See America First – Tourism as Consumption

This is going to be one of an unknown number of ruminations on Marguerite S. Shaffer’s wonderful book, See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880 – 1940. These will likely be interspersed with various other academic and academic-ish texts that I am reading on American road-trips, American identity, consumption via tourism, national parks, tourist traps, American mythos, and whatever else catches my fancy.

These posts, while public, will not be shared on my public social media accounts, as I am doing this for my own needs, rather than servicing the needs of platforming. This makes me a terrible human being and an even more terrible aspiring author, but I’m prone to accepting my failings, so there you go.

“As national transportation and communications network broke down the barriers of distance and time, as mass production and mass distribution provided widespread access to standardized goods, as decisions made by corporations and a strong federal government impacted the everyday lives of people across the country, America emerged as a modern nation. Simultaneously, tourist industries manufactured and marketed America as ‘nature’s nation,’ defining a shared history and tradition that manifested an indigenous national identity sanctioned by God and inscribed across the natural landscape. Tourism, defined as a kind of virtuous consumption, promised to reconcile this national mythology, which celebrated nature, democracy, and liberty, with the realities of an urban-industrial nation-state dependent on extraction, consumption, and hierarchy.” (5)

This quote is taken from the introduction to See America First, and is thus a summary of what the rest of the book will be about, which means, for our purposes, that I’m going to be reading this as a statement referencing an overarching time period (1880 – 1940, obviously), rather than a specific year.

What I truly love about this book is some of the theories Shaffer puts forth. This paragraph touches on the idea of tourism as consumption, and not just any consumption, but a virtuous one.

But let’s do a quick breakdown before moving into that.

What this quote is saying is:

  1. America developed as a modern nation in the late 1800s to mid 1900s.
  2. This development was marked by advances made in transportation, conveyance of information, and mass-produced goods (which were then distributed to the masses via aforementioned advanced transportation).
  3. As corporations developed mass marketing for their mass-produced goods, tourist-driven corporations came up with their own angle.
  4. That angle was “America! Look at those mountains! These mountains show that God loves America best!” with the follow-up of “Who needs centuries of history when you have nature? A true American is a nature lover!”
  5. Thus, to show you appreciated God’s blessings and that you were a true American, you needed to tour America and consume its natural, God-given wonders.
  6. This allowed you, as an American, to revel in the blessed natural nation that is America while spending money (on gas, lodging, food, entry fees, souvenirs, film, cameras, etc).

And, yeah, I kinda love it.

Not because I enjoy being marketed to. Not because I have feelings for mass-produced items. Not because I enjoy designing marketing campaigns. (There’s a whole lot of sentences starting with “not” that I could put here, but I’m going to skip that.)

Because tourism companies (and their affiliates) came up with an idea that made Americans feel not American enough until they saw what those companies defined their chosen places as quintessentially American. Which is such a rat-bastard thing to do.

But, even more, because the thought of the motivation behind tourism not being for enjoyment and learning, but for the consuming of places… that’s really neat.

What do we, as tourists, get when we visit a tourism location?

And, even more, what makes a tourism location? We know, it seems, instinctively.

A tourism location is a place people go to… go. They go because it’s: a place they saw in a movie, a place that represents the heart of a city (something that indicates that you’ve “seen” and “completed” a city), a place that their friends go to, a place that x-sort of person goes to, a place with history (that must be learned), a place that is great for shopping (that must be bought), a place that is luxurious (inspires envy).

And when it’s done? “Oh, yes, I’ve been to Paris.” “Oh, I’ve done Disneyworld.”

What do we get out of these places? And what do they get out of us? (Answer: money)

What we get out of these places depends on the narrative, but also depends on what drives us.

Shaffer focuses on national parks, specifically those in the West and Midwest. And, as I mentioned several paragraphs above, people went because they were told that they were not enough. In this case, American enough. Among other things.

When I look back at my road-trip, I question why I went. I mean, I really, really, really wanted to go. But why? There were so many reasons. Stories I had heard about travel and places. A restless need for wandering. A fear that I would just keep putting it off forever. A feeling that there was more outside my experience than I could hope to guess at, a feeling that there were amazing things to be seen, to be learned. I had a mental list of places that sounded so neat, and I worried that I wouldn’t see them all.

Was my “seeing” in truth consuming? Was I symbolically eating these places? Checking off my aforementioned list? “Oh, yeah, I’ve ‘done’ Salem.”

What did I gain other than a sense of place? Of country? Knowledge, yes. But emotionally, what was the end result? What did these places give me? What did I think they were going to give me?

I still don’t know.

But to return to the quote at hand, Shaffer put forth this excellent idea that made me see tourism (my own and others) in an entirely new way. A way that seems both accurate and interesting.

Two more tourism-as-consumption quotes from Shaffer below:

“As sanctuaries of nature—the last vestiges of ‘virgin’ land—that existed beyond the corrupting forces of corporate capitalism, the parks manifested an ideal of the nation grounded in a nostalgic republican tradition that linked pristine nature or free land with an ideal of civic virtue. Ironically, in a capitalist society wedded to an ideology of progress reliant on private property and extensive natural resources, preserved nature, existing beyond the reach of commerce and industry, came to embody the ideal of the nation. And tourism, defined as a patriotic act, became a ritual of citizenship that transformed consumption into civic duty.” (127)

“Diaries and scrapbooks reveal that tourists characterized and understood their experience as an accumulation of visual images to be surveyed, collected, and consumed. In conceptualizing the tourist experience in visual terms, tourists actively participated in the transformation of American nature and culture into a commodified landscape of scenic goods.” (272)