Bryan on Mackintosh, 'Selling the Sights: The Invention of the Tourist in American Culture'

Will B. Mackintosh. Selling the Sights: The Invention of the Tourist in American Culture. Early American Places Series. New York: New York University Press, 2019. Illustrations. 272 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4798-8937-2.

Reviewed by William D. Bryan (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-Nationalism (December, 2019)
Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

Printable Version:

Everybody wants to travel, but nobody wants to be a tourist. An entire industry of tour guides, travel writers, and social media influencers now promise that they can teach Americans how to travel at home and abroad without looking like tourists. Advice on everything from where to go to what to wear is available in travel blogs, in news articles, and in popular guidebooks, like the Not for Tourists series. Even Rick Steves, the nation’s best-known travel sage, gives travelers tips on how they can avoid being “ugly tourists” while on the road.[1] This is nothing new, however. As Will B. Mackintosh shows in his excellent new book, Selling the Sights, tension over the cultural meaning of tourism has been present ever since tourists emerged as a distinct type of American traveler in the mid-nineteenth century.

Although the first use of the word “tourist” occurred in a 1798 novel by a British expatriate, it had not yet acquired the cultural weight that the label has today. As Mackintosh shows, in the early nineteenth century, tourists were indistinguishable from all other travelers. At this time, travel was a burdensome process that required travelers to make individualized decisions about which destinations, modes of transportation, routes, and lodgings to select—typically with little reliable information to inform their choices. The result, Mackintosh explains, was that Americans “treated travel as something that they produced themselves, out of the raw materials of geographical knowledge, means of transportation, and provisions for the road” (p. 55).

By the 1820s, however, travel had started to be commodified by entrepreneurial boosters who realized that they could profit by assisting wealthy Americans who were eager to travel but were daunted by the work it required. Starting in the Northeast and gradually spreading throughout the rest of the nation, entrepreneurs offered packaged travel experiences that simplified the decisions required of travelers. These new experiences guaranteed that travelers could remain safe while participating in an increasingly anonymous travel marketplace, ultimately allowing them to regard travel as a source of leisure, rather than another form of work.

Key to this was the commodification of nearly every part of the travel experience, and Mackintosh argues persuasively that the emergence of American capitalism in the nineteenth century was both evident in and driven at least in part by the development of a national tourism industry. In the early nineteenth century, for instance, improvements in transportation technology and infrastructure made it easier to travel to springs and resorts, to natural wonders like Niagara Falls, and to sites with historic or entertainment value. Boosters capitalized on this transportation revolution by selling tickets and travel packages and by promoting routes that stopped at popular destinations. Other savvy entrepreneurs learned to market the social and aesthetic experiences offered at each site to consumers who lived far away. Authors and printers churned out guidebooks that provided travelers with practical information on popular sites and routes and “an increasingly stable set of cultural meanings” for their travel (p. 53).

As travel was commodified, Mackintosh shows, the “tourists” who took advantage of these packaged leisure opportunities began to be considered a distinct type of traveler by mid-century. Many tourists were content with the newfound convenience that enabled them to enjoy social interaction and picturesque scenery in a fashionable, if predictable, manner. Yet other tourists spurned this label and chafed at the uniformity of packaged travel experiences. This was especially true as tourists were targeted by satirists for their role as leisure seekers who consumed seemingly artificial experiences. In short, “right from its earliest moments of origins,” Mackintosh argues, “tourism was a profoundly ambivalent phenomenon” (p. 111).

As tourists became punchlines, travelers often sought to give their travels a higher purpose in order to avoid judgment. By mid-century, many cast themselves as “traveler[s] to good purpose.” While tourists traveled for leisure, the “traveler to good purpose” intended to “produce something useful even if he or she also consumed” (p. 154). The growing divide evident in these competing labels was always about more than different visions of the best ways to travel and spend leisure time. As Mackintosh argues, this division instead reflected a broader tension over the nation’s burgeoning capitalist economy and what it meant to be engaged in the market. In short, the process of determining who was a tourist was “a means by which nineteenth-century Americans came to grips with the market and sought to delineate what it was and what it was not” (p. 12).

The history of American tourism is well-traveled terrain, but Mackintosh brings a fresh perspective to this subject. Many scholars write about tourism as a way to shed light on the development of regional or national identity, but Mackintosh’s main contribution is focusing instead on when and how the very concept of the tourist was “invented.” Rather than seeing the definition of “tourism” as something static that we can impose on the past, then, he uses this definition as the book’s guiding question.

In doing so, Mackintosh finds that the birth of tourism was intertwined with the emergence of American capitalism. Although other scholars characterize twentieth-century tourism as a capitalist enterprise, Selling the Sights shows that tourism depended on the commodification of travel from its very birth in the nineteenth century, making it a quintessentially capitalist undertaking from the outset. Indeed, Mackintosh argues that the commodification of experience by tourism promoters was a key, but understudied, part of the market revolutions that swept the United States in the nineteenth century. Tourism and capitalism, then, cannot be separated. Without the commodification of travel experiences, the figure of the tourist could not exist.

In this way, Selling the Sights has implications that reach far beyond the nineteenth century and make this book useful even to those who work on unrelated topics. Mackintosh, unlike most scholars of tourism, does not view the commodification of travel experiences as a necessarily negative trait, and his book provides an important corrective to common stereotypes of tourists that persist today. Mackintosh uses history to show that there has never been one “authentic” way of traveling, suggesting that we should celebrate tourism for providing many Americans with experiences that would otherwise be inaccessible to them, rather than condemning tourism as an artificial way of experiencing the world (p. 195).


[1]. Rick Steves, “The Ugly Tourist (and How Not to Be One),” Rick Steves’ Europe,

Citation: William D. Bryan. Review of Mackintosh, Will B., Selling the Sights: The Invention of the Tourist in American Culture. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. December, 2019.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.