A few weeks from now, my husband, my daughter and I will leave for our vacation in New London on the Connecticut shore. That visit has become an annual ritual for my daughter, just as it was for me when I was growing up. Ever since 1944, when my grandfather first bought a house at the beach, summers for my family have meant a gathering of aunts, uncles, cousins and assorted friends.
Just as we've always done, we'll pack up bathing suits, golf clubs and the ripening tomatoes from our garden as we head north on I-95. And if this summer is anything like those in the recent past, a few other things will make their way into the trunk as well--my husband's cell phone and fax machine, my laptop computer and a few books that I need to finish reading before the fall semester begins. And we won't be the only family members to bring along vacation equipment of this sort.
Picture for a moment the scene one summer afternoon a year or two ago: A fax was arriving over the phone line, my brother was talking on his cell phone in the living room while a friend was on another cell phone on the front porch, and FedEx was making its daily delivery of paperwork to my husband. One disgruntled cousin shook his head and muttered something that sounded like, "Whatever happened to vacations?"
My cousin's point is well taken. The beach house has had a phone line for as long as I can remember, but, by unanimous consent, we've never had a television there. We've always thought of it as a getaway. We spend the days swimming in Long Island Sound, taking walks along the sea wall, going antiquing. Evenings are the time for long family meals, with plenty of good red wine and conversation, then games of Scrabble or reading books. From many people's point of view, all the high-tech equipment seems like an unwelcome modern intrusion--the antithesis of what vacations should be all about.
Our need to stay in touch with the office is not the fault of modern technology, though. Nor is it just the peculiar habits of the members of one family--a bunch of Type A's, I can hear you saying--who don't know how to relax. I suspect many of you will be taking your pagers and cell phones with you on vacation. And if you're not planning to go that far, I'll bet many of you at least will give your office the number where you can be reached and will probably check your voice mail while you are away. This is not about portable phones and fax machines. It's a very American thing to do. It's about who we are. We work and we play. But we often do it at the same time--and we always have.
It wasn't always so easy to bring work along, of course. But 19th-century vacationers--predominantly members of the middle class--also found it difficult to separate from work. They had inherited a Puritan distrust of idleness, and had created a middle-class sensibility that valued discipline, sobriety and industriousness. Vacations jeopardized the very virtues that made those people who they were. So they invented forms of vacationing with which they could be comfortable--and many of them continue today.
As early as the 1870s, women and children of wealthy American families traveled to vacation homes or resorts, leaving their husbands and fathers behind in the hot city to work. When railroad connections made it possible, men joined their families on weekends.
Wealthy women ensconced in fashionable resorts certainly enjoyed leisure during such vacations. But many less privileged women found themselves cooking and minding children in conditions far more primitive than their city homes. Even when I was a child in that airy New England beach house, there were far fewer modern conveniences than in our middle-class suburban home. Rather than an up-to-date washer and dryer in a convenient laundry room, the beach house had an old fashioned wringer machine in a musty basement and a clothesline in the backyard. A parade of sandy feet made housekeeping a constant challenge. I wonder whether it must sometimes have seemed to my mother and aunts as if it were the men, back in the city, who were really getting a break.
The vacations that Americans take today similarly reflect our long-standing distrust of leisure. We choose worthwhile endeavors that serve as substitutes for work. We feel the need to accomplish or learn something; we use our vacations for self-improvement. And if you try to tell yourself otherwise, think where else you could be when you next stand in a hot, dusty line at Williamsburg to watch a demonstration of barrel making.
The modern vacation industry, savvy about customer demand, offers a range of vacation possibilities that promise to challenge, instruct, condition or enlighten us. We can sign up for a week at the Disney Institute in Florida to learn about animation, gardening or the culinary arts. Even canoeing Disney-style is about more than simply having a good time: "You'll be challenged to improve your wildlife watching skills and canoe talents," the promotional literature boasts.
We can spend time at Canyon Ranch spa wrenching our bodies into shape and learning to eat right. We can accompany erudite specialists on Smithsonian trips to exotic places, or attend wilderness schools with Outward Bound designed to "help people develop self-confidence, compassion and appreciation for selfless service to others, and a lasting relationship with the natural environment." We can return to our alma mater for a week of instruction. Or we can take a cheaper alternative and haul our children to Civil War battlefields or through the National Gallery.
