Gettysburg: A Town Built on Tourism

By Kevin Lavery ’16

In my most recent blog posts, I’ve adopted a rather unforgiving stance on the rampant consumerism that pervades the town of Gettysburg. Essentially, I have argued that the borough’s tacky gift shops sell odious little trinkets to gullible tourists and profiteer from the public’s morbid obsession with war and death. But while I firmly believe that this zealous consumerism is a persistent threat to healthy historical engagement, there is another side to the issue that demands to be recognized: Gettysburg kitsch is part of what has made Gettysburg into a town brimming with opportunities to broaden the public’s historical consciousness.

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

Gettysburg is among the most prominent sites in Civil War memory, if not the most prominent. No other battlefield has quite the same name-brand power in the public mind. It is no surprise, therefore, that Gettysburg’s reputation perennially yields a large crop of tourists and pilgrims.

When you drive into the tourist district, you are greeted by signs for gift shops, independent museums, tour companies, motels, restaurants, and more. They are a vital – if unfortunate – component of the Gettysburg experience. Parents take their children to Gettysburg knowing that their family will not only receive exposure to a site of critical historical importance, but also to great food, comfortable accommodations, and fun souvenirs. Gettysburg is the complete package; more than a battlefield, it is a destination – for better and for worse.

Gettysburg’s reputation as a tourist town is part of what makes it such a wonderful place to introduce people to the Civil War. Visitors do not need to be professional historians or reenactors in order to enjoy a visit to Gettysburg. Its appeal lies largely in its accessibility.

How many times have you heard someone say, “Gettysburg? I love Gettysburg. My dad took me and my brother there when we were young, and I loved it!” Maybe they never returned but still fondly remember the experience, or maybe it kindled within them a lifelong passion for the Civil War. In either case, their trip to Gettysburg was a formative experience in the development of their historical consciousness, and this was made possible in part because of the complete package offered by the town’s tourism industry.

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

Cheap and essentially meaningless though they are, tacky souvenirs are nonetheless a fundamental part of the Gettysburg experience. After spending a day on the battlefield, parents drag their kids into town to buy them little kepis and cork guns and buy themselves ornaments and baubles. Those pieces of trash will soon gather dust in a closet somewhere, but in the meantime they will have reinforced that family’s memory of Gettysburg.

There is a thin line between using and abusing the history of Gettysburg. The memory of the men who fought here can never be used to justify commercial greed, but even the worst excesses of consumerism can unintentionally facilitate a genuine appreciation of history. The town’s commercialism has played a significant role in the creation of Gettysburg’s identity, but visitors and townsfolk alike should take care that the tourist industry always remains respectful of the men who fought here, and of subordinate importance to meaningful historical engagement.

2 thoughts on “Gettysburg: A Town Built on Tourism”

  1. “Cheap and essentially meaningless though they are, tacky souvenirs are nonetheless a fundamental part of the Gettysburg experience. After spending a day on the battlefield, parents drag their kids into town to buy them little kepis and cork guns and buy themselves ornaments and baubles. Those pieces of trash will soon gather dust in a closet somewhere, but in the meantime they will have reinforced that family’s memory of Gettysburg.”

    First Off Lighten up

    Now in the first line of the above paragraph you refer to the meaninglessness of “tacky” souvenirs and then in the last line you indicate that they are in fact not meaningless as they help families remember their visit…so which is it? because I think that’s pretty darn meaningful

    I gather you have a bone to pick with the towns primary industry but keep in mind that:
    1) the town of Gettysburg has been a tourist attraction since about the end of 1863.
    2) things were far worse, trolley’s through the battlefield, amusement parks in devil’s den etc.

    So we’ve come a long way. In the mean time, as you leave each May to go home and, come 2016, will leave for good, the fine folks of Gettysburg still have to eat and pay their bills. I can think of far worse things they could be doing there to survive. In the meantime people visit, people learn, and come away happy for the experience

    I’ve been a “tourist” of Gettysburg for a real long time. Long before you were born in fact. I have patronized those places you go on about in your blog. I’ve never once felt taken advantage of or been treated as “gullible” . I’m a parent and I’ve bought those “kepis” and “cork guns” for my kids.. but you know what? My sons have grown and are well aware of the significance of the events of July 1863. One could named all the federal corps and their commanders by the time he was was 6. The other aspires to go to Gettysburg College and major and history. Not too bad for a couple of kepis and a cork rifle.

