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 ranged between $10 and $35 dollars a week depending on if meals were included, whether there was a bath in the room, etc.  For those who could not afford $10 there were small hotels, boarding houses, and farmhouses that offered rooms at $6 or $7 a week.  Those who could not afford even $6 a week took their work with them if possible.  One physician stated that by serving the needs of vacationers at Cape May and Newport he was able to earn enough to pay for his vacation while he was on it.


Other individuals also tried this ploy.  Artists often sought to convince hotel owners that they deserved free room and board in exchange for painting pictures for their guests, stating that their presence “would add an additional attraction and culture to the hotel.”


By the mid 1870s, professional, scholarly, and reform organizations were using resorts and hotels as conference facilities.  Soon hotels began wooing organizations to come and stay with them by offering special rates or additional amusements.  Many men who attended conferences in hotels brought their wives and children along, thus squeezing work and play into the same trip. 


Many resorts offered games and dances to amuse guests during their stay.  By 1859, Cape May could accommodate several thousand people in its hotels and sported, “an infinite trail of restaurants, barber shops, ice cream saloons, bowling alleys, billiard rooms, pistol galleries, and bathing houses.”  By the late 1880s, sports had become popular with vacationers.  The most popular sports were lawn tennis, roller skating, bicycling, ball games, boat races, swimming matches, horseback riding, bowling, billiards, and of course, bathing.


Codes of conduct were often relaxed while on vacation, although many critics warned against vacationing at resorts, citing the wreckage to morals. Stiff middle-class rules regarding bodies and sexuality were a bit relaxed.  On vacations, women were able to enjoy pleasures and amusements that otherwise were off limits.  Vacations offered a license for unconventional behavior including flirting and courting.  A visitor to Cape May in the 1880s noted, “the principal use of the piers seems to be love-making after dark.  Then every seat is occupied by young couples who sit too close in proximity to be married, and talk to each other under their breath.”  Young women were among the chief resort attractions to young men and vice versa. 


By the end of the century, more vacationers were using their time off to see America.  Rather than spend a full week at a resort, they began to travel from city to city with a few days at each stop.  Known as “tourists,” these people were drawn to landscapes and scenery like Niagara Falls, places of history like battlefields, and working sites like mills and factories.  Sightseeing was a way to make the vacation more of an educational experience by comparing and contrasting life at home to life elsewhere.  This exercise in “compare and contrast” sometimes prompted strange comments.  “Men in Philly and Baltimore spit much more than those in New England.”  “Boston ladies have nice feet.”  World’s Fairs were also popular.  Here a tourist could see virtually the whole world in one week.  By the late 1870s, travel agents began appearing.  They promised to handle all the arrangements of coordinating train schedules, food lodging, etc. 


Although it was principally the white wealthy and middle class that enjoyed resort life and vacationing, many resorts employed white working class and African-Americans as hotel staff and restaurant workers.  It was these people who perhaps had the best of both worlds.  Not only did they enjoy the sun and surf, but they also drew a paycheck while at the resort.  Time after working hours was spent at the working class or African-American beach or enjoying the surroundings.  Soon, these groups, especially the African Americans, began building their own hotels.  As early as the 1890s, African Americans were beginning to open boarding houses and hotels exclusively for African American vacationers.  The Hotel Dale in Atlantic City, one such hotel, could hold 150 guests.  Another Hotel Dale opened in 1911 in Cape May and claimed to be the “finest and most complete hostelry in the United States for the accommodation of our race.”  The hotel featured electric lights, tennis courts, croquet, private bathhouses, and long distance telephones.  Although some African Americans traveled to “white” resorts and stayed in black hotels, soon entire African American resorts sprang up. 


For the Victorians, vacationing was a way of life and an important social distinction.  The ability to take a vacation set the middle class apart from the working class.  Vacations were a symbol of success for a society that was overly class conscience.  Although vacations have lost a bit of their social importance for us today, they are nevertheless still important markers of success and affluence.