This, too, is nothing new. During the 19th century, middle-class men and women fashioned a range of self-improvement vacations. During the 1870s, Chautauqua in upstate New York became a popular destination. Begun as a training ground for Methodist Sunday School teachers, Chautauqua quickly offered a range of secular courses--history, geography, literature. It also enforced strict rules--prohibiting alcohol and rowdiness of any kind. Vacationers who traveled there could feel not only productive but safe from the vices that tempted those who idled their time at beaches or fashionable summer resorts.
People who objected to the structure or rules of a place like Chautauqua tried another kind of vacation: tourism. In an era when travel was considerably more cumbersome and difficult than it is today, Americans trekked in search of historic sites and natural wonders. They left home not to enjoy frivolous amusement but to add to their stock of knowledge and experience. They traveled to Niagara Falls and Yosemite, to Mount Vernon and Bunker Hill, persuading themselves that their leisure had been spent seeking out and experiencing the best that their country offered--its natural beauty, its technological mastery and its cultural and historical artifacts.
Our love-hate relationship with vacations seems to be a peculiarly American affliction. Compare us to Europeans, who often enjoy between four and six weeks of vacation annually--and seem to have far less trouble simply enjoying themselves. In many countries--from Australia to Belgium--these provisions are written into law.
Up until about 10 years ago, most American companies allowed workers just two weeks of paid vacation a year. Employees with more than five years of seniority sometimes earned an extra week. In recent years, vacation policies have become somewhat more liberal, as employers have recognized that extra days off can be a carrot to attract prospective workers. According to the Hay Group consulting firm, about half of large firms now start employees at three weeks of paid vacation. These vacations are set not by national standards but by company policy or union agreement, and vary from one industry--even one company--to another.
Perhaps it is partly because Americans enjoy vacations not as a right of citizenship, but at the discretion of our employers, that we feel so driven to stay in touch, to inject work into play. Many of us even see being indispensable as a status symbol. Being paged on the golf course or sailboat confirms our importance. Many employers expect to be able to stay in touch with their employees. And businessmen often contact their offices out of fear that their absence will ruin a potential sale or discourage a client.
As a history professor, I can't make those claims. I don't have a boss breathing down my neck during my two weeks at the beach, nor do I have to worry about my clients or the company's productivity. My decision to take along my laptop is about a compulsion to use my leisure time productively--a habit that is far older than the technology I use.
Cindy Aron is a history professor at the University of Virginia. This article is adapted from her recent book, "Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States" (Oxford).
Relax, and Get Busy
Other than the fact that you don't get enough time off, what do you know from vacation trivia?
1. In which country do full-time workers get the most time off?
2. In which large Western superpower are workers given no legally mandated holiday time off?
3. How long is the average paid vacation for a full-time employee of a medium- or large-sized private company in the United States?
4. Whose big idea was it to have paid vacations for America's working classes?
5. When asked to choose between Al Gore and Jesse Ventura, who did a majority of registered voters say they would prefer to spend their summer vacations with?
6. How about Bill Gates or Bill Clinton?
7. What percentage of those asked in a Newsweek survey check their e-mail while they're on vacation?
8. What about their voice mail or telephone answering machines?
9. Who said, "It will be useful also to quit his work often, and take some relaxation, that his judgment may be clearer at his return, for too great application and sitting still is sometimes the cause of many gross errors"?
1. Italy (42 days per year). 2. The United States. 3. 9.6 vacation days (22 days after 30 years' service). 4. Philip G. Hubert Jr. introduced such a plan in 1892 in an article he wrote for Century magazine; American companies instituted paid vacations in the 1920s. 5. Among the 912 registered voters surveyed, Ventura (44 percent) was favored over Gore (22 percent). 6. Gates (41 percent) beat Clinton (31 percent). 7. E-mail: never (39 percent); once or twice (7 percent); several times (2 percent); every day (4 percent). 8. Voice mail/answering machines: never (54 percent); once or twice (15 percent); several times (5 percent); every day (13 percent). 9. Leonardo da Vinci (from "A Treatise on Painting").
Sources: The Hay Group, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Office of Personnel Management, "Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States," Roper poll research