Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of Susan Sessions Rugh’s Are We There Yet? The Golden Age of American Family Vacations (University Press of Kansas, 2008).

Aug 30, 2008 10:40 am

Luther Spoehr: Review of Susan Sessions Rugh’s Are We There Yet? The Golden Age of American Family Vacations (University Press of Kansas, 2008).

This book’s sprightly title gives rise to the hope that the author will wear her learning lightly, a hope that is only partly realized. Susan Sessions Rugh, a historian at Brigham Young University, has a sharp eye for the telling example and vivid quotation, even from non-scholarly sources. Here, for instance, is Calvin Trillin: “I might have seen more of America [on family vacations] if I hadn’t had to spend so much of my time protecting my half of the back seat from incursions by my sister, Sukey.”

Most of Rugh’s book, however, is far more earnest, including much analysis synthesized from other social and cultural historians, such as Michael Kammen, Elaine Tyler May, Karal Ann Marling, Hal Rothman, and many others. Furthermore, it bounces back and forth chronologically so frequently that it ultimately comes to resemble a prototypical ‘50s family vacation, full of stops and starts, arid stretches alternating with enjoyable interludes.

The “Golden Age” of the American family vacation, says Rugh, began in 1945. The soldiers came home, married, moved to the suburbs, and the economy and babies both boomed. The unprecedented prosperity made vacation trips possible: families had more money, more paid vacation time, and, thanks to the ubiquity of the automobile and America’s ever-expanding network of roads, more mobility than ever before. “By 1952,” she notes, “over 62 million licensed drivers roamed the 48 states in 50 million cars on 1,750,000 miles of roads.”

After passage of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, automobile travel soon became even faster and easier, and Americans flocked to vacation destinations in ever increasing numbers. The whole family went along, as road trips became “a consumption habit of the middle class, even a badge of status.” Frequently they visited historic sites (Washington, D.C., was a particular favorite), which “helped Americans understand their status as citizens in the American nation.”

The “Golden Age” ended, Rugh says, with the Oil Embargo of 1973, which extinguished a middle class family tradition already weakened by the gales of social and cultural change in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Baby Boomers grew up and went very separate ways. “Travel advertising focused on niche marketing” as fifties’ notions of “togetherness” turned out to be “not an altogether good thing.” “It’s not that the family vacation went away,” Rugh concludes, “but it did cease to be recognized as a mass phenomenon.”

All this is accurate as far as it goes. Rugh follows a by-now well-worn path by depicting family vacations as one more example of middle class activity in what historian Lizabeth Cohen has termed the “consumer’s republic.” But are we not ready by now to see a more complicated picture? Or is historians’ long-standing, reflexive condescension to America’s middle class of the 1950s and 1960s still so strong that it keeps them tightly tied to their stereotypes? “Historians realize that the family of the television sitcoms like “Father Knows Best” never really existed,” says Rugh. Well, no. Actually, it did—although it wasn’t universal—and, indeed, most of her book is based on the premise that there was indeed such a thing as the middle class family.

Born early in the Baby Boom, my sister and I were two of the millions of children who struggled for territorial supremacy in the back seat of the family car (in our case, a DeSoto) and saw a lot of America in the ‘50s and very early ‘60s. In 1956 we went from our home in Pittsburgh to Florida and back; in 1957, it was a round trip to and from the Grand Canyon; in 1958 and 1960, we made our way through New England and eastern Canada; in 1959, Yellowstone Park (which contributed a major earthquake) and Colorado.

Not once did my sister and I ever get the sense that our parents or other families we met on the road were doing this to keep up with any of the local Joneses, to gain “status,” to improve our sense of citizenship, or to promote “togetherness.” We and others did it because we could, because our parents expected travel to be interesting (with, we were warned, some boring stretches), painlessly educational, worthwhile for its own sake, and fun.

Were our plans, motives, and expectations influenced by the growing cascade of advertisements and travel guides from Ford and Esso and AAA? Probably. But our plans, motives, and expectations were certainly not fully defined or confined by them.

