Mountains and Social Class (part 1)

For much of their history, mountain tourism and mountain climbing were pursued by a relatively small group of people who had both the money and leisure time that these activities required. As a tool for studying the social dynamics of the past, therefore, mountaineering literature can be useful. This section of the exhibition presents examples of how mountain landscapes have historically mirrored class tensions found elsewhere in society.


Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty, On Picturesque Travel, and On Sketching Landscape

William Gilpin, Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty,
On Picturesque Travel, and On Sketching Landscape
Rare Book Collection, ND1340 .G5 

In both Western and Eastern religions, mountains have long been associated with spirituality and divine revelation. On a more day-to-day level, however, they were historically seen as dangerous obstacles to be avoided. A shift occurred in eighteenth-century Europe, when the leisure class, especially in Great Britain, developed a love for mountain scenery. This was driven in part by contemporary philosophical debates over the nature of the beautiful and the sublime. A beautiful landscape, philosophers such as Edmund Burke maintained, was one that appealed to the senses; the sublime was one that could kill you.

Artist and essayist William Gilpin, author of the book shown here, introduced the term picturesque to describe landscapes that were both beautiful and sublime. Mountains, he believed, were the ideal landscape because they joined beauty with “agreeable horror” that fueled the imagination. Gilpin played a major role in inspiring the first generation of mountain tourists.


The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque: A Poem (1813)

William Combe, The Tour of Doctor Syntax
in Search of the Picturesque: A Poem
Rare Book Collection, PR3359.C5 T6 

Elite notions of picturesque beauty gradually trickled down to the middle classes and, by the nineteenth century, had become mainstream. Shown here is a comic poem that satirized William Gilpin and the craze for debating the aesthetic value of mountain scenery that he set off.


Mount Rainier From the South part of Admiralty Inlet

Engraving of Mount Rainier, from George Vancouver,
A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World (1798)
Charts and Engravings of Vancouver’s Expeditions,
Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, Bullitt_01_29

In 1792, English explorer George Vancouver used the language of the eighteenth-century social and cultural elite when he described Mount Rainier, Washington’s highest peak, as “picturesque.”

Observing the mountain from Puget Sound, he wrote: “The forest trees, and the several shades of verdure that covered the hills, gradually decreased in point of beauty, until they became invisible; when the perpetual clothing of snow commenced, which seemed to form a horizontal line from north to south along this range of rugged mountains, from whose summit Mount Rainier rose conspicuously… the whole producing a most grand, picturesque effect.”


Mount Vesuvius

Mount Vesuvius, in W. H. Davenport,
Mountains and Mountain-Climbing (1883)
Mountaineering Collection, GV200 .A33

The appreciation of mountains in Western culture owes much to the eighteenth-century Grand Tour, which offered well-to-do travelers from places like England and northern Germany their first sight of mountains. The most famous was Mount Vesuvius, overlooking the Bay of Naples. Climbing the active volcano was, for many, the climax of the Tour and offered a direct encounter with “the sublime.”

One of the earliest female travel writers, Hester Lynch Piozzi, climbed to the crater’s rim in 1785, not long after a minor eruption. In 1788, Ann Flaxman considered turning back from the summit but became “ashamed of my weakness and resolutely resolved at all events to go forward. I took an additional draught of strong beer, was placed on my mule and brought up the rear most gallantly singing.”


Portrait of Jacques Balmat

Portrait of Jacques Balmat, reproduced from
Francis H. Gribble, The Early Mountaineers (1899)
Mountaineering Collection, G510 .G84

Jacques Balmat, a hunter and collector of crystals, and Michel-Gabriel Paccard, a physician, made the first ascent of Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain, in 1786. Historian Peter Hansen has studied the climb in the larger political context of the Kingdom of Savoy, where Mont Blanc was located. Now part of France, Savoy ended feudalism in 1786 and expanded voting rights. Balmat and Paccard’s triumph over the mountain was celebrated as a cultural counterpart to the ascent of democracy.


The Call of the Cumberlands

Charles Neville Buck, The Call of the Cumberlands (1913)
Rare Book Collection, PS3503.U187 C3

Although mountains gradually came to be appreciated for their beauty and recreational opportunities, the social elite has always looked down, to some extent, on people who live there. In parts of Europe, mountains provided refuge for outlaws and robbers who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. In the United States, places like the Cumberland Mountains of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee were home to poor Scotch-Irish “hillbillies” (a derogatory term possibly derived from "Billy's Boys," Protestant supporters of King William III in seventeenth-century Ireland). Despite the hardships that mountain life brought, many immigrant families settled in Appalachia to escape class inequalities elsewhere and find personal freedom.

The Appalachian Mountains indirectly contributed to the outbreak of the American Revolution. To avert war with Indians, the British Crown issued the Proclamation of 1763, which drew a line down the crest of the mountains and forbade white settlers from crossing it. Poor frontiersmen and Americans in general saw it as an attempt by the governing class to limit their freedom.


Peaks, Passes, and Glaciers<br />
Alpina Americana (1907-1914)<br />

Peaks, Passes, and Glaciers (1859)
Journal of the Alpine Club of London
Mountaineering Collection, D823.A6

Appalachia (1879)
Journal of the Appalachian Mountain Club of Boston
Western Libraries electronic resource 

Alpina Americana (1907-1914)
Journal of the Alpine Club of New York
Mountaineering Collection, F868.S5 A4

Early mountaineering organizations were socially exclusive. The Alpine Club of London, founded in 1857, was run along the lines of a gentlemen’s club and was not open to women until 1975. To join, one had to be nominated by existing members, who could bar anyone considered socially inferior. By contrast, alpine clubs elsewhere in Europe were more democratic.

In the United States, some clubs were nearly as exclusive as their British counterparts, with one major exception: they admitted women. In fact, the first American mountaineering organization, the Alpine Club of Williamstown, Massachusetts, had twelve members at the time of its founding in 1863, nine of whom were women.

Nevertheless, membership in organizations like the Appalachian Mountain Club of Boston, the American Alpine Club of New York, and the Alpine Club of Canada was limited to the white social elite. Anti-Semitism was common up until the 1960s. Regional clubs like the Mazamas of Portland (founded in 1894) and the Mountaineers of Seattle (1906) were relatively egalitarian but still excluded people of color for many years.

CLASS - Part 1