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  • See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880–1940
  • Scott C. Martin
See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880–1940. By Marguerite S. Shaffer (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001. 429pp. $55.00/cloth $18.95/paper).

See America First examines tourism as an influence on nationalism and national identity from the late nineteenth century through the interwar years. During this period, Shaffer argues, “national tourism,” a new form of leisure, emerged. Relying on the growing national transportation and communications networks, the growing national market for goods and services, and a capitalist middle class with disposable income, national tourism “extended from and depended on the infrastructure of the modern nation-state” (3). The emerging tourist industry in the United States “promoted tourism as a ritual of American citizenship” (4). Urging middle class tourists to refrain from visiting Europe when they had not toured their own country kept American dollars from escaping abroad, but also “mapped an idealized American history and tradition across the American landscape, defining an organic nationalism that linked national identity to a shared territory and history,” (4). Tourism, Shaffer contends, was central to the development of a national culture as the impact of industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and other fragmenting forces problematized earlier assumptions about American life.

See America First begins by exploring the role of corporations in creating national tourism. In particular, railroads such as the Northern Pacific, Sante Fe, and Great Northern attempted to gain passengers by promoting as tourist destinations natural wonders like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, and the Grand Canyon, that lay along their routes. Through publicity, the provision of tours and services, and the construction of hotels, railroads sought to define a canon of national tourist sites. The See America First campaign only hit its stride, however, when the federal government, in the form of the National Park Service, began portraying the national parks as national assets during the 1920s. Partaking of the larger Americanization campaign and Progressive theories of education, the Park Service promoted national tourism as an opportunity for [End Page 1063] experiential learning that not only acquainted tourists with the geology, history, flora and fauna of their country, but also allowed them to “imbibe the spirit or essence of America and rekindle their sense of patriotism” (122). The character of national tourism changed dramatically during the 1920s and 1930s, as mass ownership of automobiles made individual travel possible. Instead of riding trains to specific destinations, automobile tourists gained intimate knowledge of the land and its people, experiencing the “authentic” American landscape. The Good Roads Committee, an organization committed to better both transcontinental highways and automobile tourism, furthered the notion of tourism as a ritual of citizenship by defining car travel as “an extension of America’s heroic pioneer past, arguing that through the process of touring, tourists could become better Americans” (142).

Shaffer details the expansion of national tourism as a ritual of citizenship in her discussions of tourist narratives, travel guides, and the emerging trade in mementos and souvenirs. In a fascinating section on the American Guide series, put out during the New Deal by the WPA and the Federal Writers’ Project, she demonstrates how the series built on earlier travel guides to “catalog and thus legitimize America as a united nation,” (219). In her last two chapters, Shaffer examines diaries and tour narratives to show how middle-class tourists themselves understood their travels, and inquires how souvenirs revealed the incorporation of tourism into a culture of consumption. These chapters offer an insightful look at how middle class tourists approached issues of gender, class, race and ethnicity on the open road and at tourist destinations. Middle class female tourists, for instance, embarked on automobile tours without men to gain freedom and independence, thereby transcending the “expectations—the limitations—of the domestic ideal” (258). Chinese, Indians, and Mormons emerged as “standard tourist attractions embodying exotic social others,” that reaffirmed middle-class white tourists’ “own sense of refinement, culture, status, and American-ness” (280). In post-WWII America, Shaffer notes in an epilogue, the See America First campaign and national tourism per se declined, as the “rise of mass tourism finalized the transformation of tourism from a cultural...