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The Emergence of Public Parks in the Gilded Age

Updated on December 28, 2016
J Schatzel profile image

J. Schatzel works in agricultural/occupational medicine in rural upstate NY and has a Masters degree in history.

Manifest Destiny, Social Darwinism, Scientific Exploration, and Social Mobility

Public parks emerged during the early years of the Gilded Age for a variety of reasons, and continued to spread throughout the progressive era. Historians such as Hilary Taylor, Frank Clark, and Lynn Ross Bryant have argued different reasons for the parks’ formation in Gilded American society and continuing success throughout the progressive era, using common themes such as hygiene, social class, urbanization, Manifest Destiny, Social Darwinism, scientific exploration, the wonder of nature, and social reform.

Hilary Taylor’s 1995 article entitled “Urban Public Parks, 1840-1900: Design and Meaning” analyzes the social meanings behind public park formation during the Gilded Age. Taylor argues that by the Gilded Age, the public recognized the rapidity of urbanization and expressed a growing wish for a response to the “rapid and unplanned proliferation of urban dwellings across the country.” Taylor argues her thesis that urban parks developed as a means of social uplift for the working poor confined by finances to urban areas, using such evidence as the writings of such utilitarian thinkers as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill among others. Although Bentham and Stuart’s writings suggested parks would ease the effects of overcrowding and provide a temporary mental escape from poverty, Taylor concludes that in doing so, such public places attracted a variation of social classes, and thus provided the urban poor with a means of displaying proper Victorian Era ideals as a “civilizing influence” meant to provide a means of uplift from “poverty, squalor, ill health, lack of morals and morale” through a temporary vision of nature and virtuous behavior amidst an overpopulated urban sprawl.[1]

Using evidence from A.R. Sennet’s 1905 commentary regarding upper-class willingness to share such public spaces with the working poor, Taylor concludes that Gilded Age public parks were constructed to provide the urban poor with an “image of virtuous society” with which the poor could elevate “the personal and public character” of all urban dwellers through emulation of the set examples of acceptable public social behavior. In doing so, Taylor expresses a belief in the inherent benefit of public parks being an improvement to public health through the provision of socially acceptable means of exercise such as walking.[2]

While Taylor argues that the parks arose as a means of social uplift for the working class, she recognizes their usefulness by the upper-class as places reflective of idealized visions of order and civility possible within urban communities using “scientific detail” to manage the “beauty and spiritual resonance of the native countryside,” arising from what Taylor argues was the Gilded Age’s emphasis on scientific analysis and discovery. Taylor concludes that for upper class city dwellers, the public park was a place to revel in the scientific wonders of the world.[3]

Taylor’s analysis paid great attention to the design and architecture of public parks, emphasizing their reflection of social ideology at the time of their construction. Through the use of an analysis of parks such as Carlisle, among others designed by prominent landscape architects of the Gilded Age such as E. Robinson and E. Kemp, Taylor argues that parks often Asian-inspired designs, exotic plant and fish species, and Romanesque and Gothic archways and bridges, reflected Gilded Age fascinations with imperialism, the orient, exotic places, and classical antiquity. Taylor asserts her idea that “thus, designers roamed from the alps to the orient, from Rome to Jacobethan England” and beyond in their search to please Gilded Age American urban populations.[4]

Throughout Frank Clark’s 1973 study entitled “Nineteenth Century Public Parks from 1830,” Clark argues that parks developed as a hygienic and humanitarian means of social uplift of the urban poor in Gilded America through the creation of public spaces designed to encourage exercise. Clark relies heavily on contemporary scientific research of the Gilded Age to explain public park’s creation, such as in his explanation that a growing public emphasis on theories including Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life and Malthus’ “Essay on Population” encouraging the growing social themes of “self help” and “self improvement.”[5]

Clark also uses such literature as the 1869 Encyclopedia of Gardening and Frederick Law Olmstead’s 1922 Forty Years of Landscape Architecture, among others, to emphasize the growing public interest in urban green spaces during the Gilded Age. While Clark does emphasize the social uplift and scientific emphasis of public parks, he does not provide much discussion of how parks were meant to provide a means of self improvement through emulation of the upper classes as shown throughout Taylor’s later article did, twenty two years following the publication of Clark’s study. While Clark does use examples of public parks such as Central Park, he does not provide any analysis of the park’s architecture or reflections of contemporary social themes beyond his analysis of Social Darwinism within public parks.[6]

Throughout Lynn Ross Bryant’s “Sacred Sites: Nature and Nation in the U.S. National Parks,” her 2005 analysis of Gilded Age public parks reflects many of the same themes as Clark and Taylor’s analyses from the preceding decades. Using such sources as Park Service Director Steven Mather’s 1921 report, Bryant argues that National Parks formed naturally as an addition to the Gilded Age emphasis on scientific discovery and the natural world. Bryant argues that National Parks emerged as a unifying force to embody “archetypal American” ideals, using an analysis of Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Rocky Mountain National Parks as Gilded Age examples of the same hygienic and humanitarian ideals expressed by Taylor’s study. Using an emphasis on Gilded Age American focus on “identification of culture with landscape,” Bryant asserts her thesis that the National Parks developed in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era as a movement towards progress and as a “museum of nature” amidst increasing urbanization of America in the era of Manifest Destiny. Bryant argues that the evolution of the national park system was an embodiment of the national unity and an affirmation of American Manifest Destiny in the Gilded Age through an exhibition of American “wild grandeur” of the western frontier surrounded by growing urban areas. While Bryant does not focus on eastern American urban parks as her precedents did, Bryant emphasizes similar themes of growing Gilded Age fascination with science and nature, ideas of territorial expansion, and hygienic humanitarian uplift of the urbanites who visited such public parks.[7]

Clark, Taylor, and Bryant have all used similar themes in their analyses of Gilded Age American origins of Public Parks. Although relying on a different variety of contemporary documentation, the historians have provided researchers with an insight into the social origins of American Public Parks of Gilded Age America using examples of Manifest Destiny, Social Darwinism, scientific exploration, upward social mobility through emulation, hygiene, and rapid urbanization.

[1] Hilary A. Taylor. “Urban Public Parks, 1840-1900: Design and Meaning” Garden History Vol.23, No.2, (Winter 1995) 202-206.

[2] Ibid., 213-215.

[3] Ibid., 203-206.

[4] Ibid., 207-211.

[5] Frank Clark, “Nineteenth Century Public Parks from 1830” Garden History, Vol. 1, No.3, (Summer 1973) 31-35.

[6] Ibid., 31-37.

[7] Lynn Ross Bryant, “Sacred Sites: Nature and Nation in the U.S. National Parks” Religion and American Culture, Vol.15, No.1, (Winter 2005) 31-50.

Special Thanks

Special Thanks to the Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois Museum, Liverpool NY, for the use of their Office library for my research!
Special Thanks to the Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois Museum, Liverpool NY, for the use of their Office library for my research!


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