Gettysburg’s Faustian Bargain

By Kevin Lavery ’16

A question to the reader: have you ever visited Gettysburg? Presumably most of the Gettysburg Compiler’s audience will answer in the affirmative. A follow-up question: have you ever purchased a souvenir from one of the town’s abundant gift shops? Perhaps it was a kepi or a cork gun for your child? Or maybe a bottle of “Rebel Red” wine? Or some tacky trinket or faux antique?

Let’s face it: we live in a consumer society in which there is nothing too sacred to profit from. And, sadly, the Battle of Gettysburg is no exception.

Photo credit to the author.
Photo credit to the author.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I have my own share of Gettysburg memorabilia. Looking now at my stuffed Lincoln, die-cast bullets, and soldier figurines, I am all too aware that I have also contributed to sustaining the kitschier side of the Gettysburg tourism industry.

Gettysburg’s unique history has produced a sacred patch of land that is bordered by an unapologetic bastion of consumerism. Visitors may bow their heads reverently on the battlefield when they consider the scale of the battle and the number of lives lost. But a few hours later some of them will undoubtedly drive into town and have their choice between two different Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain clocks and countless other tacky souvenirs.

In anticipation of the Sesquicentennial Commemoration, Tony Horwitz wrote an article entitled “Has Gettysburg Kicked Its Kitsch Factor?” for Smithsonian Magazine. Some readers might recall that this article featured Peter Carmichael and Ian Isherwood of the Civil War Institute sharing their own thoughts on Gettysburg. While the article does an excellent job in drawing attention to the special attributes that make Gettysburg so unique, it avoids taking a critical look at the tourism industry that has over the years sprung up on the edges of the battlefield. Sadly, the bitter truth is that Gettysburg has not abandoned “its Kitsch Factor”—or at least the town hasn’t.

Kevin.CONSUMERISM.Part.1.image.2
Photo credit to the author.

The battlefield and other historical sites stand as testament to the devotion of the National Park Service, the Civil War Trust, and the other preservationist groups that have worked so hard to maintain the area’s historic setting. Walk a few blocks down, however, and you’ll find yourself in a bustling tourist trap. Gift stores pull out all the stops to ensure that their wares tempt Civil War amateurs and experts alike. Ignoring the solemnity rightfully due the events of 151 years ago, these stores hawk their wares to any tourists who can be convinced to lust for cheap trinkets.

Photo credit to the author.
Photo credit to the author.

But even though it is despicable to imagine that the town of Gettysburg prospers largely because men fought and died on its fields, I do not believe that the local merchants bear all of the blame. They are, after all, just people like you or me who are trying to make a living. Many of them are passionate about the Civil War, but fail to recognize that their work cheapens the meaning of this town’s special history.

A great share of the responsibility also lies with the tourists who come each year and mindlessly patronize these stores. The problem is as simple as supply and demand. People want cheap souvenirs, so suppliers will arise. Cheap souvenirs are available, so people will buy them. A vicious cycle of consumerism has therefore emerged, one that perennially threatens to shift the town’s focus from the Battle of Gettysburg to the Battle of Tourists’ Wallets.

The public must be helped to understand that Gettysburg is not Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, or Disney World. They should not come here simply planning to see the sights, get a t-shirt, and go home. Both townsfolk and tourists must embrace a new paradigm of enduring historical reverence. Otherwise the town shall become no more than a cheesy roadside attraction adjacent to one of the most important sites in American history. Gettysburg may have come a long way, but it has a long way left to go.


Sources:

Adams County Winery. “Gettysburg Winery 150th Gettysburg Commemoration.” Accessed October 8, 2014.

Civil War in Memory Collection. Gettysburg College Special Collections, Gettysburg, PA.

Horwtiz, Tony. “Has Gettysburg Kicked Its Kitsch Factor?” Smithsonian Magazine, April 2013. Accessed November 9, 2014.

Jennie Wade House. “General Joshua Chamberlain Merchandise.” Accessed October 15, 2014.

6 thoughts on “Gettysburg’s Faustian Bargain”

  1. Perhaps Kevin, the mindset of the visitor is not on the trinkets and souvenirs that you detail. Maybe it’s a generational thing? Visitors to the area can break down into a couple of distinctive groups (and honestly I may be overlooking a group or two); the people who have studied American history and the group of people who have not studied American history.

    Unfortunately the latter group outnumbers the former group. Visiting Gettysburg is a privilege to walk the different battle sites, to visit the grounds, walk the streets, and to step in the footsteps of history. That is the American History view of the town and area. The non-historians will be the folks to visit the shops, maybe take a quick tour and go to the outlet mall. The relevance is keen. History is an intangible. Trinkets are a reminder, a tangible remembrance of a visit to hallowed ground. The confusion is generational.

    You see when they held the 50th reunion at Gettysburg those men looked for souvenirs too. A rock, a stone, the piece of fence post, those were all souvenirs to those men. Trinkets mean something. Each piece of memorabilia is a link to the past. Our past. The trinket is my link to visiting a very special place in Pennsylvania, as so many others have come before me.

    Walking through the cemetery and hearing the echoes of the past will never become kitsch. And those commemorative trinkets? I hope that my children and grandchildren will visit and take home treasures of their own. The memory of what happened there needs to be remembered.

