A HISTORY OF VACATIONS Are We There Yet? Volume I Issue 6
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Are We There Yet?

Volume I Issue 6

The Evolution of the Reason for Vacations

As previously mentioned, the idea of taking time off from work was an anathema to the pre Mid-Eighteenth Century population. But as time and ideas shifted more and more toward the idea of vacations, weekend getaways and summer travel, the very reasons for such a departure from previous thinking had to evolve from a more logical response to this urge into today’s reason of a break from work for relaxation and enjoyment.

Child Driven (needed at home, time off from school for various reasons).

Interestingly, when this discussion is completed, we will see that Child Driven vacations will complete the circle – from the first to the last of the reasons for vacations.

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 pre-industrial 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. And unlike today’s trend of vacation packages and deals, and family vacations to faraway destinations, these getaways involved the children simply going home.

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 day’s 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. By this is meant they felt that a summer spent away from familiar surroundings, but involving some other destinations (such as a farm for city dwellers and perhaps a seashore for farm children).

Breaking from the History of Vacations in America briefly, 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.

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