Americans Discover Vacation: Overcoming Our Heritage

The first European settlers to come to America were religious extremists who rebelled against the Church of England because it was too tolerant. The Puritans and Pilgrims of the New World believed in moral and behavioral purity down to the minutest detail. They objected to things like Christmas celebrations, drama and music. Puritans in England were known to take an axe to church organs.

Their legacy in the modern history of America is what later came to be known as the Protestant ethic, a philosophy which worshipped the purity of hard work, thrift and discipline. Fair enough. But it also viewed leisure, recreation and anything that could be associated with idleness with disdain. And it relegated women to a secondary public role and viewed their primary purpose as motherhood.

So if you are an Anglo-Saxon American, your ancestors were not the type of say “let’s take a few days off and have a good time.” And since a good percentage of the American public with some disposable income in the 19th century was pretty Waspy, the whole idea of vacation took hold rather slowly here.

But take hold it did, beginning in the 1800’s. While philosophically opposed to the idea of “a few days off to have a good time,” if you could reinterpret your vacation as therapy, religion, education or nationalism, you were good to go.

In her comprehensive history of vacations in America, appropriately titled Working at Play, Cindy S. Aron explores how the prejudices of our forefathers affected how we spent our vacation. “The fear of leisure and relaxation – expressed as soon as mid-19th century middle class vacationers began traveling to beaches, springs and mountains – took new forms but endured not only through the 1930’s but, I would suggest, until today,” says Aron.

Mohonk LakeWhile the word vacation does not appear to be used, other than to describe student breaks, until mid-19th century, some members of the elite were traveling to destinations such as mountain houses, springs and seashore towns throughout the 1800’s. The choice of destination reflected the motivation for this travel, which at least publicly was discussed in terms of health benefits. Aron quotes a certain Dr. Thomas Goode who published guides in 1846 that included testimonials as to how spring waters cure deafness and paralysis. Coincidentally, Goode was the proprietor of Virginia Hot Springs.

The elite who visited these early resorts were believed by many descendents of the Puritans to be somewhat more casual about the purity of their behavior, although one should consider the possibility that they were not necessarily morally looser but rather better positioned to record their behavior in memoirs. In John F. Sears book, Sacred Places, he quotes the author James Kirk Paulding in 1828 as categorizing travel as “the most exquisite mode of killing time and spending money ever yet devised by lazy ingenuity.”

One of the first appearances of middle and lower middle class activity that could be interpreted as vacation was attendance at camp meetings that were organized by religious groups, initially mostly Methodists. Some of the sites of these religious camp meetings later became more permanent resorts. One example is Ocean Grove, N.J., founded in 1869 as a “retreat for Christians” by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association. The camp meeting association still exists, still owns Ocean Grove, and now promotes it as “God’s square mile at the Jersey Shore.” To this day there is no liquor sold in Ocean Grove and the beach is still closed on Sunday morning.

Camping itself was positioned as an exercise in purity. Aron cites an 1875 New York Times writer extolling the virtues of camping as “imbibing in integrity and simplicity (while) the bathers at Cape May that season were busy flirting and gossiping.”

Another type of vacation destination that the moralistically-minded 19th century citizen deemed acceptable was the self-improvement resort . The best known of these was in Chautauqua in Western New York. Similar resorts, combining recreation with education, were opened in the latter part of the 19th century and they were collectively known as chautauquas. Aron observes: “Nobody who visited at Chautauqua intended to spend nights in a drunken stupor and days smoking in the billiard hall or playing cards in a gambling den.”

Old Faithful

The number of Americans who vacationed, even with the growth of these “acceptable” sorts of destinations, was still relatively small and did not show widespread growth until the 20th century. Yet it was in the late 19th century that an important reason for that growth began to take shape.  That is when land at Yosemite and Yellowstone was set aside for public use. These and other national parks would play an important role in the growth of vacationing in America. This type of travel was fueled by an appeal to nationalism.

