Americans Discover Vacation: We’ve All Got Wheels

In this series of posts about the history of vacations in America, I’ve written about many things that influenced how Americans spent their vacations. They included the changing attitudes toward leisure, the development of various types of resorts, the creation and promotion of the national parks, the influence of publishers and publicists and the provision of paid vacation benefits. But nothing had as profound an impact on how Americans vacationed as when we all got wheels.

The advent and then widespread adoption of the automobile changed not only how Americans traveled but who went on vacation, what they did with their free time and the very landscape of the United States.

(Tim Emerich)

(Tim Emerich)

From the 1910’s to the post World War II era, automobiles became increasingly affordable. Henry Ford introduced the Model T, widely recognized as the first affordable automobile in 1908. In 1910, he produced 12,000 Model T’s. By 1925, he was producing 10,000 cars a day.

While the working class was still not on the road to vacation in the 1920’s, a very economic style of vacationing had begun to emerge. Auto-camping was accessible to a new class of car owners and overall offered an economic way to travel as auto-campers could bring their own food as well as their own mode of transit. These trips also might involve fishing or visiting relatives. By the 1930’s roadside tourists cabins had begun to sprout and the increasing use and lower cost of cars enabled many to continue to vacation despite the Depression. The state-by-state WPA travel guides, part of a New Deal initiative to aid unemployed writers, all featured auto tours.

(Tim Emerich)

(Tim Emerich)

The post World War II era was the beginning of what Are We There Yet? author Susan Sessions Rugh calls the golden age of American family vacations. Those vacations were road trips. Rugh believes they were a progression from the auto-campers of the 20’s. Camping, as an affordable alternative for all Americans, took off in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Rugh notes that between 1948 and 1960 car ownership rose 54% and that by 1962, 84% of Americans traveled by car on their vacation. She writes, “The family car was a home on wheels, an extension of the domestic space and thus represented a sense of security for the traveling family on the road.”

Automobiles changed the national parks by making them more accessible and changed the way they were promoted. Before the widespread adoption of cars, the railroad was the primary transit facility for heading west. The parks were in fact partially developed and promoted heavily by the corporations who owned the railroads. Those promotions focused on scenery because that is what you see while riding in a rail car. But if you’re traveling in your car, you’re free to stop and look around wherever you want. Marguerite S. Shaffer, author of See America First, writes, “the automobile, catering to the whims of the individual driver, fostered a personalized journey.”

Minerva Terrace, Yellowstone National Park

Minerva Terrace, Yellowstone National Park

As a result, a lot more attention was paid to attractions along the way. States picked up the promotional mantle from the railroads and they focused on local color and history. And a lot more people headed West to the national parks. Cars made park-to-park touring viable. Rugh notes that after World War II there was a surge in visitors to Yellowstone and those visitors included veterans, farm families and workers. And they were all coming by car. By 1950, 98% of the visitors to Yellowstone arrived by automobile. “Americans conquered the West in their cars,” writes Rugh.

With all these folks on the road, the landscape of America changed as well. As more and more of us had cars, we needed roads to drive them on.  In 1916 Woodrow Wilson signed the first highway legislation, the Federal Aid Road Act. It offered up $75 million in matching funds to states for improving their roads. By the following year every state had a highway administration agency. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921 called for the development of a national highway system and provided more funding.

(Paul Brennan)

(Paul Brennan)

Many of the interstate thoroughfares that we drive on now got their start when Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. That legislation pledged $25 billion to create an interstate highway system.

But roads were not the only thing that was changing along the route of the growing number of vacationers. Rugh says that “before streamlined interstates the American roadside was characterized by oddities, larger than life statues of folk heroes, petting zoos and odd-shaped eateries.” Before long these curiosities would be replaced by fast food restaurants and motel chains.

(Andalusia)

(Andalusia)

One other change was occurring on the roads. In what was still, up until at least the 60’s, an economically and racially segregated society, all kinds of Americans were using the same roads and the same highway rest stops. Rugh, in commenting on the visitors to the national parks, says, “all classes and races mixed in ways they did not at home in a segregated America. Although those with greater means could afford to stay in lodges and eat in the dining rooms while working class families camped out of their cars and heated canned beans, visitors mixed on the trails and in the cafeterias and on the roadsides.”

The golden age of American family road trips faded out starting in the 1970’s. The oil embargo in 1973 had an impact. Air travel became more accessible and that opened up a whole new range of vacation venues that previously were hard to get to if you only had a fixed amount of time. Ironically, in the 21st century, the skyrocketing costs of air travel and the increasingly poor quality of service the U.S. airlines provide their “economy” customers, has for many revived interest in the road trip.

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28 Responses to Americans Discover Vacation: We’ve All Got Wheels

  1. jacquiegum says:

    Ahhh… I remember our first road trips as a family. It was a rare occasion that we ate at restaurants, however. My economical family opted for fried chicken or sandwiches that my mom had packed for the road trip! And rest stops were where we ate because they had bathrooms too:) Our destinations were generally within a day’s drive and were to visit friends or family….so no motel either. But we were glad for those vacations!!! We always had a great time…well, maybe a little fighting in the back seat with us three kids…but my dad had an arm for that:) One swipe did the trick:)

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  2. lenie5860 says:

    A great continuation of your vacation series. Henry Ford sure started something with his model T making it possible for the average family to take vacations. Interesting that the ‘road trip’ is once again becoming popular. I think now would be a great time to revert back and travel by rail.

