WORKING AT PLAY by Cindy S. Aron


A History of Vacations in the United States
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An interesting if somewhat academic social history of the American vacation that examines the tension between the American work ethic and the concept of leisure. Aron, a University of Virginia historian, explores the development of the American vacation from the early 19th century to WWII. Prior to 1865, vacations were taken exclusively by the wealthy and justified for health reasons. A doctor might recommend a stay at the seashore or a mineral spring for restoring health: “change of air . . . could, some physicians felt, mitigate or even cure some diseases, among them consumption, asthma, gout, and rheumatism.” Places with clean air and mineral water, such as Saratoga Springs (N.Y.), Hot Springs (Va.), and Newport (R.I.), became meccas for 19th-century American vacationers. To entice more visitors, these “restorative” resorts began offering various amusements like billiards, bowling, gambling, dances, and concerts. With their wealthy clientele and leisurely amusements, these “fashionable” resorts became centers of gossip and dissolution, according to the popular press. Meanwhile, religious leaders condemned the decadence of these resorts while setting up religious retreats and campsites. At Chautauqua, N.Y., a Methodist minister established a resort for training Sunday school teachers. These religiously motivated resorts typically restricted alcohol, smoking, dancing, and flirting. The Chautauqua model of vacation resorts dedicated to sober self-improvement was copied all over the nation. After the Civil War, railroads and travel agencies made vacationing easier, cheaper, and widely accessible to the middle class. Wary of the idleness and frivolity of fashionable resorts, the middle class turned to camping, touring, chautauquas, and the national parks. In the early 20th century, companies began giving paid vacations to workers as a means of boosting morale and productivity. Long excluded from most resorts, African-Americans and Jews began setting up their own vacation resorts. Alas, the historic tension of which Aron writes between work and fun is evident in her own prose, which is thoroughly scholarly. Readers, like vacationers, want some entertainment, too.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-19-505584-5
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1999