With the establishment of Yellowstone National Park on March 1, 1872, Americans began embracing the idea of preserving and protecting the best of the United States’ natural treasures for the benefit and enjoyment of generations to come. In the years following the end of the Civil War, an increasing number of travelers navigated the country exploring and enjoying the landscape. They shared their discoveries and encounters through a variety of printed media, and soon these sites were recognized as iconic American landmarks. Places like Yellowstone, Niagara Falls, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon were extensively documented through photography, etchings, engravings and paintings. Those Americans who could not partake in an actual exploration of the country were able to enjoy the experience vicariously through the numerous images produced.
Artists were commissioned to document the American landscape as a way to both familiarize the urban dweller with places of leisure, as well as to convince the public of the promise and opportunity held by the distant corners of the country. By engaging with these now iconic places, Americans were able to construct a unique identity as well as develop a sense of national pride in their country’s landscape. Interestingly though, the pursuit of a national identity overrode notions of authenticity, and many of these resounding images were doctored so as to appear more poignant and glamorous.
The deck of playing cards in the Cooper-Hewitt collection is a spirited yet telling embodiment of the notions circulating throughout America at the end of the 19th century. The game consists of 52 cards, each with a photo of the most renowned and picturesque landmarks of Yellowstone National Park. Likely the object of the game was to separate the cards into groups of twelve as constituted by a suite, labeled A-D. The winner was the player who had the greatest number of complete suites at the end of the game. These cards functioned both as an educational tool and a unique vehicle through which Americans could become “urban armchair travelers”, exploring the wonders of the United States from the comfort of their homes.
For more information on the unique ideas circulating through the American consciousness at the end of the 19th century, please reference the exhibition catalogue Frederic Church, Winslow Homer & Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape. Adventure awaits – Happy trails!