SUSAN L. TROLLINGER. Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2012. Pp 193. $US 50.
For many years, one of the many shops along Lincoln Highway as it cuts across Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, proudly declared its wares: “Not Just Stuff, Amish Stuff!” Trollinger promises us much the same in Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia. Much like the tourist finds mass-produced baubles in the “authentic Amish” store, we find a book that just as easily could have been labeled “Selling America” but with the marketing power of the Amish.
Trollinger takes as her methodology an examination of visual rhetoric across three settings, all in Ohio Amish country: Walnut Creek, Berlin, and Sugarcreek. Looking at architecture, signage, and goods for sale, Selling the Amish seeks to untangle why tourists are drawn to Amish communities through what they consume and the sights they take in, consciously or not. Considering the appeal of the visual rhetoric of these towns is important because, despite the historic dismissal of tourists by the likes of John Hostetler, “Amish Country tourism creates a lot of meaning and . . . the meaning it generates matters to visitors” (xix).
Walnut Creek, with its Victorian styling, is read as a fairyland hearkening back to an imagined era when time was plentiful and gender roles were clear, with the Amish proving that even in the twenty-first century this goal is still reachable. Berlin is a frontier town in the pattern of Frederick Jackson Turner with a sub theme of 1950s Americana. For Trollinger, the town themes are commentary on technology and its place in society, with the Amish pointing to a lifestyle still free of technological shackles. The final case study is Sugarcreek, the pseudo-Swiss village planted in Ohio, home of the Ohio Swiss Festival. Sugarcreek serves as the grounds for a discussion on ethnicity and performance, comparing the Amish to those locals who don Swiss regalia for the business-sponsored festival.
When considering Trollinger’s analysis in Selling the Amish, two criticisms are in order: first, the problematic assumption of the uniformity of Amish tourism across settlements, and secondly, the failure to differentiate within the tourist population.
While Trollinger does acknowledge Amish settlements outside of Ohio, she chooses to limit her in-depth case studies to central Ohio, instead of including Indiana and Pennsylvania, because “what Amish Country tourism offers is quite similar” regardless of which settlement is considered (xix). When describing how the visitors to Ohio Amish country are largely white middle-class Americans, she also notes, “My observations in the Lancaster and Elkhart-Lagrange settlements suggest that tourists to those areas also tend to come from nearby states and counties” (29). However, in Pennsylvania the tourist industry and the visitors are quite different from those Trollinger describes in Ohio.
For example, small villages in Lancaster, such as Bird-in-Hand or Intercourse, clearly take the Amish as the primary selling point, rather than supporting an imagined past. But Lancaster Amish tourism is divided into less discrete parts, taking in whole swaths of the county. This could be either because of Lancaster’s position as the original Amish tourist location—creating more tourist build-up–or simply emblematic of East Coast development.
More importantly, the visitors flocking to Lancaster County are a much more diverse group than the ones Trollinger observes in Ohio. In July 2016, a quarter of those going on guided car tours with the Mennonite Information Center were international, from countries including France, Canada, and Australia. Furthermore, Jeff Landis, the director of the information center, notes that many people who come through live in the United States, but are ethnically diverse. This is significant because the rhetoric that Trollinger so carefully analyzes in Selling the Amish holds value only to the extent that the consumers work from the same imagined communal past. While Trollinger’s main point, that Amish tourism is important because it holds meaning for tourists is still true, her examination of what that meaning is breaks down outside of the Ohio context she considers.
Secondly, Trollinger is limited in the analysis she can do on why people visit Amish country because she does not distinguish between tourists in general and Amish-interested tourists. In Lancaster, the tourist spectrum ranges from people who take a guided car tour with the Mennonite Information Center to visit specific Amish businesses and learn intimately about the Amish, to folk who get on a bus to see the newest show at Sight and Sound theatre (the single largest tourist site in Lancaster County), eat a meal at Shady Maple Smorgasbord, and then return home. One group is drawn by the Amish and has one set of motivations; the other is drawn by the ancillary industries developed after Amish tourism started and created a traffic flow. Surely, where one is on this spectrum influences the activities one does and thereby the meanings gained from a visit to Amish Country.
Selling the Amish is bookended by the response of a group of New Order Amish to tourism: “I was surprised to hear these Amish men talk about the important opportunity tourism provides for sharing their Christian witness through their visibly different common life and daily practices” (xiv). Surely, when she considers whether visitors are influenced by this witness, the discussion could be more nuanced by placing visitors on a spectrum considering the focus of their interests.
Author: Joel H. Nofziger
Joel H. Nofziger* Joel H. Nofziger lives in Ephrata, PA and works for the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society as editor of Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage. He is also coordinating editor for the collaborative blog, Anabaptist Historians: Bringing the Anabaptist Past into a Digital Century at www.anabaptisthistorians.org.