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  3. I so agree with the observation regarding how car travel has resulted in a much more generic roadside throughout much of The States. The topic of how cars have changed the way Americans spend their vacations, has many equally compelling sub-topics. You could probably write a book series. This is such a unique and fascinating topic.

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  4. Oh the road trips as a kid with the family and camping bring back such good memories. I think families were a lot closer than, both logistically speaking in the cramped space of the family automobile, but also emotionally as a family unit. You don’t know together-time until you have traveled half way across the United States in the back seat of a car with your brothers. Remember that dad saying, “don’t make me pull this car over” when the bickering works get out of hand? I think everyone’s dad said that. 🙂 Oh those were the good old days. Now people go a quick flight with their kids, everyone’s got their earphones in the entire way, and then you are there. It’s just not the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ken Dowell says:

      I’m reading your comment on an iPad while sitting in a hotel room with my wife and son, all three of us looking at a phone or tablet. We could be the image that accompanies your comment.

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  5. Absolutely, cars made a huge difference to tourism. When I was 19 my then boyfriend and I actually went on a road trip in California. Really enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. patweber says:

    My husband and I are car enthusiasts. For 13 years we paraded a 1933 Packard across the USA and it won 13 out of 14 Concours d’Elegance awards. In addition to so much of what you talk about here, I learned about the incredible different in the COST of cars for the average folks like us (me and hubby) and the celebrities back then (like Clark Gable.) We don’t have her anymore so I loved this post bringing up all those good memories.

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  7. Phoenicia says:

    A friend went on a road trip to America. She loved every minute of it! I have always wanted to go travelling in America – experience the open road.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Like

  8. Alice says:

    Road trips, yeah. Old timers, love to see these pictures. We always have some old timers in our town’s parades. Great post.

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  9. I’ve taken road trips that were a blast and others where I’d rather stick pins in my eyes. Honestly, I can’t put my finger on what made the difference. Although. I’m sure it has a lot to do with my attitude and the person sitting next to me.

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  10. Road trips are the best 🙂 Everyone should do a long one at least once. So much happens and it just frees to soul to go wander a bit. The automobile has done so much to define our modern identities.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. You have to know I’d love this post! Going on road trips was a great leveller for families – anyone who had a car could just get up and go. In the old days, there were plenty of roadside diners, gas was cheap, and even if we fought like cats and dogs, somehow, we all got along in the car. I still love road trips, and will set out on a Sunday morning by myself and just follow my nose!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Kire Sdyor says:

    This may be the summer for a road trip. Turn off the phones, get out the map, and argue the whole trip about whether we missed the turn, threatening to pull the car over if the kids don’t stop acting up in the backseat, sketchy gas station bathroom breaks…I’m feeling rather nostalgic right now. Thanks for the great post.

    Like

  13. Awesome Post Ken.
    Road trips are so much fun. I haven’t gone on a road trip in a while.
    Now I’m thinking about it x

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  14. Road trips were a big deal in my family. My dad would travel by car and my grandparents would travel by RV. I didn’t appreciate those trips until I was older. Moving to different states with my own kids we appreciated seeing landmarks and just the overall scenery. Even though I prefer to travel by plane I wouldn’t change those road trips for the world.

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  15. Tim says:

    You are spot on with this one Ken as I can attest to my own revived interest in the domestic road trip; there is so much to see it is pretty amazing. A recent journey down Route 66 brought into life the things you are saying and to say it was nostalgic would be an understatement. The road trips of that era must have been fascinating as the newness of places and experiences must have been incredibly exciting.

    Like

  16. My husband would much rather drive than fly these days. He’s not a big fan of flying and it’s so much more cost effective for a family to drive than fly. So it’s road trips for us!

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  17. Love a roadtrip! I grew up riding in the boot of our convertible while on the highway. You know that space between the back seat and rear window? Yeah there! Let’s face it, most cars only had lapbelts and people rarely used them anyways. I’m not even sure when carseats were invented. Anyways, I’m happy that I live within a few short miles of Route 66 in California and travel along it whenever we can on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Freeways.. blah.. who needs them? 🙂

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  18. Andy says:

    I would also note that hitting the road in your car as opposed to flying will allow you to steer clear of the ‘TSA experience’ at the airport.

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  19. What a nice bit of history. When we look back at different times, we often review the “big” events that occurred, like war, economics etc. I think we need to look back at more topics like this. A culture is defined by how it lives not by the wars it fights.

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  20. Jason @ TheButlerJournal.com says:

    I love road trips. I enjoy seeing the different interstates when I go to different cities. I had the chance to drive I-10 from coast to coast in July 2013. It was a life changing experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. cheryltherrien says:

    I can remember far too much of this. Our family took road trips. We brought our food to eat at rest stops and we slept in the car. It was an interesting time. I have been enjoying this history series.

    Like

  22. maxwell ivey says:

    hi ken; another great history lesson in travel and vacations in america told in a way that makes you want to read all the way to the end. i imagine the pictures help too. well done my friend. thanks, max

    Like

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

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