The vacation, understood either as time free from work and other obligations like school and family care, or as time away from home in leisure pursuits, was rare for almost all children until the twentieth century. And yet in the last half of the twentieth century vacations increasingly became associated with the child in affluent societies.
Vacations, in contrast to times of seasonal or trade unemployment or migration away from home for work, were and are largely unknown in agrarian and preindustrial urban societies. Not only were children necessary for daily farming and craft routines, but the idea that the young needed or deserved extended times free from work did not exist in these societies. The childhood vacation was a by-product of changes in work time requirements of households, increased affluence, and new attitudes about children's needs and rights to PLAY and experience.
The expansion of children's access to schooling in the nineteenth century and the creation of annual break periods did not create the modern childhood vacation of rest and nonacademic explorations. Rather, these "vacation" periods were times when child labor, bad weather, or budgetary restraints prevented school from being open. School breaks varied greatly in the nineteenth century: in the United States urban schools had as little as one month's closure, while rural districts could have breaks of up to nine months in total. Often schools were closed not to give children rest, but because roads were poor in winter or because children were needed for spring planting and autumn harvests. Vacation periods depended on the local economy. Wheat farming required little child labor, but corn, tobacco, sugar beets, and cotton placed heavy seasonal demands on children's time. Schools, especially in urban areas, were often open in summer as well as winter. In the 1840s, schools were open in New York City up to 242 days of the year. Gradually, beginning with the common school movement of HORACE MANN in the 1840s, reformers won an increase in the days schools were in session in rural areas. On average, the American school year increased from 132 in 1870 to 162 days by 1920. At the same time, urban areas saw the elimination of summer classes because of poor attendance, inefficient learning on hot days, and parental pressure, especially in the middle classes, to make children available for family vacations. State laws gradually produced the "standard" of the ten week to three month summer vacation in the twentieth century (with 180 days of schooling per year) as differences between rural and urban school terms diminished. To compensate for longer school terms, Mann and subsequent reformers advocated regular holiday periods to provide children with outdoor experience and rest from school routine.
In Europe and elsewhere, the length of children's summer vacations similarly varied by the demands of work and budget in the nineteenth century. By the 2000s, these holiday periods were generally shorter than in the United States, though intermediate vacations (in spring and mid-winter) were often longer. While Japan remains at the extreme end of the spectrum in the 2000s, with a school year of 243 days and a short August vacation, European school children attended classes across a range from 216 to the American standard of 180. Despite the efforts of school reformers in the 1920s and after to extend school time in the United States through July or begin school before Labor Day, parents resisted, claiming a shortened break would interfere with family vacations and other worthy activities like SUMMER CAMPS and SPORTS.
The contemporary tendency to identify the child with the vacation is relatively recent. The modern vacation has its roots in the late seventeenth century in the aristocratic pursuit of social and health advantages at wells and mineral springs in places like Tumbridge Wells and Bath in England where the elderly and sickly rich drank or bathed in healing waters. Even the seaside resorts that became popular in the early nineteenth century at Brighton, Torquay, and Scarborough in England were not places for child's play in the surf and sands, but rather sites for quiet strolls for health-giving air or drinking salt water. At assembly halls, masters of ceremonies organized formal balls to allow the fashionable to "see and be seen." Colonial and early-nineteenth-century American resorts like Newport, Saratoga Springs, and White Sulphur Springs offered quiet relaxation, status socializing, access to a marriage market, and, in some cases opportunities for gambling at race tracks and card tables. Notably absent were children's activities. Aristocratic youth, but not children, traveled from Britain on the "Grand Tour" of European ruins and cities for edification from as early as 1670 and Northern European youth trekked to Italy in search of adventure and edification in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
This pattern gradually changed as the middle class began to enjoy vacations and travel away from home. From the first decade of the nineteenth century, middle-class sensibilities turned against the adult fashion and social season of the aristocracy and cultivated family leisure. This was expressed both in the creation of family-oriented suburbs and in the family excursion. In the 1840s tour organizers like Thomas Cook in Britain deliberately appealed to family groups, offering them reduced fares that made taking the children, at least, a possibility. Fathers were infrequent participants in this culture. Instead married women with children arranged summer holidays to meet childhood friends at mineral springs or even to share country homes. By the end of the nineteenth century, the bungalow, a small informal, usually one and a half story house with wraparound porch, imported by the British from India, began to dot the southern coast of England as summer homes for families with growing children. In the 1870s, resort town governments attempted to attract this middle-class family vacationer by regulating gypsy beach vendors, encouraging cheap family rail tickets, and building family-oriented entertainment centers like the pleasure piers and Pleasure Gardens of Blackpool in Britain or the Boardwalk of Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the United States. This process was slow in trickling down to the children of wage earners. For most working-class families, couples stopped taking holidays when the children arrived. Through World War II, outside of the middle classes, vacations for children were largely confined to the rare day's excursion to the amusement park, lake, or seashore.
