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.
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.
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.”
As 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.)