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Proudly Luring Tourists Since 1850

The way a town goes after visitors
says a lot about its state of mind

Tourst Brochure 1949 It’s called a "lure" piece and it works like fishing tackle. You dangle something pretty to attract the fish to bite. Only in this case, we’re after tourists, not trout.

All six Seacoast chambers of commerce are working together on a shiny new lure brochure. I saw the mock-up last week. It touts the region's attractions. We’re not as organized or sophisticated as the New Hampshire mountain and lakes region promoters, but we’re learning. About 100,000 of these glossy booklets will be shipped to potential visitors in Canada, New York, New Jersey and our neighbors immediately South. We won’t skin and pan-fry those who take the bait – just show them a good time, lighten their wallets, and send them home happy. Tourism is a catch-and-release sport.

Tourism long ago replaced fishing as our primary source of income around here. The Seacoast region has been actively luring visitors for 150 years – to beaches, historic sites, restaurants, festivals, museums and shops. Trains made it all possible. Before trains, overland tourists were rare. George Washington made the arduous trip, as did Lafayette. But roads were bad and stagecoaches uncomfortable. Sailors arrived by sea in great numbers, but preferred earthier amusements while in port.

For reasons unknown, I've collected a number of early Portsmouth lure pieces. I spread them out the other day to get a sense of how the tourist business has evolved. Here's what I saw.

Sarah Foster Starts It

I’ve already gone on at length in this column about the Grandmother of Portsmouth tourism. Sarah Haven Foster’s little green guidebook, appeared soon after the Civil War. Designed for women, it was compact, affordable and lightweight with lots of text, but no illustrations. Tourists had come to see the Isles of Shoals as early as the 1840s, but Foster envisioned the city too as a worthy destination.

Sons & Daughters Homecoming

Retrun of the Sons, 1873The biggest "lure" piece in Seacoast history took place in 1873. An organized marketing blitz invited former Portsmouth residents to come home for a weekend festival. Volunteers decked out downtown with massive wooden arches topped with flowers and branches. Residents draped homes along the elm-lined gravel streets with bunting, flags and carved wooden eagles. Daniel Webster , a former Portsmouth resident, got the idea going in 1849 with a Boston reunion. But this event topped everything, drawing great crowds, including many young residents who had abandoned the city for greener pastures.

Stereocards, Viewbooks & Postcards

I've seen dozens of photos of the ornate 1873 Homecoming decorations, but most are devoid of people. People tended to move and create blurry ghostlike figures. By the late 19th century photography had evolved beyond the stiff daguerreotype method. Soon everybody had a stereo picture viewer sitting on the family piano, so local shops turned every appealing view into double-sided cards giving viewers a thrilling three-dimensional peek. Portsmouth's Davis Brothers , for example, documented historic houses, storms, and scenic vistas -- anything that travelers and residents might buy. Many of those images found their West as families migrated.

Lyman Door

Stiff-backed photo display cards gave way to small booklets of grayish photographs. Souvenir "view books" allowed visitors to take their memories home cheaply. My collection includes a pristine 28-page "Glimpses of Portsmouth and Vicinity". I splurged $15 for it, but the original owner paid a dime. View books were postcard-sized in an era just before the postcard stamp. By 1905 every page in the old-fashioned booklets had been transformed into postcards that could be mailed anywhere in the country for a penny. Postcard albums passed among relatives spread the word about worthy vacation hotspots.

Old Town by the Sea

In 1895 Portsmouth author Thomas Bailey Aldrich recalled his boyhood home in the best seller "An Old Town by the Sea". Now Portsmouth had an advertising slogan. Photographs, instead of hand-sketch engravings enhanced Aldrich's nostalgic yarns. Meanwhile, a flurry of cheap hardcover photography books appeared with almost no text at all. I wrote 150 captions for a similar book recently, continuing the tradition. My two favorite oldie volumes are "Illustrated Memories" and "Attractive Bits Along the Shore ", both from the late 1890s. These larger format volumes depict familiar Seacoast sites -- colonial homes, rocky cliffs, forts, lighthouses and churches. Old Ironsides , that once floated in Portsmouth Harbor, and a number of fantastic early mansions and hotels, sadly, are gone today, but we deserve kudos for the many landmarks still preserved.

