George Washington’s Caribbean Cruise and 10 Other Tales from the Evolution of the American Vacation

George Washington’s Caribbean Cruise and 10 Other Tales from the Evolution of the American Vacation

Larry Holzwarth - June 12, 2018

The idea of taking time off from toil to spend it on leisure activities was anathema for much of America’s history. The puritanical beliefs buried in the national psyche in some regions could not be reconciled with an unabated pursuit of pleasure, no matter if temporary. For many the rest on the Sabbath was sufficient. Communities throughout the United States forbade labor on Sunday, and before the Revolutionary War church attendance was mandatory in most of the colonies. The idea of vacating oneself from one’s source of income was simply not acceptable throughout most of society.

Vacations evolved slowly over time, both in there availability to the laborer and the laborers’ options over how to spend them. The expansion of the railroads helped people reach destinations deemed exotic and healthful. Leisure activities increased, and vacation resorts emerged. Doctors began to recognize the benefits of fresh air and exercise, and recommended trips to the mountains or by sea to escape the less healthy air of the cities and towns. Once the automobile became affordable, Americans tried to take to the roads, only to find that there weren’t many of them. The roads that did exist were often rendered impassable by rain, or obstacles like grazing cattle and sheep.

George Washington’s Caribbean Cruise and 10 Other Tales from the Evolution of the American Vacation
These New England college girls are spending their summer vacation weeding, demonstrating true Puritan work ethic. Boston Public Library

Here are ten stories about the history of vacations in the United States.

George Washington’s Caribbean Cruise and 10 Other Tales from the Evolution of the American Vacation
George Washington bore the scars of smallpox he contracted on a 1751 vacation to Barbados. It was not his only misfortune on the trip. Wikimedia

George Washington’s Caribbean Cruise.

Lawrence Washington was George’s half-brother, and in many ways a father figure to George after their father Augustine died in 1743. George was 11 years old at that time, Lawrence was 25, and a veteran of the Royal Navy. For the next eight years Lawrence expanded the plantation inherited from his father, renaming it Mount Vernon, in honor of his former commanding officer, Admiral Edward Vernon. Lawrence suffered from what was then a mysterious malady affecting his lungs, and he frequently traveled to the warm springs in Bath, Virginia, with George accompanying him. In 1749 Lawrence sailed to London to consult with physicians over his condition.

After returning to Virginia and finding his condition steadily worsening, Lawrence decided to travel to Barbados in 1751, taking his then 19 year old brother with him. Lawrence had been to the Caribbean before, during his years in the Royal Navy, and it was his belief that the warm tropical climate would help his lungs clear (he was by then in the advanced stage of tuberculosis). George and Lawrence Washington sailed for Barbados in September of 1751. It was George’s first trip outside the North American continent and it would be his only journey across the sea. Until then he had not been outside of Virginia, other than short crossings of the Potomac into Maryland.

George kept a diary of the journey, recording the brothers’ activities on the voyage, which included fishing and George attempting to learn basic navigation, assisted by his sailor brother. The art of nautical navigation was still somewhat primitive at the time, with the determination of longitude based largely on dead reckoning, due to the inaccuracy of timekeeping devices. Washington’s own calculations placed their ship more than 400 miles from Barbados (the captain had them even further away) when the island was sighted on November 2, and the captain successfully negotiated the dangerous water of the island’s western shore to land his passengers in Carlisle Bay later that day.

In Bridgetown the brothers stayed for a time at the home of one of Lawrence’s wives relatives, despite their host’s wife being stricken with smallpox. Within two weeks George was exhibiting the symptoms of the disease, from which he recovered and which left his face pockmarked for the rest of his life. Later the brothers rented a house overlooking Carlisle Bay and socialized with the wealthy gentry, merchants, and naval officers, some of whom had made Lawrence’s acquaintance during his service. George’s health improved steadily after the crisis phase of smallpox, but Lawrence found the climate and the activities to be of little benefit to his own health.