  2. Why “unfortunate?” Why “sacred?”

    One of the guiding principles in interpretation is that you cannot decides what experience visitors will have for them. If people want to buy a Billy Bass that whistles Dixie, let them have it. A couple of years back when there was talk of a casino on the outskirts of Gettysburg I wrote down my thoughts in a blog post much-beloved by the Civil War community:

    At Gettysburg, Moral Panic Disguised as Historic Preservation
    http://cwmemory.com/2010/09/09/at-gettysburg-moral-panic-disguised-as-historic-preservation/

  3. I’m no fan of Gettysburg kitsch, but I think this essay is a little harsh in failing to acknowledge the potential benefits. Kitsch brings in cash which, in a tourist town like Gettysburg, is essential to keeping the economy going. Also, this kind of thing has been happening since the bodies were still warm on the battlefields–it’s as much a part of Gettysburg history and tradition as anything else. I’d argue it’s actually gotten better lately with the closing of the Wax Museum and some of the other flagrantly cash-oriented enterprises.

    Further, I think much of the trinkets are aimed at kids, who are less likely to have a meaningful experience at Gettysburg without a toy gun or child-sized kepi. It’s an effective way to get that age group engaged.

    Finally, I’m not sure I agree with the distinction between Gettysburg and places like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. They are all pretty equal in my mind: beautiful, important, historic National Parks. All need to balance kitsch with meaning.

  4. I agree with the general idea of the article – Gettysburg should not be a tourist attraction or casino destination (fought that battle a few years ago). I’m a historian, so of course I’d like to spend most of my time in a good museum or – best of all – on the actually battlefield. However, I do enjoy walking through a few shops to find postcards for friends, maybe a small gift for my family, and 50 new books for my shelf. I see this as supporting the local economy.

    I chose not support establishments that seem to “cheapen” the history and sacrifices (example: ghost tours), but I do not see an issue with purchasing a few items that I won’t find anywhere else. I agree with Kurt L’s comment and insight that some of the items are a great way to “introduce” kids to the Civil War era.

    As a reminder, Gettysburg was a town in 1863 and it is still a town with a local economy today.

  5. Excellent discussion and Kevin’s piece has done its job. He has inspired some thoughtful and respectful conversation. I would like to add that the finest treatment on this subject was done by the late Jim Weeks who wrote Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine (published by Princeton and still in paper). He touches on many of the divergent views expressed above and the book is very smart and well written). In thinking about Kevin’s editorial it seems to me that the word kitsch is too capacious. Trinkets are one thing but shirts that read “I wished we had picked our own damn cotton” or “Lee surrendered, I didn’t” are just a few pieces of consumer culture that have some rather obvious political intentions for today. The trinkets, the tacky souvenirs, and ghost tours captivate/horrify us often at the risk of blinding us to how many of these consumer items are not so harmless. I think the popular CivilWar art is especially damaging–not just to our sense of aesthetics–but to the glorification of the Lost Cause. Jackson and Lee can’t be painted today without both men on their knees praying while surrounded by children.

    The time is ripe for an anthropologist/public historian to do a focused examination of what exactly is being sold in downtown Gettysburg and a survey of consumers. We need to hear from them; we know much about the product but not much about why tourists buy these things that many of seen as absurd to us but carry deep meaning to them. I would conclude by saying that we can’t control the interpretive experience of our visitors (as Larry points out above) but we should be vigilant. For every Chamberlain and Lee bobble head doll that is sold, there are racks of shirts in those same stores that tell many Americans that Gettysburg is not their sacred space

  6. Hi everyone. I enjoyed reading all your thoughts; thanks for sharing them with our community! I definitely agree that some souvenirs are considerably more threatening to the public mentality than others and need to be looked at especially critically to make sure Gettysburg is welcoming to everyone and not a font of dangerous illusions. Also, the town is improving over time, but we should ensure this process continues.

    I do disagree, however, that kepis and toy guns are a central component to the meaningful engagement of a child. While they can complement the experience, they are not an essential facet or necessarily even a helpful tool, especially if they serve primarily as a distraction. I watched a half dozen school children have a blast as they followed me around the battlefield this weekend; it didn’t take a trip to a gift store to keep them interested.

    I acknowledged that there is a big divide in the types of tourists the town gets, between the experienced Gettysburg fanatics and casual visitors, and that this likely plays a role in the products they purchase. In fact, I admire both types of visitors, both those who come from their passion and those who come from curiosity. But the latter cannot simply be dismissed as naïve visitors who don’t know any better, or we aren’t giving them the credit they deserve as fellow human beings with the capacity to learn and grow in their historical awareness.

    By no means do I advocate a police state in which the borough of Gettysburg begins regulating merchandise or a reign of terror in which we citizens terrorize business who disagree with our standards. But I do think it is important to encourage a desire to seek a deeper awareness, even among transient Gettysburg tourists who are just passing through and perhaps don’t know much about American history. Just because things are a certain way today does not mean they are ordained to be the same way tomorrow.

    As for the economy argument, tourism is not known for being particularly economically reliable. Hopefully Gettysburg’s popularity will outlast that of many other vacation spots, but flooding the market with Gettysburg souvenirs does not seem to be the best way to create a well-rounded economy.

    There were a couple of comments on Ghost tours as well. I actually addressed these in a post two weeks ago that I invite you to check out.

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