    Again I think you need to lighten up, take a step back, ratchet back the criticism , let the good folks of Gettysburg earn their living, you need not participate touristy stuff but refrain from judging as well

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my blog post. Let me take a few minutes to clarify a couple of points. In response to your key counterarguments, here are some of my thoughts:

    1. Yes, Gettysburg has always been a tourist attraction for a very long time. The morbid curiosity that gripped early pilgrims has transformed the town over time into the Gettysburg we now know. That does fact, however, does not justify the persistence of unrestrained consumerism.

    2. Yes, there have been questionable aspects of Gettysburg’s tourism industry for a long time, many of which were far worse than what we have now. But we’ve moved past those, and the series I’ve written on Gettysburg kitsch embodies a wish that we can move past this stage of Gettysburg’s existence as well. Paradigms are constantly in shift, and it is no crime to wish that they shift for the better.

    I’m curious about one of the points you make. Do you believe the kepi and cork gun are the reason your children have an admirable passion for the Battle of Gettysburg? They may have been a small component, but I would imagine that it was your own passion more than anything material that stirred their interest, for which I applaud you.

    Also, it may be of interest for me to disclose that when I am not reading through piles of books, weaving words together to impress peers and professors, and writing attacks on rampant consumerism, I have held a wonderful retail job at an amusement park from May through August for the last six years. Ironic, right? I know what it is to see the twinkle in someone’s eye as they walk away with a particularly priceless souvenir (actually $10.59). I also know what it is like to buy such a trinket from a museum and watch regretfully as it collects dust on my shelf. I can’t bring myself to part with it, but I also know I have no real use for it. From my perspective, that doesn’t seem quite healthy. I accept tourism and consumerism and participate in them from both sides of the counter. But aware of their mighty grasp on the memory of such a solemn occurrence as the Battle of Gettysburg, I have a queasy sensation in my gut.

    Furthermore, tourism is only a viable industry if it can evolve with the times. I’ve seen the economic argument for Gettysburg’s tourism industry time and again, but I haven’t yet been convince by it. In Gettysburg, the industry seems almost like a crutch to deal with the absence of any other significant industry. It helps to prop up the town, but it fails to facilitate economic innovation. Ingenuity and inspiration are the foundation for lasting economic development, not overreliance on a single business model, no matter how tried and true. If tourism gives the town a sense of economic complacency, then it is not merely bad for historical memory, but also the town’s long-term growth. I am not familiar with the borough’s exact economic status, but living here for two-thirds of a year has allowed me to see beyond the charming front the town puts on for visitors. The social and economic dynamics at play in Gettysburg and the surrounding community are as complex as anywhere, and the region deserves to develop an equally vigorous and diversified economy. The tourism industry is not in itself bad, but neither is it inherently good. It cannot, therefore, be used as a justification for the trivialization of the Civil War’s memory.

    Also, I’m not sure how age differentials are relevant to this discussion. While I will acknowledge that as a college student I have not had as much exposure to Gettysburg’s long-term development as many of our adult readers have, my generation and those after it will be the ones responsible for how Gettysburg is remembered and commemorated in the years to come. Historical memory is something we all have a stake in, whether we are tourists, residents, business owners, politicians, and college students alike, regardless of age or background.

    Question everything. Those are words we live by at Gettysburg College. They will surely rankle, especially when used against paradigms we accept as the way things are and the only way they ever can be. But I firmly believe that our world is always in flux, and that we must have this sort of discussion to ensure change happens for the better. There is too much at stake to casually “lighten up” in serious discussions such as this. Passion, not complacency, drives the future.

    The essential question remains this: are scores of souvenir shops the best way to commemorate the Battle of Gettysburg? Absolutely not, this blog post argues, but they have played a unique role in the construction of Gettysburg as a salient destination for meaningful historical interpretation, even if the souvenirs themselves have no inherent value.

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