Lawrence decided to sail to Bermuda, and George returned to Virginia via the ship Industry. During the voyage his sea chest was stolen, and the winter seas made him seasick. Thus on his first vacation George endured smallpox, theft, seasickness, and the worsening of his brother’s health. He arrived at Yorktown, Virginia, in late January 1752. Lawrence remained in Bermuda for a short time, but found little improvement in his condition. He returned to Virginia in June, and died at Mount Vernon the following month. His will left Mount Vernon to his daughter Sarah; when she died without issue the property reverted to his widow. It was from her that George eventually acquired Mount Vernon.

George Washington’s Caribbean Cruise and 10 Other Tales from the Evolution of the American Vacation
Ladies, gentlemen, and children enjoy the waters and other attractions at White Sulphur Springs around 1870. Wikimedia

Taking the Waters

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century summer was known as the “sickly season” in most east coast American cities, and the wealthier citizens escaped to the west to avoid the dangers posed by communicable diseases. It was widely believed that it was the air which carried the diseases of cholera, malaria, typhus, and others, resulting in numerous epidemics. The natural springs and spas in the cleaner air of the west were resorted to by those who could afford to leave behind their businesses in the hands of others and get away. The appearance of leisure was covered by the appearance of traveling for the benefit of health.

Beginning in the late 1770s, White Sulphur Springs, a sulphur water natural spring, attracted the wealthier citizens of Virginia, and its fame as a site for healthful resort soon spread throughout the middle and southern states. Visitors both ingested the waters of the spring and soaked in its pools. By the early 1800s water was being bottled at the spring for sale in the east as its fame spread throughout the country. Starting with a small inn, the resort developed into a cluster of small cottages which were sold to wealthy planters, politicians, and businessmen. Eventually a large hotel, known as the Greenbrier, was built on the site.

New Yorkers and others of the Middle Atlantic States found rest and healthy waters at Saratoga Springs, which began attracting tourists in the early 1800s. After the opening of the railroad in 1832, resort inns and hotels developed in the nearby town of Saratoga. The mineral waters of the springs gained fame throughout the United States and by the time of the American Civil War the springs and the resorts around them were known in Europe. During the Civil War a race track, the precursor of Saratoga Race Course, was opened to alleviate the boredom of those who had had enough of the benefits of the waters.

Nearby, the village of Ballston Spa became famous for the waters which came from its springs. Hawthorne spring water, a bubbling mineral water, was used as a treatment for patients in sanitoriums, believed to be effective against tuberculosis. In 1803 the largest hotel in the United States built to that time was erected in Ballston Spa. Called the Sans Souci Hotel, in 1821 one of its guests was Joseph Bonaparte, who had reigned as King of Spain for a time when his brother Napoleon was Emperor of the French. The Sans Souci was one of the United States’ earliest and most famous tourist resorts, though it was a resort for the wealthy.

Taking the waters continued to be a vacation plan throughout the nineteenth century, extending into the west as the nation did the same. Yellow Springs in Ohio became famous for the high sulphur content of its water. Several guide books were offered which described the spas and resorts around the country, rating both the efficacy of the waters offered and the quality of the available facilities. Bell’s Picturesque Guide to American Watering Places, published in 1880, included railroad and steamboat schedules, places of amusement near the resorts, and other information to help the traveler plan his or her upcoming vacation.

George Washington’s Caribbean Cruise and 10 Other Tales from the Evolution of the American Vacation
This sketch of Charles Dickens and his sister Fanny at the bottom left was made during his American tour in 1842. He found several American habits distasteful, none more so than chewing tobacco. Wikimedia

The Coach Trip

In January 1842, a distinguished British visitor arrived in the United States to take a tour of the nation. In the course of his visit, which lasted six months, Charles Dickens availed himself of every form of transportation in use at the time. He traveled in canal boats, steamboats, by rail, by carriage, and by coach, observing closely the manner of conveyance and his fellow passengers. His report of his journey to and through the United States was published as American Notes for General Circulation, and his comments on the manners and social behavior of Americans were as controversial as they were amusing.

