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By 1870 vacation and travel destinations where visitors could enjoy the pleasures of time away from work and home had become an established part of American life. Though resorts varied in size, cost, and variety of entertainments offered, their numbers grew exponentially as the size of America's vacationing public expanded. While the elite had been "taking the waters" for both health and amusement at resorts such as White Sulphur Springs, Virginia; Newport, Rhode Island; Long Branch, New Jersey; and Saratoga Springs, New York, since the eighteenth century, many historians argue that as early as the 1820s, members of the emerging middle class were touring New York State's Hudson River Valley, Ballston Spa, and the Lake Champlain and Niagara Falls regions.

With the rapid expansion of the middle class, as businesses required increasing numbers of white-collar workers, the demand for vacation accommodations for this group fueled development. No longer primarily the province of the elite, resorts by the 1870s catered to a middle class who had come to view summer vacations as a necessity. Newspapers and magazines depicted resorts as destinations that offered businessmen rest and rejuvenation from their constant "brain work" and relieved their families of the swelter of summers in the city. Yearly visits to resorts by this time had become a marker of middle-class life and identity, and the period between 1850 and 1900 saw a vast development of such facilities, which sprang up along lakes and the seashore, in the mountains and countryside of all regions. While newspaper society columns continued charting the movements of the rich and famous at the fashionable eastern resorts such as Saratoga, Long Branch, and Newport, more affordable resorts were in such demand that any small village along a rail line could market its location as a summer travel destination.

Historians studying resorts in the United States note their importance as locations for carving out social class identity. Thomas Chambers, for example, investigates early resorts, contending that mineral springs resorts were sites where the "nation's social and political leaders experimented with the idea that they formed a coherent culture and an elite class" (p. xiii). Cindy Aron's history of vacationing in the United States, though not restricted to resorts, shows how resorts began as locations for the elite but later appealed to first a middle-class and then, by the first decades of the twentieth century, working-class clientele. The tension between leisure and work, particularly middle-class anxiety about the morally dangerous aspects of leisure, is central to her study. Jon Sterngass, examining Saratoga Springs, New York; Newport, Rhode Island; and Coney Island, New York, traces the shift in resorts' cultural meanings during the nineteenth century; he argues that while early in the century resorts functioned as places where visitors could act out behaviors not indulged in everyday life, by the end of the century they had become a commodity, marketed to consumers at different social and economic levels of society. Theodore Corbett, using Saratoga Springs as his prime example, argues that a resort's success depended upon the hosts (i.e., developers) who created the attractions "that would appeal to the broadest respectable public" (p. 11).

Novels of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century bear out interpretations focused on social class. In 1873, for example, Mark Twain (1835–1910) and Charles Dudley Warner (1829–1911) caricatured in The Gilded Age gradations of American society, depicting Newport as the resort of choice of society's highest tier. Though one of the characters admits that Newport is damp, cold, windy, and disagreeable, she insists that it is the only acceptable choice because it is "select." William Dean Howells (1837–1920) was particularly interested in the resort as a place where the so-called respectable classes might commingle and where members of the middle class might edge upward through contact with the more elite. In Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), his nouveau riche character Dryfoos sends his daughters to Saratoga because it was known for fashion, but their lack of refinement prevents them from establishing alliances there.


Saratoga Springs lay two hundred miles inland from New York City and grew up around sets of springs that in the late eighteenth century began to attract visitors. Gideon Putnam's opening of a three-story tavern in the first decade of the nineteenth century and his subsequent development of a grandiose village with tree-lined streets leading to public fountains made the village an attractive vacation destination, and by 1870 ten grand hotels lined its main thoroughfare, each offering the amenities and amusements expected of a fashionable resort hotel. Between three of them—the Grand Union, United States Hotel, and Congress Hall—five thousand guests could stay at any one time. Amusements at Saratoga changed somewhat over the course of the nineteenth century, although a given of the experience remained the stroll to Congress Spring where a dipper boy offered guests tumblers of mineral water. Sought out for its health-giving powers, Congress Spring waters had become available throughout the United States in 1820 in the form of Congress Water, which was bottled at a plant owned by John Clark. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, water bars throughout the resort served tumblers of the famous drink, and visitors partook several times a day. Morning and afternoon promenades encouraged a display of fashionable attire as visitors came "to see and be seen," and the round of activities—the dances and concerts, the day trips to Glens Falls or Lake George or the Indian encampments that offered tourists a momentary glance at Native American life—each required a change of costume. After the British writer and aesthete Oscar Wilde visited Saratoga in 1882, a period of male dandyism commenced, as exemplified in the legendary forty changes of costume completed in one day by Evander Berry Wall. Overdressing remained synonymous with a stay at Saratoga, and this emphasis on fashion was satirized by Marietta Holley in her 1887 best-selling novel Samantha at Saratoga; or, Racin' after Fashion by Josiah Allen's Wife. The period after 1870 also saw added emphasis on gambling, shopping, and commercial entertainments. John Morrissey, who had opened Saratoga's first gaming house in 1862, initiated the development of a race course, and during the second half of the century, women and men alike were enjoying betting on the races. Minstrels, theatricals, panoramas, lantern slide lectures, Swiss bell ringers, tableaux vivants, and circus acts are but a few of the diverse amusements that made life at Saratoga a frenzied round of activities and the quintessential resort experience.