Children's vacations depended on their parents' paid leave from work. Paid vacations came first to privileged employees of the courts and gradually spread out to other white collar personnel and foremen during the nineteenth century in the United States and Europe. While annual plant shutdowns (for machine refurbishing) or trade slowdowns brought weeks or months of unemployment to many factory worker parents, few could afford to take themselves or their children on a vacation. In the late nineteenth century, vacation savings clubs emerged in northern England and in some parts of Europe to rectify this problem. In the United States, only ten percent of wage-earners enjoyed a paid vacation as late as 1930, while 85 percent of white collar workers and their children benefited from it. Paid vacation plans emerged in the 1930s and 1940s as part of the explosion of union membership (reaching 93 percent of union contracts by 1949), allowing many union members to at least take their kids to the seashore. Because paid vacations in the United States are tied to employment contracts, instead of being a legal entitlement, there was little expansion of vacation time in the United States with the decline of unions after the 1960s.
In Europe, paid vacations for wage earners appeared first in central Europe in the 1920s and expanded into France and Britain in the 1930s. Even conservatives accepted it as a way of instilling worker loyalty and as a means of strengthening family bonds by uniting children and their parents in leisure
to compensate for their separation during work and school. In France, for example, a legal right to a two week paid vacation was won in 1936 and expanded to three weeks in 1956, to four in 1962, and to five in 1982 and six weeks by the 2000s. While holiday leaves varied greatly, European paid vacations remain considerably longer than in the United States.
As children's access to vacation time increased, so did efforts of reformers to shape that time with productive recreation. As early as the 1870s, through the Fresh Air Fund, members of small-town churches opened their homes to slum-dwelling children from New York City. By the end of the nineteenth century, philanthropic groups from large American cities sponsored excursions and weeks at seashore resorts for the children of the poor both to provide healthful fresh air and exercise and to inculcate loyalty to authority. The summer youth camp became a peculiarly American institution where, by 1929, a million children yearly encountered nature in the sheltered moral environment of about 7,000 camps. From the 1880s, British reformers organized summer camps for poor children and their families while French businesses created youth summer camps and recreational programs for young workers and the children of employees in the hopes of easing class tensions.
Groups like the Playground Association (1907) in the United States promoted the construction and staffing of neighborhood playgrounds suitable for supervised children's play and crafts during the summer vacation. Young adult hiking and camping activities were extended to youth and children in the 1930s through groups like the British Youth Hostel Association. At the same time, the Holiday Fellowship, and other labor or local holiday camps in Britain promoted low cost family vacations. A wide range of organizations in France did the same through founding sea or mountain resorts or subsidizing family tourism in the 1930s. Similarly, fascist states and the Soviet Union organized summer vacation tours and youth summer camps to foster political loyalties.
