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The Second Greatest Disappointment: Honeymooning and Tourism at Niagara Falls

by Karen Dubinsky

After Oscar Wilde visited Niagara Falls in 1882, he declared the waterfall must be the second greatest disappointment in American married life. Like many good jokes, Wilde’s quip worked because he left the best part unsaid: The relationship between the Falls and honeymooning had been well established since the 1830s. Thus Karen Dubinsky, a history professor at Queen’s University, declares Niagara Falls “an ideal place in which to observe the development and changes in heterosexual identities.”

Dubinsky sketches the early 19th-century “wedding tours,” which featured bride, groom, and family trekking to relatives hither and yon; the contemplative, guilt-ridden and uptight Victorian honeymoons; the expansion of the honeymoon experience in the early 20th century to include the upwardly mobile working class. The arrival of coitus uninteruptus honeymoon imagery in the post-Second World War era coincided with Niagara’s tourism heyday. Marilyn Monroe came to town to shoot Niagara, a movie advertised under the banner: “a raging torrent of emotion that even nature can’t control!” The era unselfconsciously linked female sexuality and chaotic nature, and Niagara reaped the economic benefits.

In the 1960s Niagara lost forever “its exclusive cultural hold on the honeymoon,” as the sexual revolution made wedding night copulation more a formality than a real ritual, and Niagara sank into kitsch and postmodern parody. Dubinsky argues: “Intensive honeymoon promotion … had made Niagara’s tourist entrepreneurs hardened and cynical social constructionists. Several decades later, scholars of sexuality are busily investigating what Niagara’s businessmen had figured out many years earlier: sexuality, like gender, is learned, acquired, ritualized, and performed.”

Dubinsky’s writing style is lively and inviting. Her narrative jumps back and forth between historical changes at Niagara and the evolution of sexual mores, presenting parallel tales rather than an integrated story. Her uncritical use of terms like “social construction” begs for a rebuttal. Dubinsky labels hoteliers as “social constructionists”– it is doubtful whether hoteliers ever considered themselves as such; they were just out to make a buck. She also misses a beat when she neglects to say anything about what Niagara’s latest economic saviour (a casino) means for sexual relations in the next century.