June/July 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 4
Institutionalizing the American Honeymoon
On the theory, perhaps, that there is safety in numbers, it is possible to have a honeymoon in the company of five hundred couples doing exactly the same thing. In the Poconos of eastern Pennsylvania, a hilly region some thirty miles west of the Delaware Water Gap, there are eight hotels with names like Cove Haven and Paradise Stream, which have the appearance and facilities of regular resorts but which cater exclusively to honeymooners.
The efficient categorization of people today isolates single people in bars and apartments, puts old people out to feed in the sun, and now is segregating young newlyweds in easy-to-process groups. As with much of American life, the governing principle behind these eight Pocono resorts is the division of labor, the same idea that is responsible for auto shops which install only mufflers and surgeons who extract only wisdom teeth. These hotels are the culmination of the honeymoon’s long and peculiar history in this country.
We are not, by and large, a nation which likes sentiment or sex. What we really do like, of course, is business, which has meant to us as much as romantic love has meant to the French. The Pocono honeymoon package constitutes a uniquely American effort to coordinate the three pleasures.
The idea of the honeymoon existed long before it became an institution and later an industry. The word appeared first in English in the sixteenth century, referring to the ecstatic state of mind that precedes the normal conflicts of marriage. In colonial America, the honeymoon was not an actual trip. Newly wedded couples usually stayed at home, holding open house or visiting their in-laws. Weddings were exuberant affairs culminating in long, often alcoholic banquets.
Times were rougher and bawdier than they soon would become, and the bride and groom were hustled to bed with much publicity and commotion. An 1850 etiquette book noted that “the chamber frolics such as the whole company visiting the bride and bridegroom after they were in bed, which was done some years ago … are almost universally laid aside.”
After the cheerful colonial welcome given to marriage and sexual maturity, the furtive nineteenth century comes as something of a shock. Victorian doctors tended to justify sexual repression. Sylvester Graham, the famous nineteenth-century nutritionist for whom the cracker was named, wrote that an ounce of semen was the equivalent of forty ounces of blood. At that rate it was not hard to draw the obvious conclusion. William Andrus Alcott, doctor and author of chatty books of advice to young married couples wrote, “I am, however, quite sure that one indulgence to each lunar month, is all that the best health of the parties can possibly require.…It is, moreover, worthy of notice that the pleasures of love, no less than the strength of the orgasm, are enhanced by their infrequency.”
As sex was siphoned off from married life, the honeymoon took on quite a different aspect. Money and privacy became two important elements.
In 1830, for example, businessman William Wood took his bride Harriet Kane on a wedding trip through upper New York State. He recorded their journey in some detail in his autobiography. Drake’s Hotel in Albany cost three dollars for a room, plus tea, coffee, beefsteak, chicken, and peaches. For thirty-two dollars, Wood hired a coach-and-four to take him and Harriet on to Utica. At Amsterdam he celebrated, spending seventy-five cents “for both for roastbeef, pork steaks, chicken, apple pie, pound cake, etc.” At Caughnawaga it cost one dollar and seventy-five cents for tea, breakfast, and a room. On the way back, Wood complained that “We left Utica Tuesday, September 21, at 8 a.m., rather troubled in mind at being charged $8 for two days’ board and lodging.”
Perhaps even more than money, privacy was a Victorian concern. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s summation of his first honeymoon is a poignant object lesson. In his journal, otherwise written entirely in English, the wedding entry reads, “ Mon amie à Concord .”
Richard Henry Dana, Jr., and his bride spent their wedding trip in the front half of a house in Rockport, Massachusetts. The rear was occupied by a quiet widow and her son. “The sea and rocks are before us,” he wrote, “and a wide wood behind us. There is a cool sea-breese, no noise but that of the woods and waters. Sat. we roamed about upon the rocks and in the pastures. Sunday we walked to Church in the afternoon. Monday alone all day, as before.”
Henry Adams made a similar arrangement. He and his bride had a private wedding, after which they left for Cotuit on Cape Cod, where a relative had offered them a house. “Of course nothing could be quieter than all this,” Adams wrote his friend Charles M. Gaskell.
Many couples found that there was privacy in the anonymity of the large crowds at Niagara Falls. Napoleon’s brother Jerome and his beautiful American bride, Elizabeth Patterson, are said to have been the first honeymoon couple to visit the falls. They came in 1804 on their extended wedding trip, but they seem to have been more interested in giving Napoleon (who disapproved of their marriage) a moving target than in sightseeing. The incredible popularity of Niagara Falls began with the 1836 construction of a small railroad joining the town with the Erie Canal. This made the place available at relatively low cost to travelers. Honeymoon couples could be assured that their embarrassment would go unnoticed among the throngs of tourists who could now afford to visit the great wonder.
