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.
Before 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 per day, six days per week, who got to take a break. It was the emerging professional, 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.”
In cities, this argument had particular resonance, no doubt because poorly ventilated, sweltering classrooms were miserable for students and teachers alike. In rural areas studied by Kenneth Gold, a historian at the City University of New York, education reformers began pushing to revamp the school calendar, as well, creating the now standard school calendar.
In truth, much of the impetus for the shift likely came from the teachers themselves, who had by this time organized themselves. They pushed for summer vacation because, well, they wanted a break. As one reformer arguing against year-round schooling noted: “Teachers need a summer vacation more than bad boys need a whipping.”
By the early 20th century, the idea that parents and children alike needed to rest their brains and commune with the great outdoors had become an article of faith among the middle class. While summer vacation never grew to the outsized proportions found in many European countries, it has nonetheless persisted as an American ritual, with July and August the peak months for family sojourns.
In recent years, though, this once-solid institution has eroded. Many school districts, concerned about the “summer slide” that besets student performance, have begun to reinstitute school calendars that look suspiciously like the bad old days of the 19th century. The idea that kids might want to turn off their brains for 10 weeks is increasingly seen as counterproductive, given demands for ever-higher test scores.
Adults, too, have retreated from summer vacation in recent years, with the average Americans taking a week less now than they did at the end of the 20th century. While vacation rates have experienced a modest uptick in the past year or so, they remain well below the long-term average.
Murray would not approve. In his classic work, he sought to reach those “pent up in narrow offices and narrower studies [who] long for a breath of mountain air and the free life of field and flood.” He exhorted his readers to listen to that yearning and take a break. A century and a half later, it’s advice that Americans of all ages should continue to heed.
Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg View.