Marguerite S. Shaffer, in her book, See America First, writes that “tourism was promoted as a ritual of American citizenship.” The phrase “See America First,” which was initially used in the first decade of the 20th century, reflects that promotion which came from the railroads that carried passengers to the West, artists and writers of the time (some of whom were being paid by those railroads) and a little later by government agencies that promoted the national parks.

White America didn’t have much history. We were at the time often reminded by Europeans that we didn’t have much culture. But what we did have was landscape, awesome natural scenery that rivaled anything known to 19th and early 20th century Westerners. “To celebrate American wilderness was in some ways to declare America was superior to the Old World,” writes Shaffer.

The early years of the national parks saw only a small stream of visitors as it was still a trip that was available only to the elite. They traveled West via luxury Pullman cars. In the first couple decades of the 20th century the competitiveness of the railroad companies led to widespread promotion of the sites along their routes as well as cheaper fares. This brought a larger segment of visitors to Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier National Park and the Grand Canyon. But the real explosion in this kind of “look for America” vacation came with the growth of the automobile in the 1920’s.

The patriotic vacation undertaken in an auto grew in popularity until at least the 70’s. And the destination was not just the national parks. In Are We There Yet: The Golden Age of American Family Vacations, Susan Sessions Rugh writes that postwar family motorists commonly “set off on tours of historic sites or took their children to Washington, D.C.”

Shaffer quotes Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall expressing the nationalism pitch to vacationers in the 1960’s: “When it comes to the search for history, we have our own castles, kingly places and even ancient cathedrals.”

Still no mention though of knocking off for a week to have a good time.

(This is the first in a weekly series of blog posts about the history of Americans on vacation.)

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31 Responses to Americans Discover Vacation: Overcoming Our Heritage

  1. Ken, thank you for this post – thoroughly enjoyed reading it and am looking forward to the next post. This quote by James Kirk Paulding in 1828 was really interesting – categorizing travel as “the most exquisite mode of killing time and spending money ever yet devised by lazy ingenuity.” T


  2. jacquiegum says:

    Funny…I never gave any thought at all to the beginnings of vacation! So this post was completely fascinating to me! I can’t wait to read the whole series:) I do remember a time where seeing America first seemed to be the thing to do. And I think that camping is still sort of promoted as a purist activity! I’ve always felt a tad guilty for not liking it! Laugh!


  3. Hi Ken, like Jacquie I had never thought about this before so I enjoyed reading your post! I hope someday to see some of the sites you mentioned….Grand Canyon, Yosmite, Yellowstone!


  4. andleeb says:

    It was nice to know about the vacation and its history. Again the religion too has something to do here 🙂 .
    Many people in my part (KASHMIR) also believe like Dr. Thomas Goode that spring waters cure many diseases.
    I do not think that I will be able to visist different places but I will surly read about all these places.

    Thank you for a nice informative post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Leora says:

    You bring up places familiar to me – Ocean Grove is near where my husband grew up, and we often visit it in the summer. He remembers the “good old days” when he would walk his bike to work instead of riding it, because they had laws against riding cars and bikes on Sunday. I still like the place. I also have fond memories of Plimoth Plantation – I used to visit it often when I was younger. I would rather live there and work hard than in other places. But there were no flush toilets for men or for women! Structure and rules are a good thing, if they feel right and comfortable.


  6. Hi Ken. I enjoyed camping while in my 20’s. Today … not so much. I really prefer to be pampered and comfortable. I live to travel, and fortunately, make my living from it. So it’s all good!


  7. Interesting history on “a few days off to have a good time”. So if you re-interpreted your break to mean religion or therapy you were good to go, now that’s funny. I still see this kind of semantic interpretation of things in today’s world in order for people to do what they would not ordinarily do. It also has had its history.


  8. Don’t forget that an abundance of Swedish Christian extremists moved to the States as well. Many of their offspring today form the backbone of the US Christian right. Apparently the family that owns Walmart are from that kind of stock as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ken Dowell says:

      Seems as tough we were a magnet for these types of characters. And if you fast forward a few generations, their ancestors are often the first ones to want to close the door to immigrants from other parts of the world.


  9. This is very interesting. I never thought about Americans taking vacations during that time. I do remember a lot of our vacations as a kid came from driving across the country in a car or motor home.


