How summer vacation took hold in America

Planning a trip to the beach, a lake or some other spot in the great outdoors in the next month or so? Please take a few moments to thank a small but influential group of reformers, idealists and busybodies who created an enduring American institution: the summer vacation.

Prior to the late 19th century, few Americans took breaks from work. The ethic of hard work and deferred gratification popular among the Puritans — never mind the simple fact that few people could afford to get away from tending farms — limited leisure.

Well into the 19th century, summer vacations remained restricted to elites: wealthy slave-owners who fled to cooler climes in the summer or elite merchants who could afford to leave their businesses in the hands of trusted subordinates. But most adult Americans, by choice or by necessity, simply toiled away during the summer months. As always.

The rise of the industrial economy changed all of this. But it wasn’t the factory workers toiling away 12 hours a day, six days a week, who got to take a break. It was the emerging professional and or middle, classes: salaried managers, lawyers, clergymen and others. In the second half of the 19th century, doctors began worrying about the effects of “brain fatigue” on these white-collar workers.

In 1869, a charismatic preacher named William H.H. Murray published a guide to the rugged Adirondacks of upstate New York, extolling them as an antidote to the enervating effects of modern life. He wrote of his desire to “encourage manly exercise in the open air, and familiarity with Nature in her wildest and grandest aspects.” Murray spoke of how city dwellers weighed down by work emerged from the northern woods revived and bursting with health.

The book was an immediate bestseller, going through numerous printings. In 1869, hordes of tourists dubbed “Murray’s Fools” arrived in the Adirondacks via a new railway line, only to find themselves beset by flies, alarmed by deer tracks and otherwise flummoxed by life in the great outdoors. The press had a field day with Murray, but the good preacher persisted, and each year, more and more Americans arrived in the mountains.

The massive expansion of railroads opened this and many other locales to white-collar workers seeking a place to spend some time away from the stress of modern life, even if they sometimes made leisure a form of work. Many of today’s favorite summer destinations — the Great Lakes, the White Mountains, the Jersey Shore, the coast of Maine — all began as vacation meccas at this time.

But when parents contemplated bringing the kids, they immediately ran into a serious problem. At this time, schools followed one of two calendars, neither of which was compatible with the idea of summer vacation. In rural areas, schools opened their doors in the winter and the summer, but closed their doors in the spring and fall, when parents needed children to help out on farms with planting and harvesting. Cities, by contrast, remained open all year. Neither system was conducive to bringing the kids on summer vacation.

But it was precisely this same era that school reformers began voicing the same concerns about “brain work” that doctors had raised about adults. Horace Mann, arguably the most influential school reformer of the 19th century, wrote with conviction that “health itself is destroyed by overstimulating the mind.” Likewise, the Pennsylvania School Journal voiced anxiety that because children spent too much time in school, they were “growing up puny, lank, pallid, emaciated, round-shouldered (and) thin-breasted, all because they were kept at study too long.”

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