Americans Discover Vacation: Finding the Time

The history of American vacationing in the 19th and early 20th century is a story of gradual growth in the number of people who went on vacation and the places they choose to go.  But by well into the 20th century, those people were still almost exclusively white and members of the upper and middle classes.

(photo by Grafixer)

(photo by Grafixer)

It would be quite a while before working class vacationers would be part of the tourism scene in America. There were a number of barriers to workers taking vacation. Transportation in the 19th century, consisting of stage coaches and later canals, steamboats and railroads, was slow and expensive. Even as rail travel proliferated at the end of the 19th century and automobile travel emerged in the early decades of the 20th century, it’s benefits were available primarily to the financially comfortable.

A few cheaper vacation options emerged in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Camping was always posed as an affordable alternative. While some Americans were camping in style with lots of equipment, guides and cooks, those of more modest means could simply camp on local farmland.  Or they could go “tramping” on foot with their gear on their backs. Later auto camping became popular with the less well healed segments of society and camping provided a means for working class families to enjoy the national parks. Religious camp meetings also attracted a broader cross-section of attendees.

There were a few philanthropic groups who arranged vacations for working class Americans. Usually their efforts were directed toward women.  In her book, Working at Play, author Cindy S Aron describes some of these. The YMCA ran a “seashore cottage” on the New Jersey shore that offered very low rates for working class women. The Working Girls Vacation Society was founded in 1884 and funded by wealthy philanthropists. They provided retreats in Connecticut for “working class girls” from New York City. Typical of the time these charitable offerings came with very heavy religious and moral overtones.

Coney Island

Coney Island

These efforts touched a very small percentage of working class Americans because they didn’t address the issue of time. Even as transportation became faster and more affordable, the initial impact on workers was to make day trips more popular.  The urban working class would take advantage of accessible transit to spend the day in Coney Island or Rockaway, N.Y., Revere Beach in Boston and Dream City in Pittsburgh.  But working class families, dependent as they were on their week-to-week paydays, may not have been able to take time off work, may have feared for their jobs if they did so, and in fact could not afford to take time off work unless it was paid.

America’s working class did not go on vacation regularly until the practice of paid vacation expanded to their level of society.  According to Donna Allen, author of Fringe Benefits, in 1930 only 10% of wage earners had vacation plans compared to 80% of salaried middle-class employees.

There were a few, a very few, companies in the U.S. who provided vacation benefits earlier in the century. They did so, not out of altruism, but because they believed they would benefit from a healthier, happier workforce. These progressive-minded businessmen saw an advantage to themselves by improving the morale and the loyalty of their employees.

The corporate pioneer in this respect was the National Cash Register Company in Dayton, Ohio.  Aron describes how NCR started in 1902 by closing its factory for a two-week period albeit without pay.  Two years later the company filled four trains with some 2,000 NCR employees for a trip to the World’s Fair in St. Louis.  By 1913, 20 year veterans were given one week’s pay and by the 1920’s the threshold was reduced to 10 years served. “NCR’s interests in its workers vacations made it unusual for an early 20th century company,” Aron noted. “The vast majority of businessmen opposed the idea of vacations for production workers.”

1913 Paterson Silk StrikeAs unionization spread through the industrializing cities of America, paid vacations were not a focus of the unions. Workers at the time were often victimized by shutdowns. Companies would close their plants for slow periods, sometimes during the summer or during the holiday, causing their blue collar employees to be temporarily out of work and out of money. Time off was for many something more feared than aspired to. Unions at the time fought for the 8-hour day and the 5-day work week, not for the two-week vacation.

Some unions were, however, involved in creating sites for vacationing workers. The International Ladies Garment Workers opened Unity House in Stroudsburg, Pa., in 1920. For a modest sum of $13 a week, union members could swim in the lake, hike in woods , and attend courses like “The Economic Basis of Modern Civilization” or “Appreciation of Art.” The ILGWU also bought a Catskills resort at White Pines in 1924 from a local union that had tried to establish an education and leisure vacation home for workers. This Unity House, like the one in the Poconos, was successfully run for several decades.

While unions were not actively advocating paid vacations, Aron notes that they indirectly contributed to the cause. Companies who were trying to stave off unionization would sometimes attempt to do so by improving their employment practices, including vacation policy. By 1937 70% of companies were offering paid vacations and according to Marguerite S. Shaffer, author of See America First. By 1949, 93% of union contracts included some type of paid time off.

The last piece of the vacation puzzle for the working class was the widespread ownership of affordable automobiles and the availability of roads that made auto trips faster and more accessible.

So by the time we reached what author Susan Sessions Rugh (Are We there Yet?) calls the “Golden Age of American Family Vacations” in the decades following World War II, all classes of Americans are on the road and on vacation. “The postwar family road trip was made possible by paid vacation and affordable family cars,” writes Rugh. By 1952 there were 62 million licensed drivers in the U.S. and in 1962 Rugh cites government reports that state 81% of Americans traveled by car on their vacation.

But challenges still existed for racial and religious minorities. I’ll discuss those barriers and how they were overcome in next week’s post.