On one leg of his journey Dickens traveled down the Ohio River in a steamboat, a growing amusement of those traveling to expend leisure time, as well as for commercial purposes. After arriving at Cincinnati, where he stayed several days, the next leg of his journey was by commercial coach through Ohio. Traveling by coach was a slow, bone jarring process, along poor roads, often deeply rutted in some sections, and punctuated by stops to change the horses. Sometimes the stops offered facilities and refreshments for the passengers, and sometimes they did not. Dickens noted that the road between Cincinnati and Columbus was macadamized its entire length.

Dickens report of the sights encountered and services offered the vacationer traveling by coach was somewhat different than those in the travel guides of the day, some of which he referred to himself in setting his itinerary. Dickens described arriving at a typical village inn at midday, with numerous “idlers lingering about the tavern, waiting for the public dinner.” He was disturbed to discover that the inn in which he would be forced to dine was a “Temperance House,” offering tea, coffee, lemonade, and water, but not the brandy he craved. “This preposterous forcing of unpleasant drinks down the reluctant throats of travelers is not at all uncommon in America…” he wrote.

The coach in which Dickens traveled ran all through the night, with its frequent stops to water the horses or change the team not offering refreshment for the passengers, and the jostling of the crowded coach offering little opportunity for sleep. Arriving in Columbus, Dickens was forced to hire a private coach for the next leg of his journey as there was no scheduled service to his destination. Vacationers and business travelers of the day often faced this dilemma, limiting some travel to those with the means to afford the expensive private coaches. Dickens himself was carrying a large amount of gold to cover travel expenses, and was as much of a celebrity as any person in America during his trip.

Upon arriving in Lower Sandusky, where they were to spend the night, Dickens was disconcerted to learn that the room in which he and his wife were to spend the night had no locks on its doors. Considering the amount of gold coin he was carrying and the absence of any security he expressed his concern to the innkeeper. He was informed that his was a problem encountered by many travelers, and the further one was from a larger town, the more likely one was have difficulty. The locals would easily surmise that the traveler was a person of means, evidenced by the fact they were traveling by private coach. In the event, Dickens had no problem, other than a poor night’s sleep, and continued his journey the next day with his funds intact.

George Washington’s Caribbean Cruise and 10 Other Tales from the Evolution of the American Vacation
The schooner rigged yacht America which gave its name to America’s Cup in 1851. Wikimedia


America’s waterways have always been a resort of choice, both for those living along them and as a destination for tourists. Yacht clubs began forming in the United States shortly after the War of 1812. Yachts were then, as they are now, the playthings of the wealthy, unattainable for the rising American merchant class, a precursor for the American middle class. Many of the more affluent merchants wanted to enjoy time on the water as well. The solution was to charter a yacht, either for an excursion cruise returning to the point of departure or to carry them to another destination. Enterprising boat owners soon took advantage of this potential market.

Spending leisure time on the water became popular in the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay, and along the coasts of the Carolinas. New York Harbor was a popular sailing destination, with numerous inns and hotels in the growing city of New York and on Staten Island and Long Island accommodating visitors who came to the city to charter a boat and tour the harbor, or along Long Island Sound. Cape Cod became a tourist destination, as did Martha’s Vineyard. When steam power emerged in the early nineteenth century, New Yorkers were soon able to travel by steam ferry to Albany, with stops at points in between.

The Great Lakes began to be a tourist attraction, accessible from the east with the opening of the Erie Canal. One of the most vivid descriptions in Dickens’s American Notes is that of a journey on a canal boat, though he was traveling in Pennsylvania instead of New York. Tourists arriving at the Great Lakes found points of interest along the shores including the sites of the American victories on the Great Lakes during the war of 1812, and the burgeoning industry in the lake ports. Sailing excursions carried the travelers to various points along the shores. Niagara Falls became a destination by both coach and steamer.

The inland waterways became a highway for tourists with the advent of the river steamboat, which came to resemble tiered wedding cakes as they evolved. The larger steamboats offered onboard entertainment in the form of music, dance, and minstrel shows. They also offered the potential for a naïve vacationer to be fleeced by the gamblers, con men, and thieves which found them a lucrative place in which to ply their trades. The steamboats also had a disturbing habit of blowing up from time to time as well as running aground because of the constantly changing channels of the larger rivers, including the Ohio and Mississippi.

