Karen L. Cox: Confederate Tchotkes and the American Dream
This article is crossposted at Pop South and UNC Press Civil War 150.
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, whom 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, Y’all 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.
Karen L. Cox is associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is the author of Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture as well as Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, which won the 2004 Julia Cherry Spruill Prize for the best book in southern women’s history. You can become a fan of Dreaming of Dixie on Facebook and follow Cox on Twitter @SassyProf. Visit the author’s blog, Pop South: Reflections on the South in Popular Culture.
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