Even if “consumerism” and the politics thereof had been as dominant as Rugh suggests, she doesn’t look very hard for unintended or contradictory results. For instance, she sniffs at tourists who visited historical sites: “Visitors were searching for an affirmative national history better labeled as ‘heritage,’ a selective remembering of [in Michael Kammen’s words] what is ‘attractive or flattering’ and ignoring all the rest.” Again, there is some truth in this. But it is also worth remembering that Baby Boomers relentlessly exposed to “heritage” on their families’ vacations later provided considerable support for the civil rights movement, whose advocates aptly pointed out America’s failure to live up to the ideals proclaimed by that “heritage.”

Rugh also offers simplistic, secondhand insights on other cultural topics: “Within Disneyland was a world like the one seen on television, a contrived environment carefully scripted as tourist space…[It] appealed to families because it was clean and offered wholesome family entertainment.” Her lack of curiosity about complexity even affects her fairly monolithic portrayal of the “Golden Age” itself, which seems to me to contain at least two distinct periods. The first lasted from 1945 to the early 1960s, before the web of interstate highways was anywhere near complete, and before national chains selling food, accommodations, and entertainment submerged the regional and the idiosyncratic beneath a tide of standardization. The second, from the early ‘60s into the ‘70s, saw the landscape increasingly crowded by Holiday Inns and McDonalds, and crisscrossed by interstate highways that bypassed the small towns whose traffic lights had slowed earlier travelers.

In that earlier period, on those trips to Florida, Arizona, New England, and Yellowstone, we spent a lot of time on two-lane blacktop, hoping not to get stuck behind a slow-moving truck. In some parts of the country, driving 300 miles a day meant you were making good progress. Restaurants were deemed acceptable if their front windows were clean (a theory dramatically disproved in Maine by an encounter with some virulent steamed clams). Motels—while selected increasingly on the basis of AAA guidebook recommendations—were still largely mom-and-pop operations: if you called ahead for a reservation, you spoke personally to the proprietor, who often turned out to be a chatty local historian and tour guide as well. Rugh points out that by 1962 “over half of all motels belonged to a referral organization” such as Quality Courts or AAA, but that means that even by the early ‘60s almost half of them didn’t.

The author makes her most serious effort to trace how the family vacation changed over time in the first two chapters, and even there she tends to bounce back and forth chronologically. Chapters Four through Six look mainly at specific types of vacation destinations, from Disneyland to dude ranches, and hotels in the Catskills to cabins in an increasingly overburdened Yellowstone National Park, and that topical organization makes it even more difficult for the reader to track the stages of the family vacation’s evolution.

The most distinctive and original chapter is Chapter Three, “Vacation Without Humiliation,” which details the lengths to which African-American travelers had to go in order to find accommodations that would accept them. “Two travel guides attempted to spare black travelers…humiliation: the “Green Book,” published from 1936 to 1966, and “Travelguide,” which began in 1946.” The “Green Book’s” express goal: “Assured Protection for the Negro Traveler.” As the segregated fifties gave way to the militant sixties, “the growth of the civil rights movement sharpened the rhetoric of rights in travel guides that catered to African Americans,” says Rugh. “The 1963 ‘Green Book’ opened with an articled called ‘Your Rights, Briefly Speaking!’ that listed states that had salutary civil rights policies and where victims of discrimination could apply for redress.” Rugh points out, too, that national hotel chains such as Howard Johnson’s and Hilton Hotels were more vulnerable to boycotts, publicity campaigns, and other pressures than individually-owned operations, a fact that became important as activists built a coalition to demand passage of what became the Civil Rights Law of 1964.

Overall, then, “Are We There Yet?” is a mixed bag: a useful synthesis with some original insights, but stylistically uninspired and analytically predictable. When done with it, as with many long vacations, you’ll think it was worth the trip but you’ll be glad to be home.

comments powered by Disqus