By the late 1840s a traveler could enter a canal boat in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and travel the entire distance to New Orleans on water, with the exception of being hauled overland on the Allegheny Portage Railroad, which itself became a tourist attraction. While many of these tourists were foreigners, a growing number of Americans were taking time off to explore the attractions of their country. Leisurely speeds when covering larger distances still limited the taking of extended vacations to the wealthy, and the working class, which still labored six days per week, could only envy the advantages held by the “idle rich.”

George Washington’s Caribbean Cruise and 10 Other Tales from the Evolution of the American Vacation
William Henry Harrison Murray created a camping craze with his writings, though critics thought him crazy. Wikimedia

The Adirondack Camping Craze

Before 1869, camping in the Adirondack Mountains was limited for the most part to the fishermen and hunters who visited the upstate New York region. The terrain was as it had always been, tangled, rocky, and challenging to all but experienced outdoorsmen. The region around Saranac Lake was a favorite area for fishing in the summer and hunting in the fall, with typically fine weather. Beginning in 1864 a prosperous Congregationalist Minister named William Henry Harrison Murray began making annual hunting and fishing trips to the region, preferring to camp at Raquette Lake on Osprey Island. His congregations disapproved of his leisure activities.

Murray kept journals of his camping trips, and in the spring of 1869 published them in a book entitled Adventures in the Wilderness. Murray’s work extolled the beauty of nature and was dismissive of his own efforts as a hunter and fisherman in a humorous manner which added to the sense of peace to be found in the wilderness. Originally published in April, it was in its tenth printing by July and sold thousands of copies. Critics were dismissive of its content and its prose but the public loved it, and at one point it sold at the rate of 500 copies per week. Its impact was felt in the Adirondacks that summer.

Where before the summer of 1869 the area might host 200 or so hunters and outdoorsmen, that year thousands swarmed over the region, most of them carrying with them copies of Murray’s book. Up to 3,000 visitors arrived from New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and other points around the country. Murray’s book was sold on the trains carrying the visitors, and the steamers, and at the coach stops and inns along the routes traveled. Murray’s readers were seeking the peace to be found in the wilderness, and the beauty of nature, and his book told of several locations where both could be had. It did not discuss being prepared for nature.

Although Murray described special articles of clothing with which women should have equipped themselves, many did not, and the difficult terrain limited the amount of hiking and other activities which could be accomplished in the standard garb of the day. To take advantage of this situation, camp grounds and camps based around cabins and cottages were erected throughout the more accessible areas of the Adirondacks. By 1870 special trains were scheduled to accommodate the rush of campers who resorted to the area to commune with nature. A new industry arose around Murray’s pilgrims; the camping industry.

Those who sniffed at Murray’s work called his followers “Murray’s Fools” for their seeking of peace in the harmony of nature rather than in the church pew. The craze lasted for several years, with Murray publishing additional articles which discussed the need to temporarily escape the dreariness of office or shop and return to nature. Murray’s theories were dismissed by most clergy and experts on the human condition, but avidly followed by his supporters. At his urging, they vacated their offices and refreshed themselves in a new manner. It was from Murray that the word vacation entered the American lexicon, replacing the holiday still used by the British.

George Washington’s Caribbean Cruise and 10 Other Tales from the Evolution of the American Vacation
Dead buffalo await the harvesting of their hides in 1872. National Archives

The Buffalo Hunters

As the railroads pushed across the Great Plains they encountered problems with the Plains Indians, the natural terrain, and the great herds of American Bison, estimated to number up to 60 million at their peak. Bison threatened the railroads in many ways, including potentially damaging the tracks or equipment should they attempt to cross the tracks without giving a train sufficient room to stop. The railroads wanted the bison removed. In this they were supported by the army, which believed that the best way to drive the western tribes to reservations was to eliminate the means of their survival on the plains.

