Vacations for All

Vacations for All

Vacationing has an interesting history in America, with the automobile, better paychecks, and more leisure time all creating one of the largest growth industries.

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“Tourism in America before World War II” by Thomas Weiss, in The Journal of Economic History (June 2004), Social Science History Institute, Bldg. 200, Rm. 3, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif. 94305–2024.

The first American tourist may have been one Dr. Alexander Hamilton (no known relation to the first U.S. Treasury secretrary), who in 1744 traveled “a course of 1624 miles” from his home in Annapolis, Maryland, just to have a look around. The road from Hamilton’s day to the current era of mass tourism has been, in its way, just as long and leisurely, writes Weiss, an economist at the University of Kansas, Lawrence.

Colonial Americans had little time or money for “frivolous” pursuits, but George Washington and other privileged sorts went, ostensibly for their health, to take the waters in nearby spas. By 1770, Berkeley Warm Springs in what is now West Virginia had become a popular resort for Virginia’s planter aristocracy. After the Revolution spas multiplied, coming to include Hot Springs, Arkansas, and, the most famous, Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York.

In the early 19th century, Niagara Falls and other scenic wonders began drawing visitors (some of them on a fashionable tour of such places not unlike the later Grand Tour of Europe). Seaside resorts, such as Cape May, New Jersey, also grew in popularity. By about 1855, Weiss estimates, America had as many as 300,000 tourists a year—flocking to spas (100,000), a handful of beach resorts (100,000), Niagara (80,000), New Hamp­shire’s White Mountains (10,000), and other hot spots.

After the Civil War, the western frontier joined the list of “must see” locales, and the first northern “snowbirds” seeking winter refuge appeared in the South. In coastal South Carolina, people said they lived off fish in summer and Yankees in winter. Still, tourism remained an elite pursuit. At the turn of the 20th century, Weiss estimates, only about two percent of the population (1.5 million people) was able to indulge in the luxury of pleasure travel. That began to change with the arrival of the automobile. Auto touring allowed shorter, cheaper jaunts to a wider selection of destinations, facilitated by auto camps and, by 1930, that fabulous American invention, the motel. By then, America’s best-known tourist destinations were attracting about six million visitors annually, or more than five percent of the population. The Depression brought an unexpected benefit: paid vacations for working people. Nearly 40 percent of hourly workers in manufacturing had them by 1937.

Then came the post–World War II democratization of travel: Paychecks fattened, highways were built, airlines took wing, and, as Weiss sums it up, “all hell broke loose.” Even as Americans complain that they’re starved for free time, tourism has become one of the nation’s fastest-growing economic sectors, accounting for nearly four percent of the gross domestic product.

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