Tropical Whites: The Rise of the Tourist South in the Americas

Tropical Whites: The Rise of the Tourist South in the Americas

Tropical Whites: The Rise of the Tourist South in the Americas

Tropical Whites: The Rise of the Tourist South in the Americas


As late as 1900, most whites regarded the tropics as "the white man's grave," a realm of steamy fertility, moral dissolution, and disease. So how did the tropical beach resort--white sand, blue waters, and towering palms--become the iconic vacation landscape? Tropical Whites explores the dramatic shift in attitudes toward and popularization of the tropical tourist "Southland" in the Americas: Florida, Southern California, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Drawing on a wide range of sources, Catherine Cocks examines the history and development of tropical tourism from the late nineteenth century through the early 1940s, when the tropics constituted ideal winter resorts for vacationers from the temperate zones. Combining history, geography, and anthropology, this provocative book explains not only the transformation of widely held ideas about the relationship between the environment and human bodies but also how this shift in thinking underscored emerging concepts of modern identity and popular attitudes toward race, sexuality, nature, and their interconnections.

Cocks argues that tourism, far from simply perverting pristine local cultures and selling superficial misunderstandings of them, served as one of the central means of popularizing the anthropological understanding of culture, new at the time. Together with the rise of germ theory, the emergence of the tropical horticulture industry, changes in passport laws, travel writing, and the circulation of promotional materials, national governments and the tourist industry changed public perception of the tropics from a region of decay and degradation, filled with dangerous health risks, to one where the modern traveler could encounter exotic cultures and a rejuvenating environment.


“Was there ever such a change?” asked Ida Starr, steaming south from New York City to the Caribbean and “feeling as serene and happy as a woman in a white linen frock can feel.” She was not alone in her pleasure: “Every one must have gone down into every one’s trunk this morning” to find white attire suitable for the warming temperatures. Travelers going south in winter at the turn of the twentieth century almost all changed into lightweight white clothing as the air warmed and the sun strengthened. “On the third day” of a Panama Mail cruise from San Francisco to New York, “all the officers appear in white duck trousers. Another day and their blue uniform coats give way to white.” Among the passengers, “white flannel trousers vie with linen knickers among the men. the women … dazzle the ship with the sheerest of white summer things.” Advertisements and illustrations for travel articles about the tropics regularly placed white-clad tourists in colorful market scenes. Even the ships carrying northern travelers into tropical waters were painted white, and the United Fruit Company dubbed its Caribbean passenger line “the Great White Fleet” upon its launch in 1899.

The temptation to dismiss this change of clothing as a trivial performance of high society etiquette— only in summer did the fashionable wear white— may be powerful. Hard on the heels of that reflex judgment may come the belief that whites wore white in the tropics in a defensive doubling of their pale- skinned privilege. Both of these analyses contain considerable truth, but they do not shed much light on what southward travel, ritually marked by the donning of white apparel, meant and why its popularity grew rapidly at the turn of the twentieth century. Because North Americans and Europeans believed that climate was one of the chief influences shaping their characters, travelers’ change of dress was far more than mere convention, a shield against contamination by the dark fecundity of the tropics, or even a practical response to the rising temperatures.

Donning sheer, snowy garments, northerners opened themselves to . . .

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