Are We There Yet? The Golden Age of American Family Vacations (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Are We There Yet? The Golden Age of American Family Vacations. By Susan Sessions Rugh. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008. Pp. xii+240. $29.95.

Beginning in the late 1940s and continuing through the 1960s, middle-class Americans embraced a novel form of vacationing. Families set out each summer on “road trips” that lasted from a few days to the entire season. In this book, Susan Sessions Rugh argues persuasively that technological innovations, especially in transportation, framed this distinctive era. She is especially effective in demonstrating the symbiotic relationship between developments in the middle-class American family and an emerging consumer society that revolved around the automobile. The station wagon became the iconic vehicle of choice for vacationers exploring America, and in the process contributed to the development of a wide range of businesses created to serve these new American travelers. [End Page 957]

Building on a long tradition in the history of tourism, Rugh places the search for authenticity at the heart of her analysis. Yet she offers significant new insights into the meanings that ordinary people placed on their experiences as family members, as consumers, and as American citizens constructing identities in response to the cold war. She not only investigates a rich pattern of behaviors practiced by fathers, mothers, and children, but she also considers the role played by memory in giving meaning to summer sojourns.

Rugh avoids any unnecessary jargon while still providing a nuanced explanation of how this cultural innovation was played out at the grassroots level. With father behind the wheel and mother navigating from the passenger’s seat, the children occupied the back seats, negotiating for space, passing the time, and dutifully anticipating the next family adventure. And for those of us who remember the family road trip during this era, Rugh’s narrative vividly brings to life the family dynamics that defined these seasonal rituals.

By including detailed accounts of African-American and Jewish families’ vacationing practices, Rugh broadens the typical perspective of the middle class. For the African-American family, the road trip provided an opportunity to share in the American dream. As increasing numbers of black families were financially able to buy a family car and to afford a vacation, they too wanted to participate in this new activity and persistently found ways to enjoy summer vacations even in the face of institutionalized exclusion. Rugh demonstrates that discrimination was not based solely on skin color, however. Jewish families encountered their own roadblocks while vacationing and devised their own ways to maneuver around these obstacles by creating their own summer havens, as in the Catskills.

The commodification of the summer vacation is a thematic thread that runs throughout Rugh’s book. As increasing numbers of middle-class Americans ventured onto the roads each summer, a network of facilities emerged to accommodate and entice them. Entrepreneurs developed restaurant, motel, and fast-food chains that catered to such middle-class standards as convenience, cleanliness, and affordability for the entire family. Even the image of the national parks shifted, from areas of protected wilderness to sites where dad, mom, and the kids would feel safe and secure, and could have a sense of familiarity. And at the core of standardizing the road trip, producers and consumers attempted to reinforce an evolving national identity based on the cold war values personified by the cowboy in a pervasive popular genre. Quickly, argues Rugh, developers attempted to authenticate and further commodify these onscreen idols and the values they stood for by offering a sense of adventure at such venues as dude ranches and theme parks.

Rugh’s crisp, clean prose and generous use of illustrations make her book easily accessible to the general reading public. Yet her insightful analysis [End Page 958] will be of value to scholars concerned with the relationship of technology and culture, the family, and the cold war era. Her book can be readily incorporated into courses in history or American studies at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

Larry R. Youngs

Dr. Youngs is a senior lecturer in the Department of History at Georgia State University and the author of the Thompson Award–winning article...


pdf