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Boosterism on the Prairie
Boosterism refers to the widespread American practice of the local and national promotion by various means of the economic and civic development of local communities by local businessmen, investors, and public officials. It continues unabated today, but it is widely associated with the American Midwest and Far West in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time in which competition for settlement and investment was among new towns and regions was especially fierce. The publication, however, of literature promoting migration to, within, and across the North American continent dates back to the voyages of Columbus. Whatever their purpose, almost every history, travel account, or geographical description published by European colonizers implicitly or explicitly extolled the virtues of the New World for conquest, settlement, and investment. American independence quickened the pace of such publications and broadened their geographical ambition. Whether published for American or European audiences, whether national or local in their purview, these almost universally expressed faith in the American system of government, admiration for the American industry, and belief in the untapped economic potential of America’s natural resources.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, every section of the country produced boosteristic publications. The displacement, containment, or destruction of Indian nations; aggressive federal policies that encouraged European settlement west of the Appalachians; and a revolution in manufacturing, transportation, and communications spurred the culture of boosterism, especially in the rapidly developing Middle West. Newspapers, pamphlets, handbills, geographies, gazetteers, guidebooks, and histories promoted places and enterprises across the burgeoning region. These publications often included historical and architectural images, portraits, depictions of industry and agriculture, maps, and landscape views. Not merely illustrations, these made concrete the idea of the Midwest as a bountiful region of boundless possibilities. And, like the texts they accompanied, these imaged were prone to exaggeration.
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