Route 66 sign
Route 66: History, Myth and Memory

Melissa Rawe's Project

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Henry’s Rabbit Ranch

Schenk’s Garage

Route 66 holds a fascination for many people.  For some this fascination is in the car culture.  For others it is in the dinners and roadside attractions.  For others their fascination lies in the multi-layered material consumer culture that encompasses all aspects of Route 66. For every dinner, car, and roadside attraction there is a t-shirt, coffee mug, or knick-knack created to embody it.  Collector merchandise and tourist paraphernalia allows people to capture a part of Route 66.  It also perpetuates the American value of freedom that is embodied in the Route 66 myth.  By examining current Route 66 tourist and enthusiast paraphernalia and merchandise, I hope to see if the historical myth of Route 66 is perpetuated through participation in the purchasing and selling of such merchandise.  I use interviews with participants in order to better understand the drive behind collecting, purchasing, and selling.  I hope this will lead to a better understanding of the Route 66 myth as seen through the eyes of collectors and merchants.

The myth of Route 66 is one tied closely to American values.  In America we value our freedom.  Freedom to choose the occupation we want, freedom to live where we want to, freedom to express ourselves, freedom to explore.  Route 66 encompasses the American ideal of freedom.  The ability to get into one’s automobile and travel where one chooses is an expression of such freedom.  Route 66 is not just about freedom of the roadway.  It is also about nostalgia for the past.  Many are fascinated with Route 66 because it reminds them of their youth.  However, there are many that were not around when Route 66 was in its heyday.  For these enthusiasts, Route 66 contains nostalgia about an idealized American past.  By participating in the culture of Route 66, enthusiasts are able to make the Route 66 myth part of their lives and their identity. 

Consumerism and collecting are two of many ways to participate in the culture of Route 66.  Essentially, they are one in the same.  The collector must be a consumer in order to obtain objects for their collection.  However, collectors can also sell goods to other collectors and consumers in order to support their own collection.  Looking at the ways in which people sell, buy, and collect Route 66 paraphernalia provides a glimpse into how people are able to incorporate the myth of Route 66 into their lives.   In the article, “Citizens and Consumers in the United States in the Century of Mass Consumption,” Lizabeth Cohen discusses the relationship between the consumer and the citizen in America during the first half of the twentieth century.   Cohen sees mass consumption in modern America as having major impacts people’s lives.  She states, “What we are just beginning to understand, however, is that mass consumption deeply shaped the most central dimensions of life in the twentieth century, and the American political economy and political culture” (Cohen 2001:  203).  Cohen is looking at the ways in which consumers and citizens have interacted with the market and government and the ways in which this defined the understanding of what a consumer and citizen is.   She does this by looking at three separate time periods in the twentieth century and analyzing the events that took place during these periods.  By doing so she creates a way in which to view the way the citizen and consumer, or the citizen consumer, as come to represent American values in American culture.

Cohen’s assertion of the importance of the consumer to American culture is essential in understanding the consumer collector in the culture of Route 66.  Consumer culture has helped to drive the expansion and popularity of Route 66.  The ability to purchase a Route 66 item gives a person the ability to own a part of Route 66.  It also advertises for the Route and encourages others to participate in the Route 66 culture.  As Cohen has explained, mass consumption has played a major part in people’s lives during the twentieth century.  Through the twentieth century the consumer citizen have redefined themselves and the culture of consuming in the United States.  The consumer citizen has come to represent a culture of mass production that promises equality and democracy (Cohen 2001:  220).  Thus, consumerism is like the culture of Route 66 in that it allows are person to participate in American culture and an American ideal.  By purchasing items and collecting items a person is not only taking part in a larger American pastime, they are also attempting to obtain something of Route 66 itself.                 

The consumer of Route 66 paraphernalia is often a collector as well.  As in purchasing, collecting an object allows a person to feel as if they are participating in the culture of Route 66.  There are many collectors of various different things throughout the world.  Collecting can be said to be a part of human nature.  In the article, “The System of Collecting,” Jean Baudrullard discusses collecting and them meaning it has for people.  Baudrullard states, “While an object is a resistant material body, it is also, simultaneously, a mental realm over which I hold sway, a thing whose meaning is governed by myself alone.  It is all my own, the object of my passion” (Baudrullard 1994:  7).  In his article Baudrullard is looking at the human need to control objects as well as the objects as been reflections of their possessors.  For Baudrullard, objects are reflections of the people who collect them.  He states, “It is true that one peculiarity of the object, its exchange value, is governed by cultural and social criteria.  And yet its absolute singularity as an object depends entirely upon the fact that it is I who possess it-which in turn, allows me to recognize myself in it as an absolute singular being” (Baudrullard 1994:  12).   It is this recognition of oneself that people find in Route 66 collecting as well.  Collectors identify with the culture of Route 66.  It helps them define who they are and is a reflection of themselves. 

Consumer collectors make up a large part of the Route 66 culture.  Perhaps all people who participate in Route 66 culture are consumer collectors in one way or another by their consumption and/or sale of Route 66 goods.  Interviews with collector consumers help to back up the assertions I have in this essay.  Richard M. Henry of Henry’s Rabbit Ranch in Staunton, Illinois sells and collects Route 66 paraphernalia.  Henry is a consumer, seller, and collector.  He provides valuable insight into the collector consumer mind.  Dawn Schenk and Mark Schenk of Towanda, Illinois are avid collectors of Route 66 merchandise as well.  They have dedicated their garage to displaying Route 66 goods.  Their dedicated enthusiasm to Route 66 provides insights into what it means to be a true Route 66 collector.                    


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