By Mitch Primeau
Karen Dubinsky’s book, The Second Greatest Disappointment: Honeymooning and Tourism at Niagara Falls (Between the Lines, 1999, $29.95), is an ambitious work that explores the rise of mass tourism, the honeymoon, and heterosexuality in Niagara Falls from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century.
Dubinsky, a historian at Queen’s University, has written for the most part an accessible academic text that occasionally veers into a more scholarly tone, but with good reason. For instance, when she writes that one of her aims is “to decode the waterfalls’ gendered and sexual imagery,” (7) which she believes “is central to the cultural meaning or ‘imaginary geography’ of Niagara Falls,” (7) she may discourage readers unfamiliar with gender studies, who may find her sexualized, feminist reading of the Falls overreaching.
Dubinsky, however, supports her belief that the Falls’ imagery has cultural meaning and persuades the reader to continue. For example, she frequently draws on the records of early travel writers who described the Falls in sexual terms, calling Niagara’s mist a “kiss” or that its water “gyrates, caresses the shore,” (43) giving the Falls sexual powers. By the 1950s, the sexual imagery ascribed to the Falls by those travel writers had reached the imagination of Hollywood when, in 1952, Marilyn Monroe was featured in the movie “Niagara.” The movie’s tagline echoed the suggestive sentiments of previous travel writers: “Marilyn Monroe and Niagara, a raging torrent of emotion that even nature can’t control!” (199) The movie poster, shown in the book, depicts Monroe lying atop of the Falls, water rushing over her curvy figure. Thus, Dubinsky’s claim to decipher the sexual undertones of the Falls is not far reaching but perfectly reasonable.
This sexualized depiction of Niagara Falls by writers, artists, and popular culture, Dubinsky argues, “helped fix an image of the Falls as a place of forbidden pleasures.” (49) In addition, the Falls’ eroticized landscape was coupled with the presence of Natives “ who were part of the show…extensions of the landscape” (58) and gave Niagara an exoticism.
This alluring mix of the erotic and the exotic, however, would have been fruitless if tourists did not have the transportation to visit Niagara Falls. Dubinsky believes that the rise of modern transportation, then, is what ushered Niagara, and other destinations, into the realm of mass tourism. Between 1825 and 1850, the Niagara region witnessed an unprecedented boom in transportation infrastructure: the Erie Canal, the Welland Canal, as well as bridges and railroads that connected Canada to the United States were all built within this twenty-five year span. (31) A century later, the automobile further encouraged mass tourism and a new tourist market: the working class family who could travel cheaply and stay at autocamps or motels.
Dubinsky also charts the evolution of the honeymoon and heterosexuality. Victorian couples used the “private honeymoon as a way to reconcile their embarrassment of this passage into sexual citizenship with their culture’s demands for sexual modesty.” (26) While the post-World War II era still demanded rigid gender stereotypes, the script had begun to change. The blushing bride of Victorian times had been swept aside as the Niagara honeymoon became a place of explicit sexual conquest and part of popular culture when Frank Sinatra sang, “Lets go again to Niagara, lets get away from it all, this time we’ll look at the Falls.” (227)
In the public sphere, people still treated the honeymoon as the gateway to a sexual life, yet the private sphere relayed a different story. Dubinsky cites the work of Alfred Kinsey who reported that 50% of women and 90% of men had already had sex before their honeymoon. (216) And by the 1970s and 1980s, this notion of sexual innocence was comical, as one Niagara resident remarked, “They all live together already, you know?”(244)
One of the book’s pleasures is the accompanying pictures and illustrations she includes. Rather than having the pictures bound in the middle of the book, the pictures are distributed throughout and add to the reader’s understanding. In addition, Dubinsky’s research often comes from popular texts of the era, whether it be marriage guides, novels, or newspapers. Her attention to these unique sources helps to locate the prevailing mainstream mood and culture of the times, though, as Kinsey’s statistics indicate, there may have been a dissonance between what was expressed publicly and what was held privately.
Dubinsky runs into trouble in the middle of her book where she takes a detour from the honeymoon and tourism to focus on the inner workings of the Niagara tourist industry and Niagara Parks Commission. It is these chapters that fail to engage the reader or tie into the book’s overarching themes. The role of organized crime, the plight of hotel workers, and Niagara’s grasp at industrialization by building a Shredded Wheat plant, for example, interrupt the narrative she outlines in her introduction; however, residents of Niagara Falls may find this local history appealing.
I should disclose that I was born and raised in Niagara Falls and worked in the tourist industry, like practically every other Niagara teenager I know. To work in the Clifton Hill/Niagara Falls vortex is to pass through a unique rite of passage, particular to Niagara Falls. When I used to get dropped off to put in my shift as a Table Rock cashier, I often felt that I was no longer in my hometown. Dubinsky briefly touches on this feeling Niagara Falls residents often have, that they live in two places. On one hand, it is a small, charming town that would not be out of place in a Bruce Springsteen song; and, on the other hand, it is a place that persistently strives for grandeur by building theme restaurants like Rainforest Cafe or a new casino. These attempts at reinvention can be traced back to the 1960s, when “Niagara lost its exclusive cultural hold on the honeymoon … and never regained it.”(243) As a result, the city has tried, unsuccessfully, to rebrand itself. Just this summer Niagara tourism released a commercial that tried to lure Torontonians away from Toronto’s crime ridden city to Niagara’s bucolic quaintness. The ads were roundly criticized and were yet another scar in Niagara’s struggle to reposition itself.
Dubinsky’s book has a fact-collecting, trivia quality that will likely interest people who have grown up in the Niagara region. But The Second Greatest Disappointment goes far beyond trivia to examine the strange intersection of sex, tourism, and commerce in a particular moment in history.
Mitch Primeau is a teacher who lives in Toronto. On some weekends, you can still spot him in the North end of Niagara Falls.