Barbara Penner


On her book Newlyweds on Tour: Honeymooning in Nineteenth-Century America

Cover Interview of September 27, 2009


There is a growing body of scholarly literature on sentimentalism, weddings, matrimony, and the rituals/invented traditions that surround them.  While I enjoy and have learned from many of these books, I am sometimes frustrated by their tendency to view practices like honeymoons simply as the repressive tools of patriarchy and capitalism.

Honeymoons certainly do represent society’s dominant values – sentimentalism, consumerism, patriotism, heterosexism etc.  But to treat honeymoons as straightforward celebrations of these values is to ignore the contradictions and conflicts that dogged their practice or, more to the point, emerged through their practice.  Honeymoons were shaped and re-shaped over the course of the nineteenth century.

It seems important to me that we hang on to the messiness of nineteenth-century honeymoon practice and that we don’t try to tidy it up too much – that is, impose an ideological coherence onto it that the practice itself never had.

Otherwise we would wrongly suggest that the “triumph” of the lavish white wedding was historically inevitable (hence irreversible) and that it always means the same thing to all its participants and its audiences. It also leaves us poorly equipped to explain contemporary Niagara Falls’s newfound popularity as a site for gay weddingmoons.  As this example proves, practices like honeymooning can serve as vehicles through which non-dominant groups make claims to social legitimacy and belonging.

Although I still feel ambivalent about many aspects of white weddings (their cost, their wastefulness, their symbolic exchange of women), their very openness to appropriation – their ability to undermine those values they seem to so obviously represent – seems like a valuable and positive takeaway from their history.

© 2009 Barbara Penner