Public squares, parks, and places in the City of New York, August 1838 (Princeton, HMC01.5730)

If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much.

How I Go to the Woods by Mary Oliver (from Swan: Poems and Prose Poems, 2010)

Although there has always been open space, the rise of the park in America—land set aside for conservation and recreation—emerged in the 19th century from the threads of transcendentalism, increasing urban and industrial living conditions, and the tenets of the American reform movement. Rapid rural to urban migration, coupled with lax or non-existent legislation guaranteeing a standard of living, led to overcrowding, tenement housing, hazardous working conditions, and huge income disparities. Disease followed. In an effort to right these wrongs and promote civic health, particularly for the middle class, the urban parks movement “sought to create a space in which the utopian promise of American democracy [...] could be fulfilled.”

These “antidotes to urbanity” were idealized as spaces where all residents, regardless of class or economy, could find and enjoy beauty, leisure, relaxation, and escape. Referred to as the “lungs of the city,” landscape architects like Frederick Law Olmsted, planner of New York City’s Central Park, designed gardens for easier breathing via the open air and opportunity for exercise. Additionally, the pastoral and picturesque beauty of the urban park also sought to promote a healthy mind with their calming influences.

Who, ultimately, was welcome in or worthy of public space never quite fulfilled these egalitarian promises (an injustice that can still be felt and seen today), and historians continue to explore issues of class, race, displacement and property law that explicitly and implicitly drove the development of the urban park infrastructure throughout the United States.

Despite complicated origins and legacies, early urban parks were designed to provide respite from density for some and maybe even more so a space to gather. Then and now, at their core parks provide space—space for picnics and parties, fairs and festivals.

The objects here speak to and celebrate the creation, enjoyment, and promotion of public space. They were culled from the items digitally available through Princeton University Library in May 2020 and speak to a small part of a larger story.