Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia
Susan Trollinger. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. 193 pages.
Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia seeks to answer two questions: What do tourists get out of a visit to Ohio’s Amish Country? and, How do tourists see the Amish?
Trollinger provocatively addresses the first question through the stimulating lens of “visual rhetoric,” in which items in the tourist landscape are read by the author for their cultural meanings. She defines visual rhetoric as “how systems of representation persuade human beings to understand themselves, others, and their world.” However, her methodology (primarily personal observation, field notes, and photographs) is inadequate to tackle the second question. Indeed, it is interesting to read a book about Amish tourism in which both the Amish and the tourist entrepreneurs who market them are virtually silent.
Trollinger rightly notes that the Ohio Amish settlement, larger in number of church districts but second to the Lancaster Amish settlement in population, has been understudied. Trollinger’s work is significant in addressing Amish tourism, the only book-length manuscript so far to do so. Focusing on the Ohio Amish settlement in Holmes and Wayne counties, the book discusses three towns important to Amish tourism.
Trollinger argues that Walnut Creek, with its Victorian architecture, conveys particular meanings related to domesticity, “Amish time” (a slower pace), and a re-appropriation of women’s traditional gender roles in a simpler era. One element of this is “slow food,” and Amish women’s culinary labors as cooks and waitresses are on display at Der Dutchman restaurant, for example.
Trollinger also discusses frontier-themed buildings and simulated farmsteads in the town of Berlin that encourage tourists to identify the Amish as present-day pioneers, conquering the wilderness. Further, she argues that the Swiss ethnicity identifiable in Sugarcreek’s architecture, cheese factories, and annual Swiss festival is less successful as tourism due to white assimilation and loss of ethnic identity.
Trollinger’s interpretive work rightly applies Dean MacCannell’s notion of “staged authenticity,” which can be understood as the marketing of re-imagined ethnic-cultural traditions. However, Trollinger largely overlooks the vast field of heritage tourism literature that could have contextualized and provided comparative data to her work. She cites Buck’s 1978 sociological tourist research and John A. Hostetler’s critiques, both dated, to support her contemporary claims of the shallowness of Amish tourism, putting an ahistorical cast on an industry that, at least in Lancaster County, has grown exponentially and developed enormously in the last decade.
Trollinger describes tourists to the Amish in general and to the Ohio Amish in particular as made up of relatively homogeneous, white middle–class Americans from the Midwest and Northeast United States. My study of Amish tourism in Lancaster demonstrates that tourists in this region include significant numbers of Orthodox Jews, tourists of color from nearby cities, and foreign tourists. Lancaster Amish tourism also generates nearly three times as much economic activity as that of Ohio Amish Country ($11 million vs. $4 million).
My research in Lancaster also shows that many Amish are involved in representing themselves to outsiders, albeit for their economic livelihood, and are not in fact reliant on the visual rhetoric of a particular place to define them in the eyes of tourists, as Trollinger claims. Moreover, Trollinger includes virtually no mention of Amish wood-working and furniture shops that form the backbone of Ohio Amish livelihood and a significant tourist element.
Trollinger’s critique of visual rhetoric and its meanings for tourists excludes the possibility of legitimate tourist enterprises run by non-Amish that are genuinely interested in accurate portrayals of the Amish. Such enterprises in Lancaster serve an important educational and buffering aspect and, in some cases, provide meaningful employment and income to Amish.
Trollinger concludes with a discussion of the power of Amish witness. To support her argument that the Amish view tourism as “an opportunity to offer a witness to the Kingdom of God,” Trollinger cites a single conversation among New Order Amish, an evangelistic, break-away group that maintains Old Order technological restrictions. Generalizing from this to all Old Order Amish seems a stretch. Amish live their faith, but most (at least my informants among Lancaster Amish) are less concerned with witness than with faithfulness.
Much as we might like to believe otherwise, the Amish are not exceptional, valorized entities above the marketplace (as depicted in this book). At least in Lancaster, the Amish are active subjects in the tourist industry. While Amish exceptionalism has generally been the norm in scholarly research on the Amish, these blinders serve neither them nor us.