The railroads hired buffalo hunters who killed as many of the buffalo as they could. Buffalo meat fed railroad workers and buffalo hides were shipped east where they provided a stronger leather that was used primarily for the drive belts of machinery in factories and meatpacking houses. The tales of buffalo hunters became legendary in the east as the new (and last) true American frontiersmen. This led enterprising railroad supervisors to devise a new form of recreation for those in the east who had never seen a buffalo. Their plan would simultaneously reduce the buffalo herds and enhance railroad passenger revenues.

Passenger trains had long been equipped with firearms for self-defense in the case of Indian attack, and when passengers on the trains began using them to shoot at passing buffalo herds a new form of American vacation was born. Buffalo hunt excursion trains departed from several western towns, armed with passengers whom had paid for the privilege. When buffalo herds were encountered these trains slowed to match the speed of the herd, or stopped if the herd wasn’t moving. Drivers accompanied the train to use gunfire to set the herd in the desired motion and direction. The excursionists climbed to the roof of the cars, or aimed through the windows.

The “hunters” then opened fire on the herd, and continued firing as long as the herd was in range, allowing the passengers to return to the east claiming to have killed a buffalo. On rare occasion the trains stopped to allow the collection of trophies or the posing for photographs. For the most part they did not. After concluding it was safe from Indian attack most of the hides were harvested for shipment east, most of the meat remained where it lay on the plains. The bones were collected after the meat rotted away, to be used as an ingredient in fertilizer.

By the turn of the century the massive buffalo herds of the Great Plains had been reduced to less than 300 animals living in the wild. Conservation efforts began about that time. By the beginning of the twenty-first century the number of American Buffalo in the United States had reached about 500,000 on private lands and around 30,000 on publicly owned land. Buffalo hunting began again in the late twentieth century, in controlled hunts on private lands, with many guaranteeing their customers an opportunity to kill one of the animals, which were designated the National Mammal of the United States in 2016.

George Washington’s Caribbean Cruise and 10 Other Tales from the Evolution of the American Vacation
With the whimsical name Sandanwede, this seaside “cottage” was in Nantuckett. Library of Congress

Down by the Seaside

In the Gilded Age following Reconstruction the idea of vacationing at the seashore grew, although the beach vacation of that age had little in common with those of today. Swimwear was concealing, rather than revealing, although some gasped when they saw the latest swim fashions. Many early seaside vacations didn’t involve the water at all. The trips to the shore were for the purpose of taking the sea air, considered to be superior in healthful quality to the air of the internal cities and towns. Given the prevalence of burning coal for power and heat, it very likely was.

Vacationers traveled to seaside towns up and down the East and West Coasts, usually by rail, though sometimes the more affluent used their private yachts. Seaside cabins and bungalows were built in many smaller coastal towns to accommodate their visitors. Many built boardwalks for the express purpose of allowing vacationers to walk along the waterfront with an unrestricted view of the water while not soiling their shoes, trousers, and long dresses with beach sand. Rather than bask in the rays of the sun, ladies carried parasols to shield themselves from it while gentlemen wore hats. In the heat of summer the straw hat came into vogue.

There was a dissident party which believed a trip to the seaside meant entry into the water, and seaside towns built dressing cabins and other facilities to accommodate those visitors. In many towns watchmen were recruited to ensure that the local citizenry would not have its mores violated by swimwear which was too revealing, for both women and men. Other amusements were built along the boardwalks, include arcades, wax museums, and other amusements so that they often resembled the midway at carnivals. These drew further attention from the guardians of morality as they were often operated by out-of-towners, open only for the season.

Many of the wealthy built homes in the seaside towns to remain there throughout the summer months, remaining in contact with their business if necessary by telegraph, telephone, and train. These homes were often equipped with baths which included salt water taps, allowing them to enjoy soaking in salt water without the necessity of communing with the commoners who used the beaches. The greatest of these summer “cottages” were erected along the Cliff Walk of Newport, Rhode Island, and included The Breakers, a mansion of 70 rooms on five floors built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II.

Many of the smaller seaside vacation destinations were transformed into motel and hotel dominated waterfronts during the mid to late twentieth century, though a few still retain their turn of the century aura, sometimes in designated historic districts. The seaside vacation of the turn of the century had little in common with that of the late twentieth and beyond, when sun and surf supplanted the desire to take the sea air in leisurely strolls down uncrowded boardwalks. Vacations to the shore have always been one of the most popular, though for much different reasons over time.

