At Play": History Of American Vacations Reveals A Love-Hate Relationship
26, 1999 -- When a prosperous Maryland physician,
Dr. Alexander Hamilton, set out in 1744 on a horseback journey "intended
only for health and recreation," he was doing something highly unusual
in the America of that day: travelling for pleasure.
a couple of decades, a handful of other colonial gentry were seeking
relaxation and fresh air at such seacoast spots as Newport, R.I.,
and mineral springs at such primitive retreats as Berkeley Springs
in Virginia and Bristol near Philadelphia. They were among America's
first vacationers, although few would use that word to describe
them until the mid-19th century.
story of how American vacations have developed from such early roots
into a mass phenomenon that is an integral part of national life
is explored in its full complexity for the first time in a forthcoming
book by a University of Virginia historian.
"Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States,"
to be published in April by Oxford University Press, associate professor
of history Cindy S. Aron shows how the growth of prosperity and
industrialization, the railroad and then the automobile, helped
spread the idea of the pleasure trip rapidly among the burgeoning
middle class in the 19th century and among factory- and office-workers
in the 20th, eventually drawing in Americans of all classes and
racial and ethnic groups.
central theme of Aron's book is that "Americans have struggled with
the notion of taking time off from work." Suspicious of leisure,
they "have engaged in a love/hate battle with their vacations."
The problem facing middle-class Americans, Aron writes, quickly
became how to enjoy leisure without jeopardizing the strong American
and middle-class commitment to work, which brought about the very
prosperity needed for leisure. This "tension between work and play"
persisted in American culture and continues to the present day in
these annual rituals, she believes.
we take along fax machines, go on culturally enriching tours, pursue
challenging outdoor-adventures, or read at least one serious book
on vacation. "Both by choice as well as by compulsion, Americans
inject work into play," even as we mimic the experiences of middle
class- vacationers of more than century ago. Many historic photos
in her book illustrate the wide variety of American vacation choices
over two centuries.
who has taught history at U.Va. since 1981 and has written previously
about middle-class work in 19th century America, tackled her research
for this new study partly by reading a range of published and unpublished
American diaries, to see what people did during their summers and
leisure time. She also visited historical societies where she read
family papers and letters about the summer months. She combed through
large-city newspapers, magazines and periodicals, and found significant
materials in the archives of major resorts, the National Park Service
and the Department of Labor.
began as a privilege of the elite in colonial America, she writes,
a rougher version of British and European visits to spas and grand
tours. The early 19th century saw the growth of camp meetings, religious
gatherings that also included opportunities for socializing. By
the mid-19th century American men and women from the emerging middle
class, enjoying time set aside for rest and recreation, became part
of a growing throng of vacationers heading to seashores, mountains
and springs in pursuit of good health, fresh air and amusements.
Great resorts and summer hotels sprang up in all regions, as did
a network of Chatauquas, resorts featuring lectures, seminars and
concerts. Development of railroads allowed for the growth of sightseeing
and tourism, with their focus on learning about cities, historic
spots and natural wonders.
seeking self-improvement and afraid of frivolous amusements, 19th
century Americans also headed outdoors on vacations, camping in
tents or rustic shacks to enjoy the benefits and beauty of nature.
With newspapers running regular columns of vacation reports by the
late century, vacationing had become "a nationwide phenomenon."
20th century brought automobile touring and the extension of vacationing
to working class Americans, as businesses adopted the idea of paid
time-off in hopes of increasing the efficiency of the workforce.
But paid vacations never became a government-guaranteed workers'
right in America, as they did in Europe, Aron notes.
"vacationing became a critically important marker of middle-class
status" in America, Aron says. "By the turn of the 20th century
the middle class had established vacationing as a requirement for
its physical health and its spiritual and emotional well-being."
Along with parlors, pianos and other symbols of status, "hard work
brought middle-class men and women the privilege of some time spent
"taking vacations did not come easily." It generated anxiety because
work was the virtue that supposedly led to success not only for
individuals but for the nation itself. Leisure and idleness led
to danger, a distrust that derived from Puritan ancestors. The work
ethic, which was also identified with the idea of a republic as
opposed to the idleness of monarchy, dominated 19th century America.
thus exposed the contradictions at the center of the middle class:
industriousness and discipline helped to make people middle class
and thus entitled them to vacations, but vacations embodied the
very opposite of what the middle class most valued," Aron writes.
the early years of the 20th century, working-class whites, immigrants
and middle class African Americans began to participate in vacation
experiences that had once belonged predominantly to the white middle
class. "Although vacationing rarely united people across racial,
ethnic or class lines, it did a create a cultural experience that
a wide cross-section of the population came to share."
ends her book in 1940. By then vacationing had become firmly entrenched
as part of the American way of life. But the legacy of two centuries
reaches until today, she says, "influencing both our choices of
vacations and our feelings about those vacations."
copies of "Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United
States," may be obtained from Oxford University Press by calling
212-726-6106 or faxing a request to 212-726-6447. For interviews
Cindy Aron may be reached at (804) 924-6401 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bob Brickhouse, (804) 924-6856.