In August 1937, Good Housekeeping ran an article titled “Why Is a Vacation?” The short answer was to obtain rest, the magazine advised, “and the best way to do that is to work hard at something that is enjoyable.”
And that tells you all you need to know about the Great American Vacation. More than 70 Augusts later, we’re still working hard to relax. And, more often than not, we’re falling down on the job.
The problem dates back to our Puritan forebears, who drew a sharp distinction between recreation (good) and amusement (bad). “A recreation is something which recruits, restores, and prepares the man for better service,” a New England newspaper explained in 1851, two centuries after the Puritans landed on these shores. Amusement, by contrast, was “pleasure for pleasure’s sake.” That was taboo.
The taboo continued into the 20th century, when railroads and higher standards of living made it possible for millions of Americans to take vacations. Especially in beach communities like Atlantic City, a vast industry of motels, restaurants, and saloons drew millions. So did “amusement parks,” whose very name seemed to signal a new acceptance of pleasure.
But many amusement rides threatened to lift ladies’ skirts or push women into men’s arms, which raised the specter of “immorality.” So did the era’s newly revealing swimsuits, a constant source of seashore anxiety.
“DO NOT GO THROUGH THE STREETS IN BATHING COSTUMES,” blared a 1900 newspaper advertisement by James A. Bradley, then the chief developer of beach resorts in Asbury Park. “IT IS COARSE AND VULGAR.” Bradley instructed police to arrest any offenders and to break up youthful “kissing bees” that allegedly took place after the sun went down.
Trouble in paradise
Americans also worried that the new vacation paradises were attracting the Wrong Kind of Person. Inevitably, that person looked or sounded different from those who were doing the worrying.
In Atlantic City, for example, African Americans had come in droves to work in hotels and other parts of the service industry. So they also frequented places of leisure, which was deeply threatening to the town’s white residents and vacationers.
“What are we going to do with our colored people?” an Inquirer journalist reporting from Atlantic City asked in 1893. “Both the Boardwalk and Atlantic Avenue fairly swarm with them during bathing hours, like the fruit in a huckleberry pudding. It is offending the sensitive feelings of many visitors, especially those from the South.”
Several decades later, a new threat appeared: Jews. “Everywhere, and in everything, the Israelite predominate,” another Atlantic City visitor complained in 1921. “The short, swarthy men, the squatty, dumpy women, and the innumerable daughters, at an early age bursting into overblown maturity.” Indeed, the visitor added, he “felt a stranger almost in a strange land.”
Taking it too easy
But the strangest sight of all was the people without a lot of money. Especially in the 1920s, when the economy was booming, a few corporations started to give factory laborers short paid vacations.
At the same time, though, the companies worried that the wrong kind of vacation might erode Americans’ work ethic. “Not all employees spend their vacations as advantageously as possible,” one industrial psychologist warned. “The manual worker, unaccustomed to the joy of leisure with pay, just fritters the time away.”
And that was the worst sin imaginable. All vacation—indeed, all activity—should make you more efficient and successful. If it doesn’t, why do it?
So when President Obama went to Martha’s Vineyard for a vacation last summer, spokesman Bill Burton emphasized that the president would still get daily briefings about national security and the economy. “You ought to put the word vacation in quotes, because you can bet that there will still be work that he’s doing every day,” Burton emphasized. And even when he wasn’t working, Obama’s play would help him work harder later on. “Just like a lot of American people, the president is taking a little time with his family to recharge his batteries,” Burton said.
None of this prevented Obama’s Republican foes from criticizing his allegedly excessive number of vacation days. Never mind that George W. Bush had taken many more days off at the same point in his presidency. The point was that there’s something wrong with vacation in and of itself.
That’s why the average American worker gets nine days of paid vacation per year, while Europeans get two or three times that. It’s even more telling that almost half of Americans don’t take all the vacation days they are entitled to.
So keep working, America. Or, if you can, go on vacation. At the end of the day—or of the summer—there may not be that much of a difference.
Jonathan Zimmerman is an historian with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and teaches history and education at New York University. He lives in Narberth. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).
That’s History is a partnership between WHYY NewsWorks and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. This essay was originally published in the The Inquirer.