Are We There Yet? The Golden Age of American Family Vacations.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529|
|Issue:||Date: Spring, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 3|
|Topic:||NamedWork: Are We There Yet?: The Golden Age of American Family Vacations (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Rugh, Susan Sessions|
Are We There Yet? The Golden Age of American Family Vacations. By
Susan Sessions Rugh (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008. ix plus
As a senior boomer and an historian of family and leisure, I've long looked forward to a hook on the mid-20th century American family vacation. Prof. Rugh, a specialist in the history of the American West at Brigham Young University, has delivered a thorough, well research and directly written treatment with no "theoretical" pretensions. For those of us who enjoyed or endured these annual car trips, this book will bring back memories, offer opportunities for comparison with our own experiences, and perhaps present insight into the broader meanings of these memories. Its treatment of the trials and adaptations of minority families on vacation is particularly striking. But perhaps because of the author's decision to confine her topic to the period 1945-1973 and to the "family experience," this book is strong on description but weak on analysis.
Prof. Rugh sets the family vacation in the context of postwar consumption, the theme of tourism as a vehicle of national identity, and the ideal of the nuclear family togetherness in the era of the automobile. While the paid vacation may have reached 93% of collective bargaining agreements in the 1950s and interstate highway system from 1956 certainly facilitated the western tour, the author may exaggerate the extent that the family vacation, especially the car trip west, was available to Americans. It is in the 50s that contrast between the paucity of paid holidays in the US and expansion of this benefit in Europe begins to appear. The centrality of the family car, especially the new station wagon models, as well as the expanding list of essentials for family travel and the attending rise of motel and fast-food chains, are presented with some detail. Rugh uses memoirs, usually from popular magazines, and promotional maps to set the stage of the family pilgrimage to historical sites and especially the capital, hut just how much this grew in the 50s and 60s is not clear. And at times a reader might have wished that she had stood hack and raised questions and contrasts regarding tone and expectations of the middle class, even genteel, ideal being presented.
The chapter on the "Vacation without Humiliation" was perhaps the most path-breaking in its treatment of discrimination against African-American families in accommodations and travel services and how tourist guides like the Green Book offered help to black travelers in finding facilities that would cater to them. Rugh finds interesting examples of resistance to discrimination and segregation especially among middle-class African-Americans that culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
But then the text returns to a frustratingly descriptive, even celebratory, treatment of the 50s appeal to the old West, at least its Hollywood version, with interesting accounts of the marketing of Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd), Gene Autry, Frontierland, Knott's Berry Farm and others. But there is little to explain either the attraction or ultimate decline of this mystique (especially how it worked in the culture of middle-class families). The material on Disney is familiar. Rugh offers the thought that the ''enthusiasm for camping" was linked to Americans' desire "to leave the pressures of civilization behind and to relive America's pioneering past" and to introduce children to nature. (p. 121) However, this doesn't take us very far beyond the conventional wisdom. She recites the list of equipment needed and typical problems arising from family camping, but doesn't situate this phenomenon in the broader history of camping and trailering. She draws on national park archives for a full discussion of the problems of overusage and campers' complaints and as well as the continuing problem of segregation at one park. Once again, however, the text seems driven more by the availability of information than always a clear expositional purpose. She argues that "class was not a barrier to summer resort vacations, but race and religion were." (p. 155) Certainly blacks and Jews were excluded from many sites, but there were certainly class differences reflected in access to resorts and contrasting cultures in the northern Minnesota sites that she explores. Her analysis of the Jewish resorts in the Catskills is more interesting, in part, because she makes an effort to explore their eclipse. She tries to explain the decline of the family vacation in the 70s--attributing it to feminism and children's resistance to "too much togetherness." But she leaves this analysis on the surface. What had happened to the expectations of parents and children? How does the decline of the family vacation relate to other changes in family, leisure patterns, and consumption that emerged in the 1970s? The epilogue speculates that the "9-11" terrorist attack has somehow led to a revival of the family and the reinvention of the family holiday (though with fewer traditional white nuclear families). Maybe so. But the author doesn't take us far enough in understanding the dynamics of that holiday culture, or why Americans were attracted to it, and why it has changed.
Pennsylvania State University
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