Vacations: Balancing the Scales of Labor and Leisure

Summer is the season of vacations. And for many Americans, time spent away in the mountains, lakes, and oceans is where families reunite, make memories and establish traditions.  Having just returned from a vacation with my own family, I’m reminded that vacationing in the United States has a distinct history that dates back to the early 19th century.

As historian Cindy Aron recounts in her book Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States, the rise of vacations in America is “embedded in a familiar history of the United States,” as we shifted from an agrarian to an industrial nation, developed of a mass-transportation system, and saw the rise of the middle class.  But what’s more interesting about the American story of vacationing is what Aron describes as the “love/hate battle” Americans have with vacations.

Today, as we head off to the beach, everyone grabs blackberries and iPhones, so as never to be out of touch. But what many Americans don’t realize is that the history of our uneasiness toward vacations dates back to even the earliest retreats. In the 19th century, the notion that vacationers were separated from “the discipline of daily work” did more than generate some anxiety. For Americans work “served as the glue that held the republic together and that kept middle-class people on the straight and narrow.”  And so there was the impression among many that vacations were downright dangerous.

In an effort to balance the scales of labor and leisure, Aron explains that Americans have always found ways to combine relaxation with self-improvement. In the 19th century, many wealthy Americans headed to resorts like the Greenbrier in West Virginia, whose mineral springs were viewed as a place for recuperation. Others headed to religious camp meeting grounds in Chautauqua or Martha’s Vineyard, where they could combine spirituality with play.  No matter where they went, Americans have a history of making vacations constructive rather than wasteful.

This past week while my family enjoyed time away at the beach, my husband and I sent emails, worked on proposals, and even found ourselves in a hotel meeting room for a conference call. Certainly today technology makes it easier to stay connected when we’re on vacation. But, as it turns out, there’s something fundamentally American about choosing to labor during times of leisure.