Vacations and Resorts

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In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, few Americans actually "vacationed" in the modern sense of the word. Only the wealthy enjoyed leisure trips away from home. Most extended visits were to family and friends, but those did not offer the same sort of excitement and adventure nor confer as much social status as summer trips to fashionable resorts. Mountain and beach resorts, difficult to reach in this era and therefore expensive, attracted elite families from across the country. For weeks and even months at a time, the upper classes gathered at these exclusive spots for socializing and recreation. Though everyone had his or her own favorite, Saratoga Springs in New York, the Virginia Springs in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the seashores of Newport, Rhode Island, and Cape May, New Jersey, were especially popular.

From the mid-1700s through the 1800s, the search for health combined with the search for pleasure led hundreds and eventually thousands of elite men and women over the mountains or to the seashores to resorts that offered healthful and entertaining escapes from the heat, diseases, and boredom of plantations, farms, and cities. While many men and women visited these areas seeking cures, most traveled to them to enjoy the company of people like themselves, maintain their good health, and participate in an array of leisure and social activities. At the Virginia Springs and Saratoga Springs, visitors, even those who were not sick, daily drank and bathed in mineral waters that supposedly cured or prevented illness. Ocean bathing served the same purpose at Newport and Cape May. But always more alluring were the parties, balls, excursions, picnics, card games, sporting events, and, especially, the gossiping and courting that took place in the dining rooms or ballrooms, on the lawns, or at the bathhouses. To see and be seen, to watch and participate in the scenes of fashionable display was often the real draw of these resorts. A great deal of social status and reputation could be won (or lost) during a summer's stay.

While at these leisure places, elite Americans (as well as their servants) came together from across the nation and learned more about each other. They shared political and business information as well as social gossip. Politicians solidified support; planters and merchants discussed prices and made deals; and society matrons guarded the behavior of their class. Close ties of friendship also formed, especially among women, and were reaffirmed whenever visitors met again. Indeed, many of the connections begun at resorts continued once the travelers returned to their homes. Because of their presumed exclusivity, the fashionable resorts, especially Saratoga Springs in the North and the Virginia Springs in the South, also became the premier places for finding a spouse, at times joining couples from different regions of the country. These places of resort did unite their visitors, creating cross-country ties and fostering a sense of national identity at crucial times of nation building. But, increasingly over time, they could also divide their guests, reinforcing sectionalism and regional identities. At the Virginia Springs, for example, southerners established the social rules for fashion and behavior, threw most of the parties, and, in general, held sway. They readily accepted northerners into their social circles, at least until 1830 when sectional tensions intensified, but they never permitted them to set or enforce the rules of spa society. Though fashionable mountain and seaside resorts helped create a national elite by bringing wealthy and influential Americans together regularly in these places of leisure and beauty and by encouraging communal ties, the resorts would prove unable to hold this elite together.

See alsoRecreation, Sports, and Games; Travel Guides and Accounts; Wealth .


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

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

Lewis, Charlene Boyer. Ladies and Gentlemen on Display: Planter Society at the Virginia Springs, 1790–1860. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.

Charlene M. Boyer Lewis