- Historic Sites
Mammon & Monuments
Commercial enterprise and history seldom make comfortable bedfellows
August 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 5
The advertising profession too frequently exploits history in this way. A single sample will suffice. In the summer of iy^y members of the American Historical Association received from an oil company proofs of a full-page ad appearing in Times, Newsweek , the Saturday Review , and the National Geographic Magazine , urging tourists to “Visit Kings Mountain—where the mountainmen made you free.” Above, in full color, mother, dad, and the kiddies are admiring a young man disguised as a Revolutionary soldier in Kings Mountain National Militär) Park, South Carolina. Helow is the pilch: Out of the mountains they came with hunting knives, Kenlucky rifles and freedom blazing white-hot in their eyes . And waiting for them on Kings Mountain was a superior force of Redcoats and Tories under the redoubtable Major Ferguson who boasted that “all the rebels outside of ——— couldn’t drive him from the mountain.” In one short, volcanic hour the untrained mountainmen won a crucial victory that fired up the Colonies and led to Yorktown and independence.
Today, Kings Mountain slumbers in the heart of one of the South’s most scenic vacationlands where you can swim, fish, ride … visit historic sites and stately country homes. At Kings Mountain, now carefully preserved, you can browse through the museum … recreate the action on a self-guided tour … and pause at the grave of the doughty Pat Ferguson who. true to his boast, is still there.
And you can muse lor a moment on the unlettered backwoodsmen who wrote a shining page in freedom’s book . The handwriting might be crude—but the message was unmistakably clear … no mountains is too high for men to scale when freedom waits at the top .
Below are the addresses thai will supply liée lour inlonnaiion and maps. In the margin the advertiser “salutes the American Historical Association,” which is, with unhistorical inaccuracy, slated to have been chartered in i8;)(>. The whole is typical of the corporate mind at work when il enlists the services of Madison Avenue to enable it to pay a heavy-handed pseuclo tribute to a cultural institution. A covering letter from the chairman of the board concludes with the immortal sentences: We believe that the American people are indeed fortunate that the Association has existed since 188.) to promote the study of history (and not, as inadvertently shown in our salute in several publications merely since i8i)(>!). It is our hope that this advertisement will bring added attention to tlie many distinguished historians who contribute so ably to the understanding and continuity of the American civili/alion.
The advertisement attempts, rather crudely, to present “history” as an unholy alliance between a learned hislorical association on the one hand and a greal body of tourists on the other, whose main object is to “swim, fish, ride … visit historic sites and stately country homes”—an alliance manufactured by a great corporation whose only aim is to increase gasoline sales. Such instances give force to Adlai Stevenson’s inquiry: With the supermarket :is our templr and the singing commercial as our litany, are we likely to fire the world with an irresistible vision of America’s exalted purposes and inspiring way of life?
It is not necessary to take to the road to find examples of the misuses of history. Every local newspaper lias its quota of the perversions that all too readily spawn in the heads of politicians, public relations men, advertising types, and other promoters. The Boston Herald of September 30, 1951), showed a group of women in fancy dress with the caption: James Frazier, chairman of the 1'lymoutli board of selectmen, shows an engraved certificate Io townsfolk in I’urilan [sic] dress announcing the award of a Federal grant of $1,027,873 for a 30 acre urban renewal project at 1'lymoulh.
A fortnight later the Herald ’s, readers were treated to a view of a bus collision on the upper level of the Mystic River Bridge in which twelve persons were injured. These unfortunate victims were members of the American Association of State Highway Officials in an eleven-bus caravan inspecting the new Massachusetts expressway systems. They were at the time “en route to a re-enactment of the Mayflower Compact signing.” Il is not clear why they were being carried on October i], 1959, to the re-enactment of an event that took place on November 11, 1(120, or, indeed, what possible relation the Mayflower Compact has to highway officials and new expressways. But apparently it is always a good thing to pull in the Pilgrims somehow.
The celebration of anniversaries often furnishes the opportunity for commercialism to disguise iiself in sheep’s clothing. Mr. Robert T. Taylor’s study of the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition of 1907 in the April, 1957, issue of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography furnishes a beauiil’iilly documented and dispassionately presented case history of how a supposedly historical celebration can get out of hand when it hills into the grip of promoters. This deserves careful study. In May, 1960, when the Civil War Centennial was still a year in the future, I warned the Virginia Historical Society that unless Virginians and New Englanders banded together to laugh at the commercial perversions of history that would be offered us in increasing quantity, the years from ujlii to i5 would be very unpleasant indeed.