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How National Park Service Brochures Have Changed Over The Past 50 Years


Wandering through a used bookstore, I recently came across a stash of National Park Service pamphlets from the 1950s – the educational brochures that usually contain a map, a bit of history, and a few photographs.

Comparing the old and new, there are changes aplenty, and some of them are plenty obvious. Almost without fail, the older brochures (all black & white) feature a cover photo and three images inside the fold – usually distant landscapes or architectural interiors. The newer guides are not only more colorfully photo-centric, but more varied. The 2005 guide for the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, for instance, features not only photos of the dunes, but also more than 40 different images of everything from tiger beetles to black bears, columbine to prickly pear; the 1950s guide features two shots of the dunes and two of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

As most of us know, the newer brochures are all of a kind, featuring the black border and consistent typography we are familiar with. The older brochures are less uniform, with the creators using various typefaces to (apparently) capture the feel of a place; thus “Capitol Reef” is written in big blocky letters (all capitals, of course), while “Arches” is in a more delicate and fanciful face, with lots of curvy arcs in the letters. Some of the older guides are foldouts, while others are thin, stapled booklets.

Other changes are also obvious but more instructive. In 1951, it was said that Arlington House in Virginia “preserves for posterity the atmosphere of gracious living, typical of a romantic age of American history.” Slavery goes unmentioned, except for the observation that the original builder was “an easygoing master, requiring little of his slaves.” You won’t find anything like that in the pamphlet dated 2005, though it is pointed out that it was the slaves who grew crops, took care of the livestock and served in the home.

Equally revealing are the changes evident in the treatment of ecology and history in the two brochures for Homestead National Monument in Nebraska. In 1951, the tallgrass prairie where the first homesteader made his claim does not warrant a word; in the 2007 brochure, prairie ecosystems are described in detail and their loss (at least tacitly) lamented. In the earlier brochure, pioneers vaguely “braved the rigors and scourges of the prairie,” while in the latter, more attention is paid to the challenges of a place “where it rains grasshoppers, fire and destruction.”

That last is a quote from a pioneer, and it is in original documents that the newer brochures are especially rich. The older guides tend to speak with an authorial voice, throwing in an occasional quote from a politician or newspaper editor. In the newer brochures, more effort is made to find the voice of the people, be it from diary entries, letters, writers or popular songs. In the newer Homestead brochure, for instance, Nebraska’s most famous novelist, Willa Cather, is cited several times; in the earlier piece she is not to be found.

But the use of the authorial voice also means that sometimes the older documents are longer and more descriptive. The 1954 guide for Utah’s Arches National Park (then a national monument) waxes poetic about the red rocks, “which in the light of the setting sun appear to glow with the heat of a mighty fire.” And Delicate Arch is unabashedly proclaimed “the climax of the monument’s inspiring scenic features.”

The 2007 Arches brochure is, word for word, a much shorter document, and it leaves it up to the visitor to decide what his or her ultimate arch might be. Still, an argument could be made that visitors, often on a tear through the landscape, should be encouraged to appreciate things like sunlight firing the stones around them. Maybe a few well-chosen words would help them stop and take notice of just what spectacular or important places they are visiting.

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I started collecting national park brochures when I was a kid in the sixties, when they first started standardizing the brochures into those little fold-outs that were solid-colored on the cover. My mother still has some of the ones I collected, but they're at her house 2000 miles away.

I collect the current park brochures now, and I've got 53 of them. So far [g].

Megaera, if you could share a scan of Canyonlands, Arches, Bridges, Hovenweep's old park brochures, that would be fabulous for the Museum of Moab. Also, Canyonlands turns 50 in 2014.

There shall be a year long celebration.

A collection of park brochures (mostly covers, but some entire contents) can be

seen at:

Thanks for the article, preston, and for everyone's comments.

If anyone has scans of brochure contents for park units between the Mississippi and the Rockies, I'd love to hear about them for a research project.

When I mentioned to the bookseller that this article had appeared on the NPT website, he said that he had the old brochures through his grandfather, Douglas McKay, Secretary of the Interior under Eisenhower.

Bob Pahre - what can I do for you? Besides the Homestead brochure, I have the ones for Theodore Roosevelt NMP, Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, and the Badlands. I also have several from the Rockies themselves.

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