Road Trip!

July 1946: A little boy watches the world go by on his way to his family vacation home.
July 1946: A little boy watches the world go by on his way to his family vacation home. (Cornell Capa - Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Reviewed by Sue Kovach Shuman
Sunday, June 15, 2008


The Golden Age of American Family Vacations

By Susan Sessions Rugh

Univ. of Kansas. 240 pp. $29.95

Mention "family vacation" to a baby boomer and you're likely to conjure memories of car trips. My own are bittersweet. Each sweltering July, Dad got lost between Reading, Pa., and pre-casino Atlantic City while Mom reprimanded four girls squished into the back seat of a Chevy Bel Air for resisting perceived encroachments on sibling territory. But our discomfort was forgotten during afternoons of baby-oil suntans and glimpses of Steel Pier entertainers.

We were the people Susan Sessions Rugh writes about in Are We There Yet?, a fascinating exploration of excursions from 1945 to the '70s. Rugh, an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, says the number of family vacations skyrocketed after World War II as gasoline rationing ended and the economy recovered. Veterans made "civic pilgrimages" to places like Washington, D.C., to connect with their common roots. The Ford Motor Company even promoted its sedans as "America's schoolhouse on wheels."

This was hardly luxury travel. "Camping was the perfect solution to vacationing on a tight budget for the family of the young veteran," Rugh writes. Families flocked to the national parks, which had been closed during World War II; by 1956 the parks were overburdened, which made them dangerous both for people and for wild animals. Children, raised on Yogi and Smokey Bears, thought nothing of petting a live one. The park service left the safety and welfare of children to parents, while private park concession operators feared that fencing in nature and making it safe would make the park less appealing -- and less profitable. Not until the 1960s did injuries decline, after the park service began to remove dangerous bears and to fine visitors for feeding them.

Fierce bears may have deterred some travelers, but many other factors encouraged families to hit the road. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the $25 billion Federal-Aid Highway Act authorizing construction of the interstates. Oil company road maps available free at gas stations promoted travel. Rand McNally and the American Automobile Association guides flourished. Gas stations upgraded toilets to appeal to women. Howard Johnson's highway coffee shops expanded, and fast-food restaurants made quick, cheap dining possible. Holiday Inns let children 12 and under stay free.

But as affordable as they might have been for most people, road trips were segregated by race and religion. "Although it may have been the golden age for the white middle-class family on vacation," writes Rugh, "it was hardly a golden age for African American families who had to sleep in their cars after being turned away from motels that refused to rent them rooms, or for Jews who saw signs that read 'Gentiles Only' or 'Clientele Carefully Selected.' " Gas station attendants took black travelers' money but denied them use of restrooms. "The Negro Travelers' Green Book" was the sole travel guide for many years, but accommodation choices were slim; in 1956, only three places in New Hampshire welcomed blacks.

Indeed, a road trip triggered President Lyndon Johnson's support for civil rights, according to Rugh. In the early 1950s, Johnson had asked Gene Williams, the husband of his maid, to drive his beagle from Texas to Washington. The Johnsons would fly. Williams hesitated and then said to Johnson: "We drive for hours and hours. We get hungry. But there's no place on the road we can stop and go in and eat. . . . We keep goin' til night comes . . . it takes another hour or so to find a place to sleep. You see, what I'm saying is that a colored man's got enough trouble getting across the South on his own, without having a dog along."

But even in the era of Jim Crow, African Americans were welcome at Disneyland, where Frontierland "blurred the lines between reality and fantasy" by creating a Western adventure based on television shows and movies. Gunfights were bloodless. Children were protected from the Cold War world in this microcosm of imagined history.

Of course, the kids didn't want to be protected for long. At cabins in Bar Harbor, Maine, and resorts like Grossinger's in the Catskills, they rebelled. "The erotic tensions of family resorts, long veiled by custom and supervised by parents, surfaced and burst as the waves of the sexual revolution washed over the summer resorts," writes Rugh. Remember "Dirty Dancing"? Teens craved sex, not sweet summer romance. Meanwhile, Rugh says, parents' sex lives were cramped. "The dream of taking the whole family on vacation was going sour because togetherness was not an altogether good thing." Experts argued that family vacation was stressful for all, so why go?

We're still piling kids into the car and marching them onto the airplane, but family excursions look very different from in the past. Technology has reinvented how families plan and take vacations; road trips include DVD players, iPods and video games. We never totally escape work -- we feel tied to a BlackBerry or laptop, checking e-mail, sharing digital photos, posting to a blog. Although we get more vacation time than in the past, it may be harder to take. "The most notable change is that vacations have become shorter and more frequent," Rugh writes. But relaxing? "Family vacations are life journeys," she concludes, "and baby boomers are again finding themselves in the backseat." ยท

Sue Kovach Shuman is an associate editor of The Washington Post National Weekly Edition.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company