires, 170 Broadway, Descriptive catalogue and price-list of sportsmen's supplies, 1890. (Landauer GV747 .H4 S7 1890)
Henry C. Squires, 170 Broadway, Descriptive catalogue and price-list of sportsmen’s supplies, 1890. (Landauer GV747 .H4 S7 1890)

New York City was serviced by a variety of outdoor supply stores and sporting catalogs that proffered tools, shelters, and apparel to city dwellers planning a wilderness vacation. Outdoor-themed magazines were popular, and an endless array of guidebooks were available to instruct travelers on the best methods of camping and trapping. “Be sure you take with you a large stock of patience and good nature,” Practical Hints on Camping (SK601 .H49) recommends, “A good camper accommodates himself to circumstances and is too much of a philosopher to quarrel.”

Rochester, VT. BV Schermerhorn
Rochester, VT. BV Schermerhorn

Above all, guides to camping urged travelers to keep a diary, to serve as a record of their supplies and expenditures, and also to reflect and document their journeys.

Gene Schermerhorn’s Way Up Diary (BV Schermerhorn) is a beautiful example. The illustrated diary depicts his trips to the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire, showing daily life in the wilderness.

Despite the idyllic landscapes and fresh air, many campers had trouble coping with life in the outdoors.

BV Schermerhorn
Really big mosquitoes. (BV Schermerhorn)

Common complaints included unrelenting insects, uncomfortable beds, rain, and bad food. In the woods, the restraints of civilized society loosened. While many people found this refreshing, some travelers were especially affronted to see people eating with their hands, and having dinner with their hats on.

“After a few days among these environments,” wrote “A Camper” to the New York Times on May 17, 1900, “it seemed to us as if men and women… who had always appeared most decorous in their homes, had forgotten all sense of propriety, and as the season progressed affairs grew even worse.”

Encounters with wildlife (BV Schermerhorn)
Encounters with wildlife (BV Schermerhorn)

Still, most early wilderness travelers found that these annoyances were small compared to the vigor and vitality they gained.

These intrepid explorers left a legacy of enthusiasm for outdoor activity, and provided the popular support needed to create the nation’s first national parks. By documenting their enjoyment of America’s wild spaces, they ensured that future generations of weary New Yorkers could escape to pristine forests and mountains for a much-needed rest.

Outing (GV1 .O9)
Outing (GV1 .O9)

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