(See also Americans Discover Vacation: Women on the Loose.)

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25 Responses to Americans Discover Vacation: Finding the Time

  1. Hi Ken, Interesting article on American vacations. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like back in the day to work constantly and get no time off for vacations. Those were some hard working folks. Now if America could just get on the same page as the Europeans and get 5-6 weeks of paid vacations for everyone every year that would be great! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jacquiegum says:

    I am loving this continuing series on vacations. My grandfather was a farmer in West Virginia. The only time he ever left the farm was to attend my dad’s wedding in Pittsburgh in 1949. Mind you, he had 4 children but my dad’s was the only wedding he ever attended. I don’t think farmers had the luxury of leaving a farm…particularly where so much livestock was involved! Kudos’s to NCR for starting something! Though unpaid must have presented big issues for so many families!


  3. Hi Ken, I find these posts on vacations fascinating. I know that people used to work long hours, six days a week but never thought about vacation time. As Susan said, Canada and the USA still have a ways to go. In Holland I know that employers believe that vacations do result in greater production when employees return to work. No one is allowed to work through their holidays. I’ll be looking forward to next week’s post.


  4. Can’t help reflecting that out of all countries in the West Americans get least time off for vacation. People I know in senior executive positions can only take long weekends. Another interesting fact is that the majority of Americans don’t even have a passport. And that applies to Fortune 500 executives as well.


  5. Interesting article on America vacation. I can only use my mind’s eyes to picture the activities highlighted here. I’ve never been to America.


  6. Tim says:

    I shudder at the thought of not being able to pick and go whenever an idea grabs me. But I do not take this lightly and realize how very fortunate we are today. I am glad you are mapping this out though as I have never really given a lot of thought as to how paid vacation came about so am finding your series very interesting.


  7. Hello Ken, Great post on America Vacations. I look forward to next week’s post


  8. andleeb says:

    Hello Ken, Nice post about vacation of Americans. I feel that it is very necessary to take vacation and throughout the world when we think about vacation we think about agencies that organize trips to different desired places. Some experiences turn good and some….
    I love the card about 8 hours work, it truly reflects my situation as well.

    I am looking forward to next post about challenges that are faced by different people.


  9. These vacation series are so interesting. it’s sad to think so many people weren’t able to experience a vacation.


  10. Really enjoying these posts Ken….and i totally agree with some of the comments about the vacation days in the US…we are quite lucky in Europe by comparison.


  11. You mentioned cars as a big influence with people taking vacations. I also would say Interstate Highway System also played an important part.
    I also wonder, how our development of vacations, compared to those of European nations.


    • Ken Dowell says:

      Americans have trailed behind Europeans as vacationers pretty much every step of the way. Europeans were vacationing before Americans, they were getting paid vacations before it was common in the U.S., and to this day they vacation more often and for longer periods of time. There are a couple comments on this post from Europeans that confirm that. You’re right about the importance of roads. Affordable cars gave people the means to travel but they needed the roads to get to the places they wanted to go. This was especially important for growth of the national parks as tourist destinations.


  12. This was so cool & interesting to read! Explains a lot of why we Americans choose certain destinations, too.


  13. Meredith says:

    Wow, one week’s pay after 20 years of service, where do I sign up!?! This is such an interesting series Ken. I learn something new every week. And it always makes me want to plan a vacation!


  14. crystalzakrison says:

    I am glad TiMes have changed. People had it harder back then. People Need Time off and need to recharge their batteries and then go back ready to work. This was a Great and interesting article. Hooray for cars! 🙂


  15. Andy says:

    “…to enjoy the national parks.”

    Ken, a brief history of U.S. national parks would make an excellent addition to your series of vacation-related posts.


  16. Interesting post. And makes you realise how much we take or vacations for granted now. Mind you, the US are far behind Europe in how much paid vacation days are allowed. The norm there is between 3-5 weeks not including public holidays.


  17. We owe a lot to the International Garment Ladies Workers! They made great strides in labour, not just for women, but also for society in general. And I checked out your link to “Women on the Loose” – as you may surmise, I consider Alice Ramsey a hero! There was recently a book published about her. Although her trip doesn’t really sound like much of a vacation!


  18. Leora says:

    You mention places that I’ve been to (Revere Beach, Rockaway) – I can just imagine people on their old-fashioned vacations. “But challenges still existed for racial and religious minorities.” – ah, look forward to reading the next one, too!


  19. Claire Cappetta says:

    It’s interesting to see the history of vacationing. I must be stuck in the past then, as it has been 11 years since I had a vacation, long overdue…


  20. Arleen says:

    I think it is great that you are giving us an idea where vacationing came from. Today we expect to get vacation time. Time goes by so fast and it is so important to take those days and use them to the fullest. I am doing more vacationing in the US.


  21. Jason @ says:

    I couldn’t imagine living in an era when taking vacations really wasn’t the norm. I try to take a couple vacations each year.


  22. Pingback: Americans Discover Vacation: Book Reviews | off the leash

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