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Friday Procrastion: Beach Bum

Although I’ve been posting to the blog all week I am in sunny Florida relaxing on a beach with my beauitful neice. In honor of family vacations I thought I’d post an exceprt from the introduction to Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States by Cindy S. Aron. Perhaps it will inspire you to go away with your family.

Some of my earliest memories are of the beach. In 1944 my grandfather bought a summer house in Working_at_play
New London on the Connecticut shore. For years thereafter the entire extended family grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—fit, a little tightly, into the seven bedrooms. The women and children remained from mid June until Labor Day. The men came only for the weekends. They drove down from the city on Friday nights, often arriving in time for a swim before dinner, and departed on Sunday nights.

Summers at the beach were wonderful for the children, less so for the adults—especially the women. The beach house was large and airy, but it had far fewer conveniences than our middle class suburban homes. Rather than an up-to-date washer and dryer in a conveniently placed laundry room, the beach house offered an old fashion wringer machine in a very damp and musty basement and a clothesline in the backyard. One and a half bathrooms serviced more than three times as many people as the two and a half bathrooms of our regular houses. A constant parade of sandy feet made housekeeping difficult. And then there were the joys and tensions of living in a multigenerational home containing the elder matriarch, two daughters, one daughter-in-law, and numerous small children.

The last half of the twentieth century is far removed from the last half of the nineteenth, but I can locate the origin of my family’s yearly trek to the beach in the experiences of middle-class vacationers from more than a century ago. Much about my childhood experience differs of course from that of pioneering nineteenth-century vacationers, but some similarities connect us.

On the most basic level, we are connected by place. Where my family’s house sits is about a mile from where a summer hotel, by the mid-1850s, welcomed visitors. Those people were primarily wealthy WASPs who traveled by rail from New York City, and we were a family of Jews from Hartford—the eldest of whom still felt more comfortable speaking Yiddish than English. But the fact that we shared the same place—albeit a century apart—testifies to how customs and habits of vacationing endured even as the nature of the vacationing public changed. When my father and uncles arrived late on Friday and left on Sunday night they too were participating in a ritual begun by men a century earlier. By the early 1870s men were depositing their wives and children at resorts and summer homes and returning to their work in the hot city.

What links my family’s vacation experiences to a longer history is, perhaps most importantly, the other functions that summers at the beach served. For the last fifty years the family beach house has offered more than a place to relax. It brought generations together, allowing American grandchildren to know their immigrant grandparents far more intimately than they otherwise would have. At the beach house we found marriage partners, birthed children, mourned deaths, celebrated birthdays, and cemented family ties. If vacations provided my family the opportunity to engage in such important social and cultural work, what functions—both real and symbolic might vacations have served as they became an integral part of the American landscape?

Think, for a moment, of the range of vacations that we indulge in today: the grueling week-long backpacking trek, the trip to Disney World, the quiet week at a rented seashore cottage, the European tour, the hunting and camping expedition, the splurge at a posh resort, the visit to relatives in another part of the country, the golfing holiday, the road trip in the Winnebago, the time at a health spa. Vacations announce much about the vacationer—not only class status and economic standing, but personal aspirations and private goals. More than just yearly rituals in which we connect with friends and family, vacations are also exercises in self-definition. In affording time away from the demands of everyday life, vacations disclose what people choose to do rather than are required to do.

But, of course, such choices are never entirely free. Cultural directives, social constraints, and economic limitations influence even our most liberating experiences. So too in the past. The history of vacations reveals a constant tension between the desires and needs of would-be vacationers and what the culture, at any specific moment, determined acceptable. It is, indeed, his tension that informs and shapes the history that follows.

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