Gurney’s Giant Guide, & Bass' Baby Handbook

Bass Handbook 1908

In 1902 enterprising Portsmouth photographer Caleb Gurney pulled all the text and all the photos into an exhaustive hardcover guide. Hardly a building of note is missing from Gurney's detailed city handbook. Modernized photo processing and printing techniques allowed Gurney to mass-produce his 250-page information manual that has yet to be outdone. A week doesn't go by when I'm not thumbing through "Portsmouth: Historic and Picturesque" in search of an old building or misplaced fact.

That same decade, Bass Drug Store in Market Square began distributing the tiniest guide to Portsmouth. My copy, measuring about 3 x 4 inches was published in 1908. The diminutive 72-page handbook shows just how modern the city had suddenly become. Besides eensy-weensy photographs and guided tours, the Bass book includes electric trolley, ferry, train and tide timetables. Visitors could then reach any town in the Seacoast by public conveyance and the guide caters to a whole new breed of independent wealthy traveler -- the autoist.

Between the Wars

Portsmouth 1930s Lure Piece

By the late 1930s the tone of the lure piece had turned decidedly industrial. A booklet published by the Portsmouth Board of Trade advertises "Acres of Sunshine, Miles of View, Oceans of Invigorating Air". But the opening pages are filled with weighty pictures of banks, factories, coal wharves and railroad tracks. Historic houses take a back seat to tall photos of commercial city blocks and a panoramic view of the Naval Shipyard. The whole city has the look of a black Studebaker in an FBI film. The booklet reads: "Come here for Business, Residence, Recreation." Portsmouth could be Anywhere, USA. There's a grim underlying sense that things are going to get worse, before they get better.

The United Seacoast of America

For a brief shining moment after WW II locals rediscovered the beauty of the Seacoast and, instead of battling each other, towns worked together.

My collection includes four black and white picture magazines from the late 1940s. Without even a nod to industry and economy, these lovely pastoral booklets show a scenic coastline with sailboats on Great Bay, ice-fishermen on the Exeter River, grand Portsmouth architecture, thick woods and open pastures. Every local town is pictured with equality. This postwar hymn of thanksgiving, without beating drums, turns out to be the most provocative lure piece of them all. But the camaraderie and thankfulness didn’t last long.

Lovely Urban Renewal

Then it was back to hard sell. By 1969 the glossy Portsmouth lure piece was flecked with color photographs -- of a car dealership and frozen food plant. Hooray – the booklet shouts – we’re in the Space Age. Fast food, strip malls, and tacky modern architecture had arrived and aluminum siding outranked weathered shingles. Even as Portsmouth was being ravaged by urban renewal, this chamber of commerce brochure hammered its message of growth, enterprise, modernization, industry and a bottomless real estate market. The old town by the sea was then home to nuclear submarines and a Strategic Command airbase. The sky was the limit. Oh, and by the way, Strawberry Banke was open for history buffs.

Coming Full Circle

Somewhere in the mid 1970s the Seacoast put the brakes on. Residents began to realize that, left unchecked, this historic region was in danger of becoming as picturesque as Route 1 in Saugus. Conservation and preservation are no longer dirty words. Neither is tourism. Portsmouth still lacks a full blown public transportation system, but things are finally looking more like the 1900s with buses, trolleys, and nearby trains.

Sure, there isn’t a single public bathroom downtown, but tourists can’t have everything. City officials are coming, at long last, to recognize – as their great, great, grandparents well knew – that history sells. Today’s lure is yesterday – the return of the Old Town by the Sea neatly blended with modern dining and clean industries. And to make it work smoothly, Seacoast towns have to work together. Wasn’t it Ben Franklin who said -- ‘We must all tour together, or certainly we will all tour alone"?


- When Helen Met Sarah
- Portsmouth Souvenirs
- Amanda Visits Seaport World
- Early Images
- 375th Anniversary
- Old Town by the Sea
- Seacoast Touring

Copyright © 2002 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved..Article and images by J. Dennis Robinson from SeacoastNH.com Image Library..Davis Bros photo of 1873 celebration courtesy of Portsmouth Athenaeum.

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Portsmouth, New Hampshire 03802
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