George Washington’s Caribbean Cruise and 10 Other Tales from the Evolution of the American Vacation
An autocamp near Mt Rainier in 1909. University of Washington


The automobile changed American vacations in a host of ways far beyond simply providing a means of transportation. For one thing, it made vacations available to more Americans, as it provided jobs which paid well, created new industries, and helped develop unions which negotiated more time off for workers. More leisure time, enhanced mobility not tied to railroad timetables, and extra spending money led to changes in how Americans spent their time off. Many used the automobile as not only the means for transportation, but in a nod to an earlier age, as the means of shelter on the way.

Autocamps were created as a response to the practice of using the automobile as a sleeping facility, beginning in the early 1900s. Often drivers simply pulled off the road to sleep in their vehicle before continuing on their way. The practice grew so widespread that auto manufacturers and other companies began selling modifications to be fitted on vehicles to make them more comfortable, including awnings which attached to the car, creating a tent, and inserts to turn seats into beds. Tables were designed to fit into trunks, and other special equipment, such as stoves running off of the car’s electrical system, were offered.

In towns and villages, the practice of motorists camping in public parks and on public streets led them to create designated areas allowing the practice. Innovative businesses invested in lots near public attractions and converted them into autocamps, which were soon being listed in the tour guides of the day, with ratings and lists of amenities. Often they included small stores, play facilities for children, fishing equipment, and the all-important automobile mechanic to assist motorists suffering mechanical distress. Some camps were so popular that they became destinations in and of themselves.

Autocamps saw their heyday just before the Great Depression. During the depression roads throughout the United States saw tremendous improvements with local, state, and the federal governments all funding programs to create jobs. During the era many landowners erected cabins on roadside property in the hope of generating income, renting them to passing motorists. These motor courts were the forerunner of motels. The number of motorists resorting to autocamps declined until it was just those dedicated to camping, rather than using them as a convenience.

After World War II the idea of using an autocamp as a vacation destination went into steep decline, although many still went camping using the car as the means of conveyance to the campsite. More attractive vacation opportunities emerged as Americans enjoyed the expanding highway systems, and autocamps became a thing of the past except in small enclaves, mostly in the Pacific Northwest. The growing popularity of trailers and pop-up campers following the war was the death knell for the practice of camping in one’s car, and few autocamps remained by the end of the twentieth century.

George Washington’s Caribbean Cruise and 10 Other Tales from the Evolution of the American Vacation
SS United States on the return leg of its maiden voyage in 1952. By then the glory days of the great liners were over. Wikimedia

The Transatlantic Liners

As more and more Americans began taking annual vacations from their occupations those of the upper classes began to take more and more of their vacations by traveling to Europe. By the mid-1930s air travel was available by airplane and by airships, but the preferred method of traveling for a European vacation, or for business, was by the great transoceanic liners operated by British, French, German, Italian, and American shipping companies. The competitors built their ships to outdo the others in terms of speed, luxury, and prestige. The crossing may have been the beginning (or end) of the vacation, but for some it was the most luxurious part.

The Northern Atlantic route was the most critical for the profits of the liners. Liverpool and Southampton were part of this route, connecting with New York, and Hamburg in Germany and Le Havre and Cherbourg in France all used the North Atlantic route. The liner which held the fastest time in crossing was awarded the Blue Riband, and traveling on the ship so honored was another sign of prestige. There was a Blue Riband for the crossing in each direction. Ships which did not hold the award stressed their superior accommodations for passengers during the crossing.

All of the liners were built to carry immigrants but changing immigration laws in the United States forced many of their operators to increase the number of cabin spaces for second and third class to attract more customers. This made the possibility of a European vacation more affordable for middle class Americans, though the time involved in crossing would have used up most of their available time. Up to World War II a European vacation was for Americans of wealth with sufficient leisure time at their disposal. Throughout the 1930s the cross Atlantic travel business was brisk.

