What is the history of vacations in the United States

Figure 1. Even in the early 19th century, beach holidays were popular for those who could afford to take time off.

The family vacation or even just vacations by individuals and couples is a tradition in the United States that goes back to at least the early 19th century. Today, most of us consider it part of middle-class life, that is to go on vacation out of town and even abroad if one can afford it. The idea of a vacation and what it means has evolved as our tastes, and our finances, have changed.

Early History of the Vacation

Vacations probably begin in antiquity, with records indicating in the Roman Empire period the presence of inns and travel lodges available in parts of the Roman Empire that allowed individuals, usually reasonably wealthy, to travel and enjoy the countryside or areas within the Roman Empire that were relatively peaceful. The Roman Empire was probably among the first states, although it is possible vacations go back even further in time such as the Achaemenid Period, where infrastructure, such as roads and hotels or lodges, were purposely built for people to enjoy time away from their normal daily life. What we might consider wealthier upper-middle-class and elites would have been likely the ones taking these holidays in different parts of the Roman Empire to enjoy a new atmosphere or simply relax. Perhaps the Roman Empire was also the first to extend the idea of vacations beyond only very wealthy individuals.

Vacations seemed to die out after the Roman period, at least in Europe, although they may have continued in more prosperous regions such as the Middle East and China in the early Medieval periods. In these regions, wealthy individuals in these regions likely partook in vacations. Desert castles, such as in Jordan, have been found, suggesting they were holiday homes for the wealthy elites, for instance. In late Medieval and early Modern Europe, vacations were essentially retreats for the wealthy who had homes in the countryside or were able to travel, sometimes for months, to new destinations to spend time away from their normal dwellings. This included going on extended hunting or even trips just to escape.

In the Renaissance, the idea of touring Europe and more exotic locations began to be developed among the elites. This idea of touring ancient countries and regions, the so-called Grand Tour for instance which was educational but also leisure, in Europe and Asia would go on to influence the early United States in the 18th and early 19th century.[1]

The concept of vacations only for the wealthy, where they would spend sometimes months in the countryside away perhaps from their urban homes, was another early influence on the idea of vacations in the United States after its founding. Thomas Jefferson's home, the Poplar Forest, is an example of a vacation or retreat home for early elite Americans. This exemplified the concept of European-style vacations for the wealthy, who would retreat into more isolated countryside for sometimes long retreats to write, reflect, or relax. Such vacations began to be considered part of the elite lifestyle in the United States. People might have engaged in writing, reading, hunting, going on walks, or possibly other sport and leisure activities while on vacation.

In the United States, adventuring into the unknown became another activity of the wealthy, in a way similar to the idea of the Grand Tour experience, where wealthier individuals also went on long excursions exploring the vast continent.[2]

Changing Attitudes in the 19th Century

What perhaps changed the perception of the vacation was the railroad. In the 1830s, the United States began to build railroads, initially just outside of cities such as New York and Boston, that people began to use on their days off from work to venture beyond confines of their towns. Perhaps among the earliest destinations were coastal beaches on the East Coast and soon in the South (Figure 1). Coney Island, just outside of New York, became among the first places that catered to masses of vacationing individuals and families. The railroad, powered by steam engines, helped vacationers usually go for only very short stays, perhaps no more than a few days, and sometimes even shorter.

Nevertheless, this became the first form of mass vacationing in the United States, although most Americans still did not go on vacations at this time and virtually no jobs offered paid time off.[3]

By the mid-19th century, Americans began to see Florida, and then later California, as popular areas for longer vacations. Places such as Silver Springs in Florida offered vacation facilities, both natural and constructed, and became among the first resort-style places to attract mass tourism. In addition to beach holidays, boating and rowing were popular leisure activities in rivers and lakes around the country. For the elites, steamboats allowed them to more easily travel abroad. This began a period of travel to Europe and even more exotic locations, with travels once again influenced by the concept of the European Grand Tour, but this was rare and mostly and elite endeavor.

The railroad had spread in the United States, but the Civil War brought leisure activities to a standstill until after the war. By the late 19th century, attitudes to leisure and vacations began to expand to more types of workers, including the lower classes. In the 1890s, companies and local councils and governments began to pay or even subsidize leisure and vacation time for their employees. Vacation homes were built by these organizations to allow their employees to spend time away from work along with their families. These heavily subsidized vacations made vacationing affordable. In the 1890s, a teacher taking a vacation with the family could pay no more than $75, which would include room, board, leisure activities, and lectures. This also covered up to six weeks of summer vacation.

Effectively, this became the first form of employee vacation policy as leisure activities increasingly became part of the American lifestyle. Most companies and workplaces did not have such vacation policies but increasingly some companies and organizations realized the benefits of giving their employees time off for vacations because of the health benefits, where workers were often more productive and better rested, and thus less stressed, after vacations. Industrial strikes and increased wealth also incentivized companies to begin to give their workers time off for vacations. Some medical researchers already recognized the benefits of vacations and began to encourage their patients to take time off.[4]

The Twentieth Century

Figure 2. Atlantic City became popular by the early 20th century as it catered to urbanities looking for easy breaks from the city.

