The History Of The Vacation Examined

Author Cindy Aron talks about the idea of vacations and where the notion came from. She also discusses the idea of how people's religious needs were part of taking vacations historically. She also discusses the idea of how people's religious needs were part of taking vacations.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: This week, we're thinking about summer vacations. Today, a little history.

Until the middle of the 19th century, Americans used the word vacation the way the English do, the time when teachers and students vacate the school premises and go off on their own. In those days, a vacation was also a mark of privilege.

Over time, the vacation became a middle class institution, as well as a time for physical, mental and spiritual self-improvement, not to mention sheer entertainment.

(Soundbite of song, "Let's Get Away From It All")

Unidentified People: (Singing) Let's take a boat to Bermuda. Let's take a plane to St. Paul. Let's take a kayak to Quincy or Nyack. Let's get away from it all.

SIEGEL: I've been reading historian Cindy Aron's history of vacations in the United States. It's called "Working at Play," and she joins us now. Hi.

Ms. CINDY ARON (Author, "Working at Play"): Hi.

SIEGEL: The title implies that our notions of summertime fun have their roots in some very earnest impulses, true?

Ms. ARON: Absolutely. The first vacationers in the early part of the 19th century were elite people, some of whom were going away for their health.

SIEGEL: But as for the notion that we need a break from work, that there's some virtue to leisure, you said that at the beginning, our Puritan roots had people who worked six days a week and then the seventh day went to church and heard preachers telling them all about how good it is to work and the vices of idleness.

Ms. ARON: Yes, absolutely. For Puritans, work was extremely important. Idleness is suspect.

SIEGEL: So, when do we start seeing people advocating the idea of some organized idleness in the summer and that that's a good thing?

Ms. ARON: By the middle of the 19th century, not only doctors - of course, doctors are beginning to say it's important to get away for your health, but you even begin to see some ministers beginning to turn around, and there begins to be fears about businessmen - businessmen who were suffering brain fatigue, people who…

SIEGEL: This was a term of art in the 19th century.

Ms. ARON: It was. There was also an infrastructure growing up. The railroad is realizing we could get people to the shore, and we could build a hotel at the other end, and you begin to see a whole vacationing infrastructure growing up.

SIEGEL: But there's a critical role here played by churches. The Methodist Church is very active in this, and there are resorts, whether in Martha's Vineyard or in the Delaware shore, that are founded as resorts, but there's some religious dimension to them as well.

Ms. ARON: Absolutely. Methodist campgrounds evolve into religious resorts, and there's a reason for this. And the reason is part of what made the middle class is that they had worked hard, they ascribed to certain values: hard work, discipline, sobriety, which allowed them to accumulate enough resources to go on vacation.

SIEGEL: Right.

Ms. ARON: And then they went on vacation, where they were tempted to…

SIEGEL: Idleness, drunkenness and all of those things.

Ms. ARON: Exactly, all of those things. So, there needed to be a form of vacation where middle class people could feel, okay, I can take a vacation, but I don't have to be worried by the temptations of idleness, and religious resorts were perfect. No drinking, no smoking. You couldn't bathe on Sundays. You wouldn't have to worry about sexual dangers, and sexual dangers were a big one at fancy resorts.

SIEGEL: So, when did the American vacation turn into something, well, when where people more interested in improving their serve than their soul, let's say, when they went away in the summer? When does this change take place?

Ms. ARON: Well, there were some people who always went on vacation to improve their serve, okay, without a doubt, you know, fancy balls and courting. But the public discussion about vacations, all over the newspapers, that vacations were potentially dangerous - there's tension between work and play.

SIEGEL: A friend of mine once quoted a European who had told him: We work so that we can go on vacation, we Europeans. You Americans go on vacation so that you can go back and work. Do you think that's true?

Ms. ARON: I think there's something of a truth in that, and I think it's an old story. I think if you look at the history and you look at this tension between work and leisure in American culture, I mean, we have this love-hate relationship with our vacations, and I think we've had it from the beginning. Some people maybe really like work better. I think being on vacation means dealing with your family, sometimes in ways some people would rather not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: I think that's a great note to conclude on. Cindy Aron, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. ARON: It's been a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

SIEGEL: Cindy Aron's book, by the way, is called "Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States." She is professor of history emeriti at the University of Virginia.

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