It’s hard to believe today, but leisure was considered a questionable pursuit for much of American history. Thanks to the Protestant work ethic and endless days in the fields, time off was barely a consideration for most people.

But as cities grew crowded and unsanitary in the mid-19th century, fresh air increasingly seemed like a good idea. In fact, doctors prescribed it. So it was only in the 1850s that the word “vacation” took on its current meaning — though it would be another 75 years before most workers had any use for the term, according to Cindy Aron’s Working at Play.

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Whether your great-grandparents even took a vacation depends on their social class. Here’s a look at five historic resort areas that illustrate the range of American vacations in the decades around 1900.

Adirondack Lodge circa 1921. (Courtesy of SL Stoddard ALD via Wikimedia)

1. The Adirondacks, New York

As the West opened up in the 19th century, Americans came to view the wilderness as part of their national identity. In Hudson River School paintings and Ralph Waldo Emerson essays, reverence of the land emerged as a cultural force. For the intellectual elite, camping trips became a chance to discover the rugged individualism forged from time outdoors.

In 1858, artist and journalist William Stillman led a group of friends, including Emerson, to the Adirondacks, which he dubbed The Philosophers’ Camp in a painting. A decade later, a Boston preacher named William Murray published a bestselling guidebook to the area, replete with advice and how-tos, depicting it as Eden in upstate New York.

Though many travelers found camping there more challenging than advertised, the Adirondacks quickly became a popular getaway for city residents. By 1875, there were about 200 hotels and campsites, and stagecoaches made it accessible to the middle class. Wealthy vacationers built their own resorts, such as the Ausable Club, to protect the land from development — and themselves from the riffraff.

2. Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts

When the Obamas chose to vacation here early in his presidency, it came as no surprise. This Martha’s Vineyard town has long been a summer destination for African Americans, especially among the elite. That history dates to the late-1700s, when freed black workers toiled in the fishing industry and gradually attracted others. In the latter part of the 19th century, African Americans also came to Oak Bluffs to attend religious revivals, multiday camps that were popular across the country at the time.

Around the turn of the 20th century, middle-class black residents from Boston and New York began renting summer homes, as their descendants have continued to do, or staying in black-owned inns. In the 1960s, when other parts of the island were still off-limits to blacks, Harlem labor leader Joseph Overton hosted civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. Other historically African-American resort towns include Long Island’s Sag Harbor and Highland Beach on the Chesapeake Bay, where a son of Frederick Douglass built a cottage in 1894.

Beach group
Beach group in Atlantic City, 1901. (Courtesy of Thiophene_Guy via Flickr)

3. Atlantic City, New Jersey

In the 1820s, a physician envisioned this temperate slice of the Jersey Shore as a health resort. He eventually persuaded the Camden and Atlantic Railroad to make the city its terminus, a task completed in 1854, and tourism took off. Though it was initially marketed as a resort for the wealthy, its proximity to Philadelphia made it a feasible day trip for city workers.

Promoters soon changed tack, advertising to the middle and working classes, and luxury and affordable hotels were developed side by side. Its famous boardwalk, completed in 1870, brought together an unusually mixed group of classes and ethnicities, including Jewish immigrants and African Americans. In 1910, Atlantic City had 3 million summer visitors; in 1939 that number was up to 16 million. If your ancestors lived in Philadelphia or New York around the turn of the century, it’s likely they passed some leisure hours here.

4. Newport, Rhode Island

A major colonial harbor, Newport has seen summer vacationers since the 18th century, when South Carolina planters sailed north to escape the heat. After a damaging occupation during the Revolutionary War, Newport reinvented itself as a summer retreat for artists, academics, professionals, and writers like Henry James.

Many Irish families settled here in the 1820s, drawn by its relative tolerance of Catholics, and have remained since. The New York Yacht Club began traveling there in 1844, establishing the harbor as a sailing destination, as it still is today. The crowd grew more opulent during the Gilded Age, when families like the Vanderbilts built enormous seaside mansions they called “cottages,” and on some pages of the 1900 U.S. census, servants outnumber family members by more than 2 to 1. However, there was a larger working-class presence in Newport than you might expect, due to the fishing industry and the need for domestic help.

5. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming/Montana/Idaho

Established in 1872, Yellowstone was America’s first national park. The territory that became Yellowstone had been well known among explorers and was especially notable for its geysers. The movement to protect our natural landscape grew out of the same romanticism that brought vacationers to the Adirondacks. Emerson and Henry David Thoreau advocated exploring nature but limiting the influence of civilization there, which led to the federal park system. (The Park Service wasn’t established until 1916, until which time the U.S. Army ran Yellowstone.)

In 1883, the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad made the park accessible from the East, and attendance increased five-fold. The railroad even built the park’s first hotel, Lake Yellowstone Lodge, in 1889-91, and others soon followed. By 1922, the park was hosting over 50,000 annual visitors. Of that, just 1,500 stayed in hotels, according to Working at Play. The rest — the working and middle class — camped.

— Rebecca Dalzell

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