On a recent vacation to Lake Lure, North Carolina, I drove over to the small town of Chimney Rock where people can hike to Hickory Nut Falls, grab a bite to eat, do a little gem mining, and perhaps stop in a souvenir shop to buy mementos of their trip. I didn’t necessarily want a souvenir, but given the heat and humidity it made sense to duck into a few of the shops to cool off and to see what was for sale.
And boy was I in for a treat. In addition to some of the ridiculous hillbilly items being sold (note photo of the “Woman Getter” a.k.a. the “Persuader,” a.k.a. the “Man Tamer”), Confederate tchotkes were everywhere and not just in one store.
This, of course, is surprising since the mountain South is not known for loyal Confederates. Tourists who follow the signs along North Carolina’s Civil War Discovery Trail near Hickory Nut Gorge learn not about staunch Confederates, but about Union General George Stoneman’s raiders and his order to Colonel William Palmer to join in the pursuit to capture Confederate President Jefferson Davis, whose flight from Richmond had entered North Carolina in late April 1865.
Well, in the same store that carried the “Woman Getter” there were items emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag ranging from a pot holder, useful for Rebel-hot recipes from the Confederate Cookbook, to bookends with three-dimensional pistols attached to protect your copies of Southern By the Grace of God or When the South was Southern.
In a second store where I sought a reprieve from the heat there was an enormous selection of t-shirts from Dixie Outfitters—a merchandiser that offers a wide array of items displaying messages of “pride in the Southern way of life.” Perhaps you’ve seen them. Using images of Confederate soldiers, Robert E. Lee, and yes, the Confederate battle flag, the shirts practically scream that the Civil War is still alive and well in the hearts and minds of some southerners (those who would buy these shirts).
On one, with an image of Lee, the slogan reads “Dixie Will Never Die,” and another for the “Southern Girl” tells you that among her many qualities are “Boot Scootin’,” “Handgun Packin’,” “Pickup Drivin’,” and “Bass Fishin’.” Of course, she wouldn’t be complete without also being a “Belle of the Ball.”
While I’m a historian, I must be part sociologist. The historian in me understood that the history of this area of North Carolina ran counter to the sale of such pro-Confederate souvenirs. Yet the sociologist in me could not help but notice that this store was owned by two immigrants, living the American Dream. The couple, a Hispanic man and his wife, who I guessed to be from Eastern Europe, were the proprietors of the store. When I asked her why they were selling all of these pro-Southern t-shirts she responded vehemently “I am from southern!” She couldn’t have known I asked out of curiosity and perhaps thought I was challenging her in some way. Thinking on it, I wondered if she indeed had been challenged about it before. Maybe by some of those present-day Confederate sympathizers (a.k.a. “Neo-Confederates) who, let’s face it, are very likely to be anti-immigrant in their thinking.
I wanted to write this piece in an effort to unravel the complexities of what I was experiencing there in the little town of Chimney Rock: the Confederate souvenirs in what, historically, was not so Confederate. The immigrants selling shirts emblazoned with “It’s a Southern Thang, Ya’ll Wouldn’t Understand,” a slogan that is clearly a ripoff of “It’s a Black Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand.” So, I turned to Winston Churchill. Yes, Churchill.
Speaking about Russia during World War II, Winston Churchill said: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” I felt very similarly about my experience—that what is going on in Chimney Rock and in similar tourist attractions around the South is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, but perhaps there is a key. That key is capitalism.
9 thoughts on “Confederate Tchotkes and the American Dream”
Invisible hand of the free market, and all that stuff.
Great post, thanks.
Twenty years ago I went on a cruise on the lower Mississippi. One of the stops was the landing near St. Francisville, Louisiana. The river had changed course over the years, so the landing was by then a quarter- or half-mile from town, and there was nothing there but a big, open, level space with a macadam road leading off toward town, somewhere behind the trees.
A number of local African American women had come down to the landing, set up card tables and were selling home-made souvenir. Almost all of them were some variation of “mammy” dolls, the Gold Dust Twins, or some such. That really bothered me at the time, that that was what the souvenir market was in that time and place. In retrospect, I wish I could’ve asked them some about how they viewed that, but I doubt that there are any simple answers to that.
You left out the most classic slogan: Forget, Hell! On a recent visit to Lake Lure and Chimney Rock, this was the one thing I wanted to bring back with me. It is now hanging on my wall as a reminder of the real reason, IMHO, for the “War of Northern Agression”, that is: the fundamental philosophical differences between agrarians and industrialists.
Karen – Great post. I’ve often wondered about that myself and came to much the same conclusion.Sell what people want to buy. I’d like to know what motivates people to buy that stuff. As curiosities? Because it reaffirms identity? Probably a mix of reasons.
Remember the Confederate flag beach towels of the Myrtle Beach of our youth? Sad to say, but I had one. Why, I have no idea.
These are all thoughtful replies to this post. Someone said to me that the shops in Chimney Rock looked like those in Myrtle Beach–at least a version of what’s down there. A colleague mentioned that on family vacations to Myrtle Beach in the early 1970s she remembers having a float emblazoned with the battle flag. What makes it all the more odd, she says, is she’s not sure why her family (from New York) bought it in the first place other than it was an example of “the South.”
I think there’s another blog post waiting to be written on the hillbilly kitsch, too. I’m not Jewish, but I find that the Yiddish for these items very appropriate.
Growing up in Cleveland County, Chimney Rock was a must-do summer destination as a kid and teenager. We would actually skip school on warm spring days and drive up to the town and Lake Lure. My observation on the popularity of Confederate kitsch in that area, as well as in Myrtle Beach, is that it may be related to American motorcycle culture. Both areas are popular destinations for bikers, particularly Chimney Rock because of those curvy roads and gorgeous scenes of nature. Of course the image of a biker in American culture is that of the ultimate rebel, meaning that symbols of a rebellion would be highly popular with such a crowd. Anyway, I have really enjoyed the blog. I hope you had a great time in Rutherford County and that it lived up to its motto, “Small Town Friendly.”
Well, Boyd. This begs the question: Do you think that bikers who consider themselves “rebels” overlook the historical connections with the Confederate battle flag or embrace them? That being said, you might be onto something with that motorcycle culture connection.
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