Where did summer vacation come from?

Monday, August 14th, 2017

Where did summer vacation come from?

In 1869, a charismatic preacher named William H. H. Murray published a guide to the rugged Adirondacks of upstate New York, extolling them as an antidote to the enervating effects of modern life. He wrote of his desire to “encourage manly exercise in the open air, and familiarity with Nature in her wildest and grandest aspects.”  Murray spoke of how city dwellers weighed down by work emerged from the northern woods revived and bursting with health.

The book was an immediate bestseller, going through numerous printings. In 1869, hordes of tourists dubbed “Murray’s Fools” arrived in the Adirondacks via a new railway line, only to find themselves beset by flies, alarmed by deer tracks, and otherwise flummoxed by life in the great outdoors. The press had a field day with Murray, but the good preacher persisted, and each year, more and more Americans arrived in the mountains.

The massive expansion of railroads opened this and many other locales to white-collar workers seeking a place to spend some time away from the stress of modern life, even if they sometimes made leisure a form of work. Many of today’s favorite summer destinations – the Great Lakes, the White Mountains, the Jersey Shore, the coast of Maine – all began as vacation meccas at this time.

But when parents contemplated bringing the kids, they immediately ran into a serious problem. At this time, schools followed one of two calendars, neither of which was compatible with the idea of summer vacation.  In rural areas, schools opened their doors in the winter and the summer, but closed their doors in the spring and fall, when parents needed children to help out on farms with planting and harvesting. Cities, by contrast, remained open all year. Neither system was conducive to bringing the kids on summer vacation.

But it was precisely this same era that school reformers began voicing the same concerns about “brain work” that doctors had raised about adults. Horace Mann, arguably the most influential school reformer of the 19th century, wrote with conviction that “health itself is destroyed by overstimulating the mind.” Likewise, the Pennsylvania School Journal voiced anxiety that because children spent too much time in school, they were “growing up puny, lank, pallid, emaciated, round-shouldered [and] thin-breasted, all because they were kept at study too long.”

In cities, this argument had particular resonance, no doubt because poorly ventilated, sweltering classrooms were miserable for students and teachers alike. In rural areas studied by Kenneth Gold, a historian at the City University of New York, education reformers began pushing to revamp the school calendar, as well, creating the now standard school calendar.

In truth, much of the impetus for the shift likely came from the teachers themselves, who had by this time organized themselves.  They pushed for summer vacation because, well, they wanted a break. As one reformer arguing against year-round schooling noted: “Teachers need a summer vacation more than bad boys need a whipping.”


  1. Bomag says:

    With today’s internet/social media, is today’s classic K-12 adding value? I recall a study where professional educators couldn’t tell the difference between graduates and drop-outs.

    We could, at least, spend less on the thing.

  2. Faze says:

    Bomag: I’m assuming that school is one of those 80 % of social interventions that have no effect. And that being the case, I am totally outraged that our local school system starts the school year on August 20th! It’s child abuse to make a kid sit in a classroom, or any kind of room at the end of summer. School should start in October, if at all.

  3. Bomag says:

    School should start in October, if at all.

    Yeah, a shorter school year would be a step.

    Some local public schools around here have gone to a four-day week.

  4. David Foster says:

    Re starting school in August, see my post Six Hundred Million Years in K-12


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