Vacation Week

Lesson Plan & Activities

Leisure in the United States

The original use of the word vacation in the United States comes from the English use, marking the time period when teachers and students vacate the school premises. Today, a vacation is typically thought of as a trip, but school vacations still play an important role in when families take a vacation.

The Nineteenth Century

In the early nineteenth century, vacations were normally taken by wealthy individuals, oftentimes going away for their health to a country home or the seaside. Previous to this time, Puritan ideals surrounding the need to work six days per week and then go to church on the seventh day meant that leisure and relaxation were discouraged. Doctors in the mid-nineteenth century encouraged people to get away to avoid suffering brain fatigue or to escape the crowds and dirt of the city. Preachers also began to change course on their messaging regarding relaxation. On vacation, people were encouraged to engage in writing, reading, hunting, going for walks, or participating in sport and leisure activities.

<em>Travels on a Grand Tour frequently included stops in Rome (pictured) and Paris. [George Inness painting of Rome, The Appian Way]</em>
Travels on a Grand Tour frequently included stops in Rome (pictured) and Paris. [George Inness painting of Rome, The Appian Way]
The Grand Tour was another type of vacation for the wealthy where oftentimes young men and women traveled to Europe, Asia, or across the United States for an extended period of time. They were encouraged to visit important sites, learn more about art and history, and meet other individuals who were also traveling.

During this time, railroads were available to take people from the more urban areas to the shore and hotels were built to accommodate vacationers. The ability to travel via rail ensured that vacations were more widely available, as people could now travel for just a few days with an entire family. Churches also built religious resorts where people were not tempted by idleness, drunkenness, and other dangers because there was no drinking or smoking, and rules were in place regarding what individuals could do on Sundays.

Niagara Falls was a popular tourist destination in the mid-nineteenth century. [Alfred Thompson Bricher painting]
The Civil War brought leisure activities to a standstill, and by the late nineteenth century, more people, including those of lower classes were able to enjoy leisure and vacations. By the 1890s, companies and governments began to offer subsidized vacations and vacation homes for their employees to make vacations affordable. Workplaces began to recognize the benefits for employees of taking time off as employees came back better rested and more productive.

The Twentieth Century

In the early twentieth century, people began traveling to cities, such as New York and Philadelphia, to stay in grant hotels and experience the excitement of city life. Trips on ocean liners and airships, such as the Titanic and Hindenburg, were also common for the wealthy and allowed them to explore more isolated and farther destinations. However, these came with dangers that were sometimes unexpected.

Within the United States, the availability of automobiles allowed more people to take weekend trips. Resort towns, such as Atlantic City and Wisconsin Dells, developed around major cities as middle-class individuals were able to drive to visit them.

Atlantic City was a common getaway location for people in New York City. [James Van DerZee photo]
After World War II, the development of the airline industry and the post-war economic boom, along with greater time off for employees, led to an expansion of the vacation industry. Ski holidays became popular, though the attraction of beaches and country homes also continued. More exotic destinations, such as Mexico and Central America, became more popular during the 1950s and 1960s. Disney Land and Disney World were also founded during this time.


Lesson Plan and Activities

Lesson Plan: Vacation Week
Activity: Calder Project
Activity: Jigsaw Puzzle
Activity: Mini Museum
Activity: Portraits

Other Resources

Interview with Cindy Aron about her book “Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States”
America on the Move at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History