The Second Greatest Disappointment: Honeymooning and Tourism at Niagara Falls. – Review

The Second Greatest Disappointment: Honeymooning and Tourism at Niagara Falls. – Review – book review

Scott C. Martin

The Second Greatest Disappointment: Honeymooning and Tourism at Niagara Falls. By Karen Dubinsky (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999. xiii plus 290 pp.).

The Second Greatest Disappointment examines the evolution of Niagara Falls from tourist attraction in the nineteenth century to the premiere honeymoon destination in the middle years of the twentieth century. Karen Dubinsky uses the Niagara Falls honeymoon as a lens to bring developments in tourism, travel, and, most importantly, notions of sexuality, into clearer focus. Echoing other scholars, Dubinsky notes that sex and tourism “are inexorably linked,” (12) and that newlyweds who visited the Falls, “armed with marriage licenses and, for a time, even ‘official’ honeymoon certificates,” had “the stamp of cultural approval.” This makes the Falls, she argues, “an ideal place in which to observe the development of and changes in heterosexual identities,” (13).

The book begins with a discussion of the “imaginary geography” of Niagara Falls, noting the gendered imagery nineteenth-century visitors used to discuss the cataract. Commentators referred to the Falls as feminine, weaving images of allurement, danger, romance and sex to create a “place of forbidden pleasures: just the spot for a Victorian honeymoon,” (49). At the same time, visitors also experienced Niagara as a “contact zone” for encountering exotic or despised others: the Native people and European immigrants whose labor as hucksters, guides, waiters, and hotel workers made tourism possible. If the presence of Iroquois souvenir sellers and African-American tour guides added to the exoticism of the Falls, it also sometimes shocked the sensibilities of honeymooners and tourists. Dubinsky documents the struggle by local and state governments on both sides of the Falls to promote tourism by restraining “undesirable” elements and attractions, and preserving the area’s natural beauty. She also demonstrates that the residents of the region, particularly on the Canadian side, embraced tourism as the mainstay of their local economy slowly, and often, reluctantly. Economic cycles of boom and bust during the 1920s and 1930s proved problematic for Niagara Falls’ growth as a tourist attraction, but postwar prosperity, along with advertising and media attention, turned it into the first choice of many newlyweds for a honeymoon trip. Recently, the Falls have declined in popularity with tourists, recently married or otherwise, forcing local entrepreneurs to search for new ways to attract visitors.

Throughout her account of these changing fortunes, Dubinsky illustrates how evolving ideas about sexuality, particularly heterosexuality, influenced perceptions of the Falls. She observes that newlyweds had visited Niagara since the early nineteenth century. But the Falls only became a venue for celebrating newlywed sex, she argues, during the 1920s, when heterosexuality “acquired the positive, ‘normal’ meanings still held today,” (155). Drawing on sources ranging from medical literature and popular advice books to pornography, Dubinsky shows how the honeymoon as an initiation into and affirmation of heterosexual identity emerged and became commodified at Niagara Falls.

The Second Greatest Disappointment (the title taken from an Oscar Wilde quip) is an entertaining and insightful book. It partakes of several recent trends in history and cultural studies: a focus on the ways that tourism and travel shape notions of race, ethnicity, and gender; attention to the interplay between gender, sexuality, and political economy; and an autobiographical turn in which authors situate their scholarly concerns and approaches in their life histories. One might expect the latter to be more troublesome than the two former, but the opposite is the case. Despite the dubiousness of the proposition that academics’ lives are sufficiently fascinating to readers to serve effectively as heuristic or analytical devices, Dubinsky’s use of personal disclosures about her family and sexuality to introduce her topic worked well enough. More troubling was the unevenness of her efforts to link economic and political elements in tourism to social and cultural influences on heterosexuality. It was difficult t o see how, precisely, the Canadian-American competition for vacationers, the unionization of hotel workers, and the financial exigencies of the tourist industry discussed in the book’s middle chapters shaped or were related to notions of sexuality. While one can make such connections, they are somewhat tenuous, and Dubinsky’s presentation of this material, necessary to her narrative though it was, seemed an interruption rather than an elaboration. Some readers may also question her conclusion that tourism at Niagara Falls was not a “plot foisted upon a pliant or unwilling public,” but rather derived its appeal from the “apparent democracy and openness of the tourist industry,” (8–9, 180). As she notes, Niagara Falls became enshrined as the classic honeymoon venue only after World War II, when Hollywood films added an aura of celebrity to the region’s historic association with wedding trips. Even so, Dubinsky admits, few “tourism boosters were willing to leave their business success to reputation, even one as powerful or enduring as Niagara’s. Honeymoon advertising and promotion skyrocketed, and establishments outdid themselves trying to woo the honeymoon trade” (230). The postwar honeymoon boom may not have been a conspiracy, but it is difficult not to detect a certain amount of foisting going on here.

These reservations, however, amount to minor quibbles, not major flaws. The Second Greatest Disappointment tells an interesting and important story about the nature of tourism, the history of sexuality, and the evolution of consumer culture. It reads well, and is nicely illustrated, making it eminently suitable for advanced undergraduates or graduate students, as well as an informed popular audience. Dubinsky’s work makes a solid contribution, and will be a welcome addition to courses on leisure and tourism, popular culture, cultural studies, gender and sexuality, or Canadian history.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Carnegie Mellon University Press

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group