It's vacation time

June 27, 2018



The concept of a “vacation” has its roots in the first decades of the 19th century.  Wealthy planters from Southern state escaped the heat and mosquitoes by traveling to cooling springs, the mountains, and the sea.  In truth, wealthy persons of all professions traveled and enjoyed vacations. Middle and lower classes were not able to take time off from work, so for them a vacation was all but an impossible dream.  However, by the end of the 19th century, some members of the middle class were also able to enjoy time at play. 


Springs and seaside resorts began to attract large numbers of visitors during the 1820s and 1830s when doctors began endorsing the healing properties of water.  Most who visited water sites were ill, infirm, or traveling with someone who was.  Still others were healthy and went to ward off illness.  Realizing the potential profit in keeping the healthy happy, resort proprietors soon began offering amusements like bowling, billiards, and concerts. 


Before 1830, the term “vacation” was used to refer specifically to a student’s or a teacher’s break from school.  The word “vacation” as we know it was first used in the 1850s.  After the Civil War, the term became more popular.  As the century wore on, more and more members of the middle class were able to enjoy a yearly vacation.  The railroads played a significant role in making vacations available to the middle class by shortening travel times.  One no longer needed months of time and lots of money.  Now one could hop on a train for a few dollars and within a few hours be on vacation. 


Railroads did their part to encourage vacationers to visit seasides and springs.  Often, railroads and resorts worked together.  The arrangement was mutually advantageous.  The railroads hoped that visitors would fill their cars while resorts thought that by convincing trains to stop near them they would be more accessible.  Soon the railroads were running specials like “round trip tickets from New York, with ample allowance of time to the visitors, only $27.45.”  Railroads also took part in advertising the resorts by posting signs in each car and at ticket counters. 


Despite their popularity, many riders found trains to be less than pleasing transportation.  Often a trip left riders covered with dirt, dust, and soot.  Trains were also hot and uncomfortable.  In 1865 one male passenger commented: “The railway routes are deficient…in commonest courtesies of life…(The best of the old furnished cars…are reserved for ‘gentlemen accompanied by ladies,’ and single gentlemen without crinoline are unceremoniously thrust into what is inappropriately known as a ‘gentleman’s smoking car.’  It should be called ‘the loafers groggery,’ for smoking, drinking, tobacco squirting, profanity and gambling are indulged in to the fullest degree.  The car or cars thus appropriated are generally crowded to excess, more or     less full-fare passengers being compelled to stand in these pest-houses knowing than the rest, stealing an opportunity to secure a seat in one of the half-filled ladies cars.  Remonstrance is in vain.”


Still the rails gained popularity as more and more tracks were laid.  By 1875, the trip from Philadelphia to Cape May took only three hours.


As vacationing became more popular, doctors and social critics began to warn individuals both about the dangers in taking time off from work and the dangers of not taking time off from work.  Sensitive to the doctor’s warnings about overwork, many business owners began giving at least one week’s paid vacation to employees.  White-collar workers in government jobs received a one-month paid vacation, which was very unusual.  The standard vacation ultimately became one week.


Of all those who visited resorts it was most likely middle class woman who had the best time.  Imagine the change and luxury from running a household to being waited on hand and foot.  Often women brought a servant along to tend the children, thus releasing them from that duty.  For the servant, accompanying a mistress on vacation was a treat.  Although they were charged with the care of the children, most servants did find time to mingle with other servants and have some fun.  In addition to hotel lodging, some vacationers spent their time on vacation in a “summer home” or cottage.  Often these houses were maintained as a second residence and occupied only during the summer months.  Cape May was full of these cottages.  These families, too, would have likely brought a servant along with them to tend the children and see to household duties.


On the other hand, middle class men often found it extremely difficult to take a vacation.  Often the wife and children were sent to a resort and the husband visited on weekends.  Soon railroads began catering to these weekend vacationers with the “married man’s” train.  Containing mostly sleeping cars, these trains boasted that men could stay right up to Sunday night and still make it back to work on Monday.


Prices for a room at a resort rang