(In the West, concerns of privacy and delicacy gave way to the unsettled conditions of the country. Just before his wedding Abraham Lincoln told an acquaintance who inquired as to why he was all dressed up that he was going “to hell I reckon.” Instead, his and Mary Todd Lincoln’s honeymoon was a short carriage ride through a heavy downpour to the Globe Tavern near Lincoln’s Springfield, Illinois, law office. There they hired room and board for four dollars a week.)
Then as always, Americans tended to do everything by the book, and when there wasn’t a book, they wrote one. In the 1830’s, at least twenty-eight self-help manuals appeared; there were thirty-six in the next decade; they have kept coming ever since. Weddings received obsessional attention. There was no question about clothing, flowers, kinds of presents, seating arrangements, food, or music which was not discussed in stupefying detail. “If she will change her frock before starting on her wedding journey,” advised one turn-of-the-century expert, “she may wear any soft afternoon dress or ensemble suitable to the season, with a dressy hat. If she is leaving immediately by train, steamship or motor, she will select a costume appropriate to the mode of travel. This is not necessarily heavy cloth like cheviot, tweed, or serge. It may be lightweight cloth or heavy silk, but it should be in her most becoming color, and should strike a more festive note than the severely tailored suit.”
This attention to minutiae characterized the wedding trip of Lina Roth who married novelist Zane Grey in 1905. She titled her journal “Our Honeymoon,” and began with the contents of her trunk: “First tray, hats, collar, linen shawl, books, fishing tackle, etc. Second tray: Gray suit, short skirt, red waist, white jacket, sachet, combing jacket. Third tray: pink dress, tan, two white skirts, white petticoat, chemise, c.c. stockings.”
Until 1914, advice usually stopped with the wedding. A veil was drawn over the honeymoon itself, because, of course, t was sex. The bride, who had instructions about how many buttons her bridesmaids’ gloves should have, was dumped informationless into the arms of her husband. But soon after World War I, repression and sublimation came to be regarded with the same disgust that previously had been reserved for sex. Still, whether sex was officially bad, as in the Victorian years, or officially good, as it was after World War I, it retained an alien quality.
After 1917 the honeymoon, a couple’s first legitimate sexual experience, was suddenly a public topic. But there was no voice in which to discuss it. The honeymoon joke may have grown to fill the tense quiet the subject provoked.
Embarrassment wasn’t the only bad feature of the twentiethcentury honeymoon. Once people began talking, it appeared that the wedding trip was difficult emotionally and sexually for a large percentage of women. The Ladies’ Home Journal became something of a self-appointed honeymoon watchdog, on the alert for problems. Over the last fifty years, it has run a series of cautionary pieces, each one suggesting that some very good marriages had dismal prefaces. One Journal survey found that more than 50 per cent of the women interviewed had been “disillusioned and disappointed,” or “overstimulated and tense,” or “fatigued and exhausted” on their wedding trips. The magazine advised upset women that it was premature to judge the next forty years on the basis of a few days of mixed emotions. Articles tried to reassure disappointed women by stressing the fact that in a country where sexual repression is a strong force, it is unlikely that sudden license will result in instant sexual happiness.
The first resort specifically for honeymooners and their anxieties was The Farm on the Hill near Swif twater, Pennsylvania, owned and operated by a retired New York executive, Rudolf van Hoevenberg. He opened his hideaway in 1945, asking prospective clients for an informal autobiographical statement including a description of their future plans. On the basis of this document, he and his wife weighed the desirability of the couple. If they were found congenial, the pair would get a small cottage and the odd combination of privacy and enforced socializing commonly found in summer camp. Van Hoevenberg neutralized honeymoon fear by surrounding each couple with others who duplicated their embarrassment. He greatly reduced the possibilities for surprise and error on the wedding trip and guaranteed a snigger-free environment. When bride and groom could no longer support their new intimacy, they could retreat into casual conversation with other couples pre-tested for congeniality.
From this modest beginning the mighty Pocono honeymoon industry grew until by 1977 it was expanding at the incredible rate of 22 per cent annually. “It is impossible from a business point of view, but we’re doing it,” announced Cove Haven’s publicist. Of the 2,500,000 American couples married every year, the Poconos today service 250,000. Eighty per cent of the guests come through recommendations from friends. They come, says the publicist, because there is “a lot of apprehension when you get married. These couples are almost strangers to each other.”
