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"Working At Play": History Of American Vacations Reveals A Love-Hate Relationship

March 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.

Within 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.

The 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.

In "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.

A 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.

Thus 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.

Aron, 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.

Vacationing 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.

Often 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."

The 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.

However, "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 not working."

Still, "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.

"Vacationing 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.

During 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."

Aron 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."

Review 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 msa5w@virginia.edu. .

Contact: Bob Brickhouse, (804) 924-6856.

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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