While adults attempted to shape the values and loyalties of children on vacations, a more profound change was occurring. Children's right to time free from the routines of work and school and parents' right to interact with their children in play was becoming a central part of the vacation's meaning. Romantic ideas about children–especially identifying the young with discovery of the delights of nature and associating childhood with nostalgic recollections of carefree times–were well-established in literature and popular images on prints and trading cards by the 1870s. Early manifestations of this sentiment were expressed in seaside rituals like donkey rides, punch and Judy shows, and the building of sand castles. Mechanical amusement rides like the carousel were beginning to pass from adults to children by the end of the nineteenth century. The TEDDY BEAR fad, started at the seaside resorts of New Jersey in the summer of 1906, and the creation of kiddie rides at amusement parks in the 1920s reveal a trend toward the "infantilization" of the vacation site and experience. Instead of the vacation as primarily an opportunity for adults to socialize, gain new experiences, and rest often away from children, it gradually became a "gift" to the child and a chance for adults to relive childhood through their offspring's play.
Older views, however, persisted. In 1888, the famous American child psychologist G. STANLEY HALL praised the father who provided his young sons with a pile of sand for a summer of creative play by themselves. In the 1900s, popular magazines insisted that middle-class parents find "diversions" for their children when they took them on seaside or country vacations. Others sent them on extended absences to summer camp.
By the 1930s, new American child-rearing magazines insisted that family vacations should focus on the child's education. After World War II, the emphasis shifted to the adult's pleasure in the child's delight at seeing for the first time the sea or farm animals. The 1950s saw the widespread use of the station wagon for inexpensive and informal tours of national parks and heritage sites. The increasingly roomy family car was to provide family togetherness on long automobile trips to the Grand Canyon or Old Faithful. The Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg, formerly a place for serious contemplation and memory of war became an obligatory destination for families. From the car, Mom, Dad, and the kids read plaques and later heard taped guided tours about the glorious past after which they drove into the parking lots of motels to swim in the pool and later visit child-oriented amusement parks nearby. Not all embraced this romantic call for the child-oriented vacation. The 1962 movie, Mr. Hobbes Takes a Vacation, in which James Stewart played the frustrated family man stuck in a beat-up summer cottage with a son who wanted to do nothing but watch westerns on TV and a teenage daughter unable to get a date, summed up the frustration of many attempting to recreate the wonder of the children's vacation. Still, the holiday increasingly was meant for the family, for bonding, for renewal and celebrations of children's desire.
Today, the classic site for this child-focused celebration is the amusement park, but this was not true in the beginning of these pleasure sites. The first amusement parks were really modern adaptations of the traditional festival where adults were allowed to loosen restraint and enjoy unaccustomed freedoms. The revolutionary amusement parks opened on Coney Island between 1897 and 1904 were certainly more childlike than the surrounding dance/music halls, race tracks, and saloons, but their fare of mechanical rides, freak shows, and spectacles were designed to challenge the male entertainment zone of drink, sex, and gambling with an environment conducive to "respectable" women rather than children. And, the childlike amusements allowed mostly adults to regress, rather than to encourage children to be delighted. As late as the 1920s, even progressive amusement parks like Playland on Long Island still offered playgrounds where parents could drop off their children while the adults rode roller coasters and bumper cars.
Walt DISNEY's Disneyland, opened in 1955, became the template of the child-focused holiday site. Through such architectural features as "Main Street, USA," recalling small town America of 1900, adults were called to share with children memories of their own childhoods (or, at least, the fantasy of an ideal childhood). Disney's buildings, notably constructed at five-eighths the size of "real buildings" make Disneyland child friendly, and the rides provide frequent cues for adults to share with their children in Disney fantasies. The whole of Disneyland could be said to be an evocation to childlike wonder, with or without kids. Disney's achievement was to package, combine, and intensify a half century of movie images that many Americans and families around the world identified with the delights of childhood. He and his company filled a cultural need that the traditional amusement parks, national parks, and museums failed to fill. Disney was so effective at meeting this need that for many American families (as well as Europeans and Pacific Rim Asians at Disney parks in Paris and Tokyo) made a vacation pilgrimage to Disneyland as an essential part of childhood and then, later, the reliving of that childhood.
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