The most exclusive of all U.S. resorts, Newport, Rhode Island, had since the eighteenth century catered to an exclusive clientele. Whereas Saratoga's popularity and capacity to accommodate visitors escalated throughout the nineteenth century, Newport reached its zenith as a summer haven for fashionable multitudes before the 1860s. Henry James, who lived in Newport from 1858 to 1864, wrote in 1870 comparing what he disparagingly called Saratoga's "democratization of elegance" to the "substantial and civilized" Newport (Sterngass, p. 182). By the 1870s Newport's grand hotels had closed or were closing, and private "cottages"—the mansions and villas of America's wealthiest class—were on the rise. Newport's shift from hotel culture to a private and distanced exclusivity is the focus of Charles Dudley Warner's novel Their Pilgrimage (1886). His protagonist bungles his efforts at social climbing when he finds himself walking with butlers and maids on his Sunday stroll along the Cliff Walk. The period of privatization brought Newport mansions such as William K. Vanderbilt's $11 million Marble House or the even more ostentatious The Breakers, commissioned by Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Homes such as these became the stages for extravagant private parties, ornate balls, and performances; in the fiction of Edith Wharton they became models for the homes of the elite who people the pages of novels such as The House of Mirth (1905).


Like its rivals, Long Branch, located on the seashore of New Jersey, began in the late 1700s, attracting wealthy visitors who came in pursuit of health and relaxation. By the 1870s it was more popular than either Saratoga or Newport, but popularity tended to preclude the exclusiveness enjoyed by its competitors. Enjoying its distinction as Summer Capitol or Summer White House, Long Branch served as headquarters for the U.S. presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, Chester A. Arthur, William McKinley, and Woodrow Wilson and as backdrop for the passing of the wounded president James A. Garfield.

At its zenith during the 1880s and 1890s, Long Branch was the resort of choice of actresses Lillie Langtry, Lillian Russell, and Fanny Davenport, and they, along with its magnificent hotels and attractions such as the Monmouth Park racetrack and Hoey's Gardens, attracted huge summer crowds. Sundays brought an additional twenty thousand day-trippers, who came to bathe and to watch the parade of fine carriages conducting the famous and fashionable down Ocean Avenue. After antigambling legislation closed Monmouth Park, the other racetracks, and the gaming clubs, Saratoga won back the fashionable set, and though the crowds remained through the 1910s, they came more for rest and relaxation than for the luxurious gaiety that marked its triumph just decades before.


Coney Island developed later than the other early resorts, but its proximity to New York and Brooklyn allowed it to emerge in the late 1870s as the "people's playground," where the urban working class could travel for a day's pleasure at the beach bathing or strolling amid the dime museums, shooting galleries, carousels, bandstands, and racetracks. By 1879, nine steamboat lines and 250 trains daily served the island. Summer railway travel averaged 23,000 on weekdays and 100,000 on Sundays. Although Coney Island was unique in that from the start it attracted working-class patrons, an 1878 Harper's Weekly article deemed it the best of American seaside resorts, a "playground where rich and poor alike may take their pleasure" (Sterngass, p. 105).

Although people of all social classes were attracted by Coney's mass entertainment offerings, stratification of these groups followed a distinctly geographic path east to west. The wealthy frequented Manhattan Beach on the island's eastern end, staying at two of the resorts grand hotels—the Manhattan Beach Hotel and the Oriental Hotel. Here they enjoyed pyrotechnic spectacles and panoramas of historical events within a ten-thousand-seat fireworks arena, hot air balloon rides, and concerts featuring celebrity conductors. Not more than three quarters of a mile west of the elite zone, Brighton Beach offered Coney's third grand hotel, which appealed to the middle class. Pavilions, bath-houses, and attractions such as the Seaside Aquarium, with its zoological garden, aviary, music hall, and collection of sea creatures in tanks, or the three-hundred-foot-high observatory, the Iron Tower, which had acted as centerpiece of the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, made Brighton Beach a favored destination for middle-class vacationers. West Brighton's amusement district, replete with rides, lights, catchpenny attractions, and curiosities of all sorts, attracted both middle-class travelers and working-class daytrippers, the latter of whom, according to an 1889 Harper's Weekly article, formed "a motley throng. . . . The struggling many, who here find their only summer outing" (Immerso, pp. 41–42). Finally, Norton's Point at the west end of the island was resort of the underclasses. While stratified, these areas had quite permeable boundaries, and reformers of the late nineteenth century wrote of Coney as a thoroughly democratic environment where the mingling of classes would benefit all.

Resorts played a major role in establishing the vacation as an institution of twentieth- and twenty-first-century life. Fashionable resorts lent their green lawns and grand hotels as backdrops first for the elite and the middle class to work out social class identities, while the less-fashionable resorts made their marks as early vacation spots for an ever broadening spectrum of visitors. Though the glory days of the grand resort have passed, their legacy remains in those cherished weeks away—the vacation—which have become so much a part of American culture.

See alsoHealth and Medicine; Wealth


Primary Works

Brownell, William. "Newport." Scribner's (August 1894): 142–143.

Creedmore, Walter. "The Real Coney Island." Munsey's (August 1899): 746.

Sweeney, Beatrice. The Grand Union Hotel: A Memorial and a Lament. Saratoga Springs, N.Y.: Historical Society, 1982.

"Where Life Is Like a Story: Fashionable Summer Life at Gay Newport." Ladies Home Journal (August 1890): 2.

Secondary Works

Aron, Cindy S. Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Chambers, Thomas A. Drinking the Waters: Creating an American Leisure Class at Nineteenth-Century Mineral Springs. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.

Corbett, Theodore. The Making of American Resorts: Saratoga Springs, Ballston Spa, and Lake George. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Immerso, Michael. Coney Island: The People's Playground. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

Sterngass, Jon. First Resorts: Pursuing Pleasure at Saratoga Springs, Newport, and Coney Island. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Carolyn L. Mathews

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