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The need to kick back

America on holiday

Created date

August 5th, 2010

[caption id="attachment_13476" align="aligncenter" width="620" caption="A family taking in the Southern California scenery by car in 1956. (Image from Family Vacation, Gibbs-Smith, 2009)"][/caption] Ah, vacation. A source of respite, the rest and relaxation we all need. Today, it s common practice to pencil off a week from work and, without giving it a second thought, head for any number of destinations to escape the daily grind of the time clock. Yet, as ritual as it may seem, it wasn t always this way. Life was different for 19th-century Americans. [caption id="attachment_13475" align="alignright" width="280" caption="Vacationers enjoy a swim at Ocean Grove, N.J., circa 1900-1910. The bathing suits have certainly changed in the 100 years since. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection)"][/caption] At a time when most people were bound to the family farm, vacations and time off in general weren t possible, at least not if you wanted to earn a living. It s a far cry from the age of paid vacations and the modern sense of entitlement that comes with them a change that historians say started after the Civil War. Vacationing as we now know it is a product of the last half of the 19th century, and one that required certain kinds of jobs, says Cindy Aron, author of Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States (Oxford University Press, 1999). Instead of farming, which didn t allow people any time off in the summer, you needed a middle class that was working in a regular, salaried fashion.

An exclusive pursuit

Before this, vacation travel was an activity reserved almost exclusively for the wealthy, who didn t have to work at all. Throughout the 1800s, these southern planters and rich northern merchants would often go to places like Saratoga Springs in New York to flee the malarial summer conditions. [caption id="attachment_13477" align="alignright" width="280" caption="A family on vacation in Daytona Beach, Fla., in the 1960s. (Image from Family Vacation, Gibbs-Smith, 2009)"][/caption] But an expanding transportation infrastructure, along with an increasingly industrial society, resulted in more vacation spots and a population of middle-class workers able to visit them. According to Aron, railroads in particular quickly caught on to this relationship and invested in locations that ranged from boarding houses advertising shade trees and creeks to elaborate resorts. This period also saw the birth of seashore and lakeside destinations such as Asbury Park in New Jersey, Martha s Vineyard in Massachusetts, and Michigan s Mackinac Island, all of which served an American public not yet entirely comfortable with the idea of leisure.

Defining leisure time

Although there were always those who wanted to lie around on the beach, there was a tension between work and play all throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, Aron explains. Americans certainly sensed this and devised ways of dealing with it. Some vacationers, mindful of the old saying Idle hands are the Devil s tools, focused on keeping their holidays active and pure; for example, attending Methodist camp meetings on Martha s Vineyard. In other instances, resorts banned swimming, tobacco, and alcohol on the Sabbath, lest their visitors forget the rules of propriety in the midst of too much fun. While the number of Americans taking time off from work increased over the next several decades, historian Susan Rugh says that the shift toward the modern family vacation wasn t complete until after World War II.

Vacation travel kicks into high gear

The big boom in vacations comes in the 1950s with the widespread ownership of cars and the creation of a highway system, notes Rugh, who covers the subject in her bookAre We There Yet?: The Golden Age of American Family Vacations (University Press of Kansas Paperback, 2010). Putting the kids in the car and taking a vacation was a pretty economical way to do things, especially considering that gas was around $.28 a gallon, and a motel about $7 a night. In addition to affordability, car vacations had the educational edge that Americans have always sought in holiday travels. The extensive highway system made driving faster and safer, enabling a family in Wisconsin to see Washington, D.C., or Niagara Falls with relative ease. National parks, too, were extremely popular destinations for family vacations. Rugh says that total visits to places like Yellowstone and Yosemite rose from 21.7 million in 1946 to 172 million in 1970. To this day, the car vacation is a principal form of getaway for American families. The most recent figures compiled by the American Automobile Association found that 87% of those who traveled this past Memorial Day did so by automobile. Estimates put this percentage at 90 for July 4, Independence Day. Whatever the mode of transportation, the vacation in America has come a long way since its early days in the Victorian era. The bathing suits have certainly changed, as have the resorts, and the vacationers themselves seem a bit more comfortable about reserving a week of R & R on their calendars. In spite of these changes, however, a few things have remained the same our basic need to get away, try something new, and, for goodness sake, take a deep breath and relax.