Honeymoons used to be sloppy, haphazard affairs, fraught with the risks of inquisitive onlookers, bad restaurants, and thin walls. The Pocono resorts provide an insurance policy against making choices, and therefore mistakes. The company is guaranteed not to gape, the food is reliable, and the rooms are soundproof. And as to why a newly married pair would want to be in the presence of hundreds of others in the same situation, another resort spokesman explains, “It’s a unique time of life, and the couples need a rapport with other couples. The bride doesn’t want single girls who represent a threat to their mate. There are no threats here; everyone has stars in their eyes.”
Since sex is generally a major honeymoon component, these hotels provide a one-size-fits-all ensemble of erotic notions. “Dive into devilish delight in your very own indoor private swimming pool completely surrounded by mirrored walls that reflect your every fantasy,” reads one racy advertisement under a photograph of a couple being playful in their tiny bedroom pool. The décor of these resorts, however, would considerably distract one from fantasy.
A typical suite at Paradise Stream consists of a bathroom, bedroom, and pool room, all decorated in a mode which could be described as Total Carpet. On the bedroom ceiling of one unit is a beige shag affair with what appear to be the marks of table legs from some earlier life when the rug resided more normally on a floor. The walls are covered with a gray and brown snakeskin broadloom, in counterpoint to a rug in a rusty-orange geometric design. Glass doors separate the bedroom from the pool room, where the motif continues with a greenish-blue pile around the pool. At the other end of the suite, from bedroom to bathroom, is a reddish deep-pile synthetic, in surprising contrast to the pink and red walls of something profoundly flocked.
The furniture is a baroque extravaganza come unglued. Ranks of cherubim lamps stand about clutching arrows and bows. Gilt filigreed mirror frames are inset with red glass baubles. Circular, royal-purple armchairs flank a white, gilt-edged coffee table. The bedroom’s centerpiece is a giant, round, red bed, all set about with smoky, gold-flecked mirrors.
Controlling the suite’s temperature is an important honeymoon activity. The bedroom has both thermostat and airconditioner dials. Next to the pool is a fireplace that burns wax logs available at the gift store. The brochure warns that “for safety reasons, wood logs or firewood are forbidden.” If the fire makes the pool room too warm, there is always air conditioning.
Oddly enough, the erotic core of the honeymoon suite is its bathroom. Sixteen years ago history was made in this resort world when a hotel advertisement first featured a woman in a foam-filled, heart-shaped bathtub. Suddenly Eros existed where before there had been merely plumbing. The industry is still talking about the response to that ad. It emerged that the bride’s primary sensual dream—and it is the bride, as every honeymoon entrepreneur knows, who makes the wedding-trip arrangements—was the chance to get extremely clean with her husband. Since then, every bathroom has been a showcase of American Standard.
The couples who come to enjoy these delights are often unsure of themselves and unaccustomed to each other. To make them relax, each hotel has a social director, invariably referred to as a “character.” He is gregarious and quick with a blue joke. At Cove Haven, the social director uses a bit of breezy obscenity first thing on meeting the arrivals. As the hotel’s publicist explains, this tells the newcomers that they needn’t “put on airs. It breaks things down to the grass roots of life.” Several days later, at evening entertainment, the social director instructs his honeymooners to echo this greeting in unison. Resort wisdom has it that the more enthusiastic the response, the more successful the honeymoon. “It’s a meaningful thing,” concludes the publicist.
The resorts publish a daily newsletter describing events and activities. Morning possibilities can include learning the Hustle beside the big resort pool, or for the more aggressive, target practice with M-l’s and M-16’s. There is poolside bingo and a couples’ mini-golf contest. For others, there are pinball machines, an archery range, and a gift shop full of pine-stuffed pillows, glasses with funny things written on them, and a truly staggering variety of sexual and Polish jokes realized in plastic. The special drink for the evening is the “Bacardi cocktail,” which costs one dollar. Dinner begins promptly at six o’clock, and although dress is informal, the letter hints: “We enjoy when our couples dress for Dinner and Dance, it makes you feel good too. .. .” After-dinner entertainment includes a “fine comedian you’ll enjoy,” a pair of country-western singers, a baritone reminiscent of Julius La Rosa, and an ecumenical dance band whose repertoire wavers between the sedate and the very agitated.
Diane Hannan, honeymoon consultant for this unique group of hotels, says that today’s clientele is much more sophisticated than that of fifteen years ago. The median bride’s age has risen from eighteen to twenty-one, and the grooms are twenty-six instead of twenty-one. The social director no longer has to explain the facts of life to distraught girls, arbitrate fights, or persuade tearful wives not to return to their mothers. Instead, he reassures the guests that they are enjoying themselves. Under his guidance they can relax, safe and secure in the middle of America’s deepest pile and finest plumbing. And on top of that, they are not alone.