‘Selling the Amish’: Amish Country as Consumerist Self-help or Retrograde Utopia?

I’ve just moved from Wisconsin back to Southeastern Pennsylvania, and one of the things I’d completely forgotten about was the use of a horse-and-buggy logo for regional shorthand. The silhouette, with or without a prominent wide-brimmed hat sticking out, seems like it’s everywhere. And just at the moment when I noticed it, Susan L. Trollinger’s Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia was dropped into my hands.1

Trollinger opens with a short chapter for those readers unfamiliar with the religious and cultural history of the Amish, then moves on to frame her argument in Chapter 2. Drawing on precedents in cultural studies (such as Dean McCannell’s The Tourist) and those specifically about the phenomenon of Amish tourism (such as Thomas J. Meyers’ essay “Amish Tourism” in Mennonite Quarterly Review), Trollinger explains that places such as Shipshewana, Indiana and Intercourse, Pennsylvania become mediated spaces at which mainstream Americans (most of them middle-aged, middle-class, and white) can encounter the idea of the Amish.Selling the Amish

It is in three such liminal places in Ohio that Trollinger explores in her next three chapters. In each town, she identifies a few larger themes of Amish tourism in general to focus on.

In Walnut Creek, the majority of tourist buildings embrace a Victorian aesthetic outside and in. In Berlin, the architecture is split between the old(e) frontier and the 1950s. Sugarcreek, Ohio, is known for its Swiss Cheese and its annual Swiss Festival in addition to its proximity to a large Amish population. Each of these themes offer an intermediary setting, a stylistic mid-point between the tourists who come and the Amish they come to see. The technology in the tea room in Walnut Creek and for sale in Berlin is not that different from that which the Amish utilize. Mainstream America sees the Amish as trapped in time and it takes entering simulacra of past mainstream Americas for tourists to not be too discomfited by the life of the Amish.

The irony is that it is just that life that they are coming to see in many cases. Trollinger suggests that Middle Americans facing a “time famine” are entranced by the slower pace of agrarian Amish life and that the retrograde gender roles of the Amish are comforting in a time of gender revolution. Tourists who have just been given iPads by their children find comfort in seeing an old apple peeler like the one they used in their youth.

On the whole, Trollinger succeeds in raising interesting questions about the commodification of members of the Amish church by tourism entrepreneurs. For instance, she complicates the idea that this practice is necessarily exploitative. Trollinger cites Roy C. Buck’s argument that Amish-themed tourism insulates the Amish community from mainstream society by directing tourists to a commercialized version of Amish life rather than the homesteads, farms, and schools in which the Amish actually live.

Furthermore, Trollinger opens and closes the book with a conversation she had with several New Order Amish men in Holmes County, Ohio. The men suggested that they pitied the tourists who toured their community because of the awful rushed lives they led. The men relished the opportunity they had to perform a witness to the tourists, to show them that life need not be lived in a frenzy. Thus while the Amish lifestyle is turned into a marketable brand, it also preserves its practitioners’ everyday activities and provides a stage on which they can share their truth with the mainstream.

Yet I wonder how much witness the tourists receive. Retail is at the forefront of Walnut Creek and Berlin, and Trollinger suggests that a large part of the appeal of these places is that visitors can take tools (cookbooks, décor, hand-planers) back to their mainstream lives to capture a little of the slow and simple life and work toward “fixing” their modern problems.

While I find this argument persuasive, I wish that Trollinger had applied the same visual close-reading to some more Amish-adjacent tourist attractions (buggy rides, barn tours, etc.) that she does to the Thomas Kinkade portraits and American-flag bunting on sale next to “hand-dipped” candles and other kitsch. Perhaps in these more “authentic” experiences (even though they are simulacra) there is more opportunity for witness?

As Trollinger described the appeal of the Amish: the slower pace, clear-cut gender-roles, and simple technology, I found myself waiting for her to get to the darker side of such a time-traveling yen. When she talks about the 1950s as evoking an “innocent” time, I think Trollinger soft-pedals a bit. It seems to me that the appeal of the 1950s (and Victorian America, and Ethnic Swiss pride) for middle-aged, middle-class, and white tourists is not “innocence” but “purity.” As in racial purity. Trollinger doesn’t fail to cite statistics that only 3% of tourists to Shipshewana, Indiana are non-white, but I think she fails to acknowledge that the appeal of an agrarian, patriarchal, Luddite existence on the frontier is inextricably tied up with racial homogeneity and a winding back of the clock past the civil rights movements. In the face of changing demographics, racial anxiety is surely just as prevalent in the minds of Middle Americans as any of the other lizard-brain impulses that drive them to Amish country.

Selling the Amish is certainly a contribution to a growing field of semiotic analysis of how the Amish are portrayed. I am confident that this volume will join David Weaver-Zercher’s The Amish in the American Imagination, Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s The Thrill of the Chaste (still the best title ever), and The Amish & the Media (which Trollinger contributed to as Susan Biesecker) as a foundational text.


  1. Susan L. Trollinger, Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia, Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). 

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