  10. Andy says:

    “But it also viewed leisure, recreation and anything that could be associated with idleness with disdain.”

    Actually, vacantly staring into space is a better use of one’s time than a number of things I can think of.


  11. Really interesting Ken, I was fascinated to learn that religious extremists were the founders of America. I guess I never really delved in to what the pilgrims actually were! It’s amazing how a country’s past can shape the way of life for its people for years and years.


  12. Okay, so this is a really fantastic idea for a series of blog posts. Along with the development of more disposable income and leisure time leading to vacations, I’m also intrigued by the shift the American consciousness has taken toward wilderness over time.


  13. Donna Janke says:

    This was a fascinating post on the history of vacations for Americans, something I hadn’t thought about. It’s interesting to think how the ideas of old shaped where we are today. I look forward to reading more.


  14. Donna Janke says:

    This was a fascinating article on the history of vacations for Americans, something I hadn’t thought about. It’s interesting to think how the ideas of old shaped where we are today. I look forward to reading more.


  15. Arleen says:

    Ken you posts are going to be interesting as who thinks about vacation and how it was viewed in the past. All we care about that is take the time to go on a vacation. I will say that I have spent a lot time vacationing in different states. I have done extensive traveling and today we look for places to go in the US. As far as camping goes, been there, done that and it is 5 Star hotels for me. In early April we are going to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Who thinks to vacation there? I am going for the Dachshund Nationals so I am seeing many places I thought I would never visit. The hotel where the show is at has taken old Pullman cars and made them into rooms.


  16. Meredith says:

    It’s so interesting to see the roots of our reluctance to take vacation days. We let vacation days go unused every year, and have a fear of being idle. I never thought about where that might come from, I just assumed it was tied to our American dream of working hard and providing for the family. In Italy the whole country takes a month off in the summer. I think they have the right idea!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. DC says:

    Very nicely researched topic, Ken. Sloth does feature as one of the seven deadly sins and I’ve seen this all-work and no play attitude in older generations in India as well. I don’t remember my grandma ever taking a day off unless she was sick or it was a national holiday. I for one love travelling around the U.S. The latest and greatest being a road trip from Florida to Washington. Routine bores me and I get antsy every now and then and need to get-away from it all. My motto – vacation every chance you get, you won’t regret it!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. William Rusho says:

    I like your blog. I think the mechanism of America alos helped us to take vacations. When you had to work every day just to survive, it is hard to take some time off.
    I also think that we should be proud of our ancestry, W e are Americans, We have been kicked out of almost every country in the wordl.


  19. Deidre M. Simpson says:

    Life was so difficult and demanding back then that it is understandable that vacations had to emerge and evolve into the present practice. Success and security were more experimental, so doing less meant getting less. This is surely the first time I’ve seen this addressed!


  20. Wish like mad that the USA had a great train system like Europe so I could use it to vacation all around our great nation. Our retirement plan is an Airstream and lots and lots of American highway! Thanks, Ken.


  21. This is so interesting. I never thought vacationing had a history; but it makes so much sense. Vacationing is a wonderful way to rejuvenate the mind, body and spirit. I read it takes 14 days to truly relax ad reap the benefits of a vacation. We tend to take too many long week-ends and would be better off with 1 or 2 two week breaks a year. Yeah…like that will ever happen : )


  22. Joanne says:

    I’d add that the unions had a hand in the vacations too. Hard for the rich to take advantage of the working man.


  23. patamsden says:

    Wow, We’re used to thinking we’re entitled to vacations now so this is an eye-opener. I’ve read historical romances before set in places such as Bath in England. It was clear there was much partying going on and it was more what you’d imagine a trip to the Hamptons today, Now I understand why.

    As for the American road trip, patriotic or not, I think people have fond memories of road trips taken in their youth. Even the are we there yet ones! I can see where this could make a great blog high lighting different areas in the US.


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  25. This was an interesting article on the history of vacations for Americans, i read something similar about the history of vacations in France.. Very interesting all this, so many things we don’t know! Thanks for the post


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