The Rise of Tourism on Martha’s Vineyard by Thomas Dresser, The History Press, 2020, 157 pages, $21.99.

Thomas Dresser, in his new book The Rise of Tourism on Martha’s Vineyard, quotes Nancy Gardella, director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce since 2006, saying simply: “People dream about coming to the Vineyard.”

It’s a simple truth, and it’s been true for a long time, although perhaps not all the way back to 1602, since Bartholomew Gosnold, the first white man to visit the vicinity, wasn’t exactly sojourning with sunglasses and the latest beach read in his tote bag. As Mr. Dresser reminds his readers, Gosnold, who never actually set foot on the Vineyard, was interested mainly in real estate and sassafras.

But it wasn’t long before the Island started to exert the peculiar magic that virtually everybody who’s visited has felt. “Early on, the Vineyard earned a reputation as a welcoming place to outsiders,” Mr. Dresser writes. “Vineyarders did not assume airs; they showed visitors where to go and what to see in a friendly manner while they went about their daily tasks of fishing and farming.”

The appeal of those friendly residents has always been considerably amplified by the Vineyard’s gorgeous natural settings: miles of beaches, 16 “great” ponds, acres of salt water marshes, forests, cliffs, and fields all combine to make the island memorably beautiful in all seasons and almost all weathers. In wave after wave, different types of tourists began to arrive.

Mr. Dresser tells their stories in a series of pithy chapters that are enlivened in the customary History Press fashion, with page after page of archival photos guaranteed to have Vineyarders — residents and visitors — hunting for some glimpse of their own familiar surroundings in all those faded images of dirt streets and horse-drawn vehicles. The women wear ankle-length skirts, the men wear straw hats, and everybody seems to be having a grand time.

One of the earliest and most important architects of all this was a businessman named Erastus Carpenter, who “advocated the heretofore unknown belief that working men and women deserved a break in their routine of labor by savoring a vacation.”

As the middle class burgeoned in the 19th century, so too did the whole concept of taking vacations, and quick-minded hustlers like Mr. Carpenter, with his Oak Bluffs Land & Wharf Company, were ready to make that concept a reality.

The reality took many forms, especially in the last quarter of the 19th century, when steamship travel was reliable, hotels were booming, restaurants were popping up everywhere, and amusement parks in places like Cottage City (as Oak Bluffs was once known) were packing in delighted customers. “There was a lot to see and do on Martha’s Vineyard at the turn of the century,” Mr. Dresser writes, “and many people wanted to be part of that experience.”

The Island’s tourism could take all kinds of unexpected forms, of course. People responded to the tragedy of Mary Jo Kopechne’s death in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick, for instance, by crowding to the site. Likewise, Steven Spielberg’s 1970 movie adapting Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws, which was filmed on the Vineyard, brought flocks of curious onlookers. And of course there were all the U.S. Presidents who looked to the Vineyard as a vacation spot: President Grant spent three days at Oak Bluffs in 1874, for instance, and in later years both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have chosen to pay the Vineyard some high-profile seasonal visits, with President Obama purchasing a home on the Island.

There’s undeniably an element of wistfulness that attaches to any 2020 book dealing with the history of tourism. Reading Mr. Dresser’s stories of surging crowds on the boardwalks and promenades of Oak Bluffs and the beaches of Katama is absorbing, but it’s also a bit wrenching, in a way neither Mr. Dresser nor the History Press could have foreseen. Those vacationers of earlier decades have no thought of wearing masks, no cautions for maintaining social distancing, no fear of dining in restaurants, and the pictures of them enjoying themselves in such uncomplicated ways will strike many readers as postcards from another era.

Nevertheless, though some things have changed, some things remain unchanged. Tourism is still very much alive on Martha’s Vineyard, and this book is a marvelous little history of its colorful and varied past. The Rise of Tourism on Martha’s Vineyard is the story of the outside world discovering the wonders of a little speck of land off the Massachusetts coast. 

People still dream of coming here. Thomas Dresser has written a terrific history of that dream.