Once in Europe the vacation possibilities included tours of the Scottish Highlands and the great country houses of England. Visitors to the continent could view the sights of Paris or Berlin, then one of the most popular cities of Europe despite the rising Nazi Party. The Orient Express beckoned to those wishing to see what was then referred to as the Orient (Turkey). Many wealthy Americans made what was known as the Grand Tour in imitation of wealthy English, visiting the great capitals of Europe and other cities famed for their contributions to western culture and science.

The transoceanic vacation by ship did not survive the Second World War. A brief revival in the 1950s faced stiff competition from the airlines, and the idea of arriving at one’s destination quickly supplanted the idea of the trip itself being a large part of the vacation. Travel by air took on even greater panache as the jet engine increase the speed of travel even further and transatlantic jet service killed the ocean liners. The airlines used the idea of luxury connected with speed in their services in advertising and air travel to Europe, and across the United States, added yet another term to the lexicon – the jet set.

George Washington’s Caribbean Cruise and 10 Other Tales from the Evolution of the American Vacation
Vacationers by car in the east once saw dozens of these signs every day as they traveled to their vacation sites. Wikimedia

The Great American Road Trip

During the baby boom years the American family vacation, regardless of destination, was done primarily by car. Inexpensive gas, the rise of motels and motor courts, greatly improved roads, and an influx of new cars as the automakers retooled after World War II all boosted the automobile as the vacation vehicle of choice. Americans took to the highways, where signs urged them to SEE ROCK CITY, or VISIT LURAY CAVERNS. Towns began to install road signs informing motorists of the attractions to be found within their limits or nearby.

At service stations, which were called that because attendants serviced the vehicle while the motorist relaxed, free maps were available and information regarding local attractions could be had. Roadside stops and souvenir stands offered games to amuse children who had tired of the scenery passing by. Some were designed to encourage watching the scenery, having them keep count of hay stacks, tractors, fire stations, and other roadside sights. Others were of an educational nature over the region being traveled. Some games involved the entire family.

Motels improved the amenities offered in response to competition and billboards provided this information to travelers. The signs proudly announced air conditioning in all rooms, heated swimming pools, and other services to lure the weary motorists and passengers. Families forced to stop for the night on the way to their ultimate destination faced an increasing number of choices, and the emergence of national chains such as Holiday Inn carried a promise of consistent quality unknown to the traveler of the years before the Second World War.

American vacations took on a wide and diverse variety. Some were still trips to a fishing cabin on a lake or stream. Others headed to the lands of the west, lured by western heroes, the Indian wars, Mount Rushmore, or Disneyland. The Great Smokey Mountains became a popular destination and tiny Gatlinburg Tennessee began a transformation still ongoing. Virginia Beach exploded from being a small, almost unknown town supported largely by the military to a major east coast resort and tourist destination, one of the most popular beach destinations in America. Myrtle Beach to the south did the same.

The Great American Road Trip is still a significant portion of the American vacation, though extended vacations have decreased in the twenty-first century, and many Americans remain connected with their work during their time off through cell phones, email, and social media. The habit of vacating the work space but not the work has emerged and taken on momentum. As a nation, Americans return or lose more vacation days than are actually taken. Whether this is part of the puritan instinct instilled in American life or simply a cultural shift is a subject of debate in the ongoing history of the American vacation.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Washington’s Journey to Barbados”, by Jack Warren, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, online

“Medicinal Springs of Virginia in the 19th Century”, by the Visitors and Rectors of the University of Virginia, University of Virginia Historical Collections, online

“American Notes for General Circulation”, by Charles Dickens, 1842

“Where Was the Birthplace of the American Vacation”, by Tony Perrottet, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2013

“Where the Buffalo No Longer Roamed”, by Gilbert King, Smithsonian Magazine, July 2012

“The weird origins of going to the beach”, by Ana Swanson, The Washington Post, July 3, 2016

“Save the Auto Camps”, by Stephen Mark, The Crater Lake Institute, online

“Transatlantic Liners”, by J. Kent Layton, 2012

“The Fifties”, by David Halberstam, 1993