In late 1700s America, leisure travel was for the seriously rich. Colonial who’s-who escaped to the northern seaside to take in the restorative salty air (malaria was endemic in the South). The rest of that era’s Americans probably had never even heard of such indulgences.
A few things happened between then and now — namely prosperity, industrialization and transportation — that transformed vacations into an aspiration for the emerging middle class.
By the late 19th century, Americans were heading to camp meetings, religious revivals with a strong social vibe. City-dwelling vacationers hightailed to the beach and the mountains to bask in the fresh air and take in nature. Grand summer resorts cropped up in spots with swoon-worthy views. Pop-up resorts called chatauquas offered a stimulating lineup of lectures and concerts. And especially robust Americans pitched tents or sought cover in rustic cabins in the country’s vast and still largely untouched great outdoors.
With railroads in place, Americans easily could travel cross-country. When automobiles came along and became relatively affordable, whoo-boy. We were on a roll.
In the early 20th century, Americans hit the road in search of adventure. We found it in historic landmarks and natural wonders. And, if you’ve ever looked at old black-and-white photos, you’ll notice that back then, we Americans looked chic when we traveled. No sweatpants or jorts, thank you very much.
All of this interest in national tourism fortified the nation’s fledgling preservation efforts — the national park system, for example. If you haven’t seen Ken Burns’ The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, I highly recommend it. The footage is amazing and the multi-part documentary demonstrates what a big role these protected places play in our national identity and pride. Our love of our own land — and our desire to explore it — is an integral part of who we are.
And who are we? Hard workers who deserve a vacation, that’s who. In postwar America, paid time-off became the norm for the middle class. It was what we lived for as a nation. Tough day at the office? Who cares! Only two months ‘til we trek to Yellowstone or make our way to a summer resort.
In the 1920s, a few intrepid souls known as “tin-can tourists” towed barebones trailers for camping. By the ‘30s and ‘40s, car-hitched trailers were way more livable, and by the midcentury, production boomed. Today there are endless options, from earth-strangling mega-motorhomes to tiny teardrop trailers that provide a tent’s worth of space for sleeping quarters.
Vacation has also long gone hand in hand with second homes — the brick-and-mortar kind — for the lucky middle class with upward mobility. What could be better than an escape to a charming cabin in the mountains or cottage by the sea? Vacation homes are the whipped cream and cherry on top.
However, as we all know, the American notion of vacation has changed dramatically over the years. We’ve always been hardworking and disciplined, but now we’re now tethered to our jobs and contacts, even in our playtime. Do you remember what vacation was like before smart phones?
When I was a kid, my parents put their small business of hold to take my brother and I on a month-long trip across America. We piled our stuff into a compact tent trailer and hitched it to our comfy brown van and hit the road, stopping at battlefields and rodeos and lots of interesting places. I visited wonderful museums and monuments that no doubt helped spark my interest in design. And while I sent postcards to my grandparents and friends, other than that, I left home completely behind.
Now, when my man and I travel, we check our iPhones constantly and lug our laptops everywhere we go. Perhaps sparked by my writing this post, this weekend we discussed how truly depressing that is. We’ve just decided to visit Utah in September, where we’ll camp — stylishly, in an REI sort of way — at Zion and Bryce Canyon. We hear there’s poor cell phone reception out there. That’s what I call a true vacation.
• Montana's Paws Up Resort allows you to camp in luxury, a vacation style known by the unfortunate portmanteau “glamping” — or glamorous camping. Though some Americans enjoy roughing it, others need a bit of comfort with their outdoor adventures. Photo: Paws Up
• President Teddy Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir in 1903. Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman, was the nation’s first glamper. He was a big fan of Muir’s writing and the two camped together at Yosemite as the nation followed along through vivid newspaper accounts. Reporters were now covering travel as an American pastime. Photo: National Park Service
• Camping in Yosemite Valley in the 1920s. Photo: PBS
• In the ‘30s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) commissioned a series of posters to stimulate tourism. “See America” encouraged Americans to visit their national treasures. You can buy reproductions of these classic posters from Ranger Doug’s Enterprises, among many other vendors. Photo: National Geographic
• Early vacationers fled to the shores for R&R. Beaches these days are crowded with hotels and mansions but you can still get away to the rugged coast, even in California, at places like Costanoa in Big Sur. Photo: Costanoa
• More comfy camping at Santa Barbara’s El Capitan Cabins. One review on Trip Advisor complained of El Capitan: “Nice cabins but there’s not much to do here.” Exactly. Photo: Gwen Barba for LA2Day.com
• From the 20s through the 60s, the Catskills Mountains were known as the Borscht Belt. There were some 500 resorts in the area catering to a Jewish clientele. Remember Dirty Dancing? That’s what we’re talking about. This old postcard depicts Pine Tree Villa on Kiamesha Lake. Photo: Vintage Postcards
• A snapshot of the huge pool at Grossinger’s, another getaway in the Sour Cream Sierras, as the Borscht Belt was also known. Photo: PB Post (Most of the resorts have closed, and many are in a state of ruin, a trending photo topic across the web.)
• Nostalgia prevails at Ruschmeyers in Montauk, New York, which calls to mind those old Borscht Belt beauties. The new 20-room boutique hotel — a converted midcentury summer camp — is a little bit hipster (retro-homage design, ping-pong), and a little bit hippie (tee-pees on the lawn). But it is inarguably cool. Photo: Ruschmeyers
• A stylish and serene room at Ruschmeyers. Photo: Ruschmeyers
• The Airstream Bambi, an American design so iconic that a 1960 model belongs to NYC MOMA’s collection. Airstream trailers have a cult following, especially among the design savvy. This compact version has taken countless Americans across the country. Photo: Behind the Rivets
• If a vintage Airstream is out of your budget or parking allotment, why not rent one for your next vacation, like writer Anna Norberg did for Sunset magazine. Photo: Sunset
• Similar in shape to the early “tin can” trailers, the teardrop is super compact, with a sleeping area inside and a cooking area in the rear. (It is my dream to own a teardrop for weekend ski trips and mountain getaways. The hard ground seems harder every year. When I finally do, I’ll have to decide between vintage, new and fully assembled, or a DIY kit – all of which are really popular and surprisingly affordable.) Photo: Tiny House Blog
• A classic American beach cottage in North Carolina featured in Country Living. Owning a vacation house has long been a symbol of success for Americans. Photo: Country Living
• With a little ingenuity, a second home doesn’t have to be out of reach. A Portland couple built this 130-square-foot cabin — which they call the Signal Shed — in the mountains for $57,000, including the land. Photo: Sunset