What a Historian of Skiing Has Found on the Slopes

Roundup: Talking About History

Goldie Blumenstyk, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (3-25-05):

It's been nine years since Annie Gilbert Coleman last did traditional downhill skiing, and although the falling snow makes it a little tough to see and she's using unfamiliar equipment, she quickly finds the one "black diamond" slope here at tiny Swiss Valley....

Taking a break after a few more runs, we shake fresh snow from our hats and clunk our way toward a table in the wood-beamed lunchroom. Ski areas like this, in flat, Midwestern farm country, "can't claim the scenery" or terrain of Europe, as do the Colorado resorts, Ms. Coleman says. But, she notes, gesturing out the window to the A-frame dining lodge below, "they can do the Alpine references" in the architecture. And of course, they can do it with their names.

"It's a prototypical local ski area," she says.

Or, as she will later announce cheerfully to her husband, "This place kicks."

Perhaps a scholar who hadn't begun skiing at age 6 would not be as charmed. After all, the ski history she lays out in her book isn't a flattering one. Tracing skiing's origins in the Western United States from the early 1800s, when ministers and midwives would travel from one mining camp to the next on skis to deliver sermons, babies, and the mail, the book shows how skiing evolved from its roots as a working person's form of transportation to the ultimate symbol of elite leisure for wealthy white people.

Along the way, Ms. Coleman describes ski towns that market their mining pasts by promoting their historic Victorian atmosphere, while suppressing "the often ugly consequences of mining," such as discrimination against Chinese laborers. She talks about the ski industry's sexist "snow bunny" advertising campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s -- ads that objectified women and trivialized their skiing skill even though the first American to win an Olympic medal in skiing was a woman (Gretchen Kunigk Fraser, in 1948).

And perhaps most damning, she writes, are the environmental and socioeconomic ravages that a ski resort can inflict on a community, especially in places that are now so charming and expensive that the people who actually cook the resort food and make the guests' beds have to live miles away in broken-down trailers and cheap apartments. Such problems "have made much of Colorado's ski country look like a developing country," she asserts in the book.

But Ms. Coleman, now an assistant professor of history and adjunct assistant professor of American studies at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, brings more than a cultural historian's take to the topic. ...

She finished the dissertation in 1996, the same year the Pacific Historical Review published one of her articles, "The Unbearable Whiteness of Skiing." That in turn helped her to get a book contract.

"The publishers like the topic, but you have to sell it to the academy," she says. She has a ready answer to any scholars who might question her choice of subject. "It matters because tourism is important to the American West," she says. "Skiing was one of the earliest leisure industries to maintain the kind of consumer culture that we're used to today."

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