While beach holidays and nature spots were already popular in the mid to late 19th century as vacation areas, soon city breaks also became popular in the 1910s and 1920s. Travel included cities such as New York and Philadelphia, which were seen as exciting places and as city holidays began to be popular. Hotels were built in increasing number, such as the Waldorf Astoria, and by the 1920s grand hotels were being built in major cities. These catered to wealthier but also middle-class Americans. Along the coast, towns such as Atlantic City became popular for short breaks and began to create large hotels for holidays (Figure 2).

The Great Depression and World War II did slow travel, although Americans continued to go on short holidays or vacations near their place of living. Exclusive holidays in the mountains, such as in Colorado, were popular for the wealthy. However, hotels and getting to these more isolated destinations made travel expensive and time-consuming. Travels by zeppelin-style airships and large ocean liners made vacations by wealthier Americans more feasible to more distant, primarily European and Asians destination, but sometimes these could be risky, as the Titanic and Hindenburg demonstrated in their respective disasters. In fact, the high costs of travel and dangerous perception of travel often limited more distant vacations.

For the average American, the automobile, particularly more affordable cars now becoming increasingly common for middle-class people, allowed weekend trips and vacations to be more possible, particularly around major cities. Resort towns, such as Wisconsin Dells and Atlantic City, developed around major cities such as Chicago, New York, Boston, and others.[5]

With the end of World War II, the development of the airline industry, and greater worker time off given by employers, the post-war years were a boom for vacationing families and companies that catered to this. Ski holidays began to become popular and it was this time that towns such as Aspen Colorado began to reinvent themselves for tourists. The 1950s and 1960s saw mass tourism beginning to develop by using air travel to more exotic destinations. This was the period when theme parks began to develop and become part of the American tradition of summer holidays, with Disney Land (1955) and then later Disney World (1965) developing. Employers also now offered about two weeks for vacations to their workers, as this practice became more standard but not always universally applied.

The Mediterranean, Mexico, and Central America became popular with now middle-class tourists, as packaged holidays began to be developed by travel companies bringing more affordable vacations to middle-class Americans, particularly destinations that were once the privy of wealthier individuals. Destinations such as Las Vegas and Acapulco became popularised by Hollywood and vacationing companies began to respond to this demand.

In fact, the trend of air travel and increasing influence of film and television made new and ever increasingly exotic locations develop as new holiday destinations. The interstate highway system, first built during the Eisenhower years, became utilized for mass vacations within the United States. For most Americans, the tradition of road trip holidays began during these years as highways made national parks, coastal cities, beach areas, and resort towns more accessible.[6]

Recent Events

In the last few years, one can argue social media has become the new form of mass tourism promotion. Increasingly, younger people are looking at travel sites, sharing information on social media, and other online platforms to help push new tastes for travel. The rise of Airbnb and online platforms also offer alternative stay locations that have also helped this trend. Often these destinations are exotic, but for most Americans, vacations have not changed that much since the 1950s-1960s.

New theme parks, water parks, and resorts have developed in popular destinations such as Orlando or Los Angeles. However, for most Americans, two weeks is still the most they will devote to vacations for the entire year, where as in Europe four weeks or more has become standard time for vacations and often mandated by law.[7]


  1. For more on early vacations for the wealthy and powerful from antiquity until the Medieval period, see: Casson, L., 1994. Travel in the ancient world. Johns Hopkins Paperbacks ed. ed. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
  2. For more on the idea of retreats for the wealthy, see: Falk, J.D., Kinnell, S.K., Brown, J.S., 1987. Searching America: History and life . ABC-Clio, Santa Barbara, Calif, pg. 737.
  3. For more on the early American vacation in its history, see: Aron, C.S., 2001. Working at play: a history of vacations in the United States. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford.
  4. For more on how early beach holidays and travel destinations developed in the mid-19th and later 19th century, see: Gassan, R.H., 2008. The birth of American tourism. New York, the Hudson Valley, and American culture, 1790-1830. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst.
  5. For more on early twentieth-century tourism and travel by Americans, see: Souther, J.M., Bloom, N.D. (Eds.), 2012. American tourism: constructing a national tradition. 1. edition. ed. Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, Chicago.
  6. For more on the post-World War II tourism and vacation trends, see: Rugh, S.S., 2010. Are we there yet?: Golden Age of American Family Vacations. University Pr Of Kansas, Lawrence.
  7. For more on modern American tourism, see: Munar, A.M., Gyimóthy, S., Cai, L.A., 2014. Tourism social media: transformations in identity, community and culture. Emerald, Bingley, U.K.