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 nineteenth 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 nineteenth 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 twelve hours a day, six days a 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 nineteenth 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.”…
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