The Bookshelf: How the 'Troubadour' Shaped the Idea of New Hampshire

Mar 30, 2017

The state of New Hampshire is as much an idea as it is a place. New Hampshire represents the idea of living simply, close to nature, and, of course, freely. In the early 1930s, the state began marketing itself as a kind of Yankee paradise with a magazine called The New Hampshire Troubadour. This magazine, long out of print, may be responsible for the way people outside New Hampshire think about it. Author Howard Mansfield recently wrote about the Troubadour for New Hampshire Magazine. He spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

The New Hampshire Troubadour wasn’t something you knew about until you went on vacation in New Zealand?

Yes, my wife, Sy Montgomery, was there writing on some of those crazy critters, you know? I came over to do some hiking. And we were standing by this amazing lake. Fantastic turquoise, you’ve never seen a lake like it. It has black swans, not white, which I guess are pretty rare, but common over in New Zealand. And this fellow comes over and introduces us and asks where we’re from, and we say the United States, and he says where, and we keep narrowing it down and say New Hampshire. He said, “I’d always wanted to go there!” We said, “Why?” And he said, “Do you know this magazine, The New Hampshire Troubadour?” We said, “No, we don’t.”

He and his wife invited us back for tea and he showed us this little magazine. It’s pocket-sized and has black and white illustrations and it just captivated this fellow.

And this was an original from the 1930s or 1940s or early 1950s?

Yes, it was published by the state from 1931 to 1951. It’s kind of amazing—like an early episode in branding, before people used that kind of language and weren’t cynical about it. I think each issue was really sincerely felt.

The back cover of the August 1933 issue of "The New Hampshire Troubadour"

  Meaning what, exactly? The authors of the magazine actually believed that New Hampshire was a Yankee paradise that the whole world should know about?

The first issues were created by a fellow named Thomas Dreier. He was an advertising copywriter and made a fortune publishing business magazines with company news and positive thinking. To him, New Hampshire was a Yankee Shangri-La. It was the relief from the terrible Great Depression. Up here was beauty, up here was contentment.

He wrote these little homilies about bringing in a birch log or how, on the farm, time flows smoothly, but we find contentment. It has this attitude that, even though it’s going out to city mice, it’s—we’re all in this together. We know this is the way to live and this is waiting for you, should you ever come to New Hampshire.

And that was a consistent vision throughout the life of this magazine.

Through Thomas Dreier and then the next editor, Don Tuttle, who ran it during the war, from the Depression to World War II.

Some of the writers for this magazine—you listed two in your article—one was Earnest Elmo Calkins and Walter Dorwin Teague. They were pretty significant in their own right. Can you tell us about them?

Yeah, this really jumped out at me. I was in the New Hampshire Historical Society library doing some research and I had some time, so I looked at some Troubadours. I was reading through and I saw these names! I knew these names because I’d written for international design and architecture magazines, and those two names were pioneers in creating demand for products.

Teague designed the iconic Texaco station and the Kodak camera where you set the speed lines. Calkins really believed that we had to stimulate demand and consumption. People would just buy a stove and, damn it, they would keep it forever! This was no good! So he wanted your stove to go out of date. He wanted to create dissatisfaction. He asked, “Can we create artificial obsolescence?” As the Depression came on, it became a problem. Nobody’s buying anything. Nobody’s producing anything. How can we get this going?

So both these people, Teague and Calkins, are real cosmopolitan movers for the streamlined, modern future, and here they are writing these little essays about how great it is to be summering up in the elms by Lake Winnipesaukee. Totally surprised me.

I was going to ask, how did they end up writing for a magazine that values simplicity?

Well, that’s just the question, isn’t it? Our friend Thomas Dreier was a big advertising guy. So he would have known Calkins. Industrial design started out as consumption engineering, and some of the people in that field were from advertising, so they must have been part of the same circles in New York. That’s all I can figure out.

How did they land on the name “Troubadour”?

I don’t know. Dreier may have published another magazine named “Troubadour.” I don’t really know.

Overall, it seems like the style has changed, but the substance of New Hampshire state marketing seems to be pretty much the same.

Here’s the great thing that Thomas Dreier knew: he was creating this idea of New Hampshire. This image. It’s all there in the description of his house. He said his house, which is 150 years old, suggests permanence, solidity, comfort, peace and simplicity. Over and over again, he put New Hampshire forward as having that, so people would come to New Hampshire to find that.

Dreier knew that we live in our idea of the world as much as we live in the world, and this is certainly true ever since the first white folks came here and named this place after an English county, an Englishman. We’ve been living in the idea of New Hampshire ever since. That’s one of the great things that he knew, and when you talk about selling a state like New Hampshire or Vermont today, you’re selling the idea of the place. People come looking for that idea.

So to what extent do you think Dreier is responsible for the way people outside New Hampshire understand what the state is?

Given that you can go over to New Zealand and find someone with this magazine who is totally entranced by it—he must have had a big hand, as well as the other fellow who followed [Dreier] as the editor. It created a strong image at a time when maybe people weren’t that sophisticated about interrogating images. But it continues today. He was a great “rusticator”—a term for people who come to the country and think, “Oh, isn’t this lovely?” There’s so many different versions of “rustification” and celebrations of small town rural life that live in New England. There’s a huge list.

If you wanted to find a copy of The New Hampshire Troubadour, what would you do?

You could go to the State Library and read it. You could go on eBay. I’ve seen them at yard sales, kind of piled up. They’re around, given the prevalence of barns. I’m sure there are some sitting up there in barns right now.