Summer Resorts

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The first American resorts appeared in the late eighteenth century. Located primarily around springs or by the seashore, these watering places attracted elite folks in search of health-restorative waters or salubrious air. South Carolina planters, for example, traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, in the hopes of escaping the heat and disease of their plantations while politicians left Washington, D.C., for Berkeley Springs, Virginia. The difficulty of travel limited the number of visitors; the few resorts were generally wanting in the way of luxuries or amenities.

The Rise of Summer Resorts

The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed a significant increase in the size of the vacationing public and, consequently, in the number of vacation resorts. Seashores, springs, and mountains began receiving guests. Wealthy urban northerners came to escape the scourges of cholera and yellow fever that swept through cities in the summer, and rich southern planters came fleeing the heat, humidity, and disease that plagued their plantations.

People were also intent upon seeking to improve their health. Nineteenth-century medical opinion held that drinking mineral waters could cure a vast array of illnesses—gastrointestinal problems, respiratory infections, skin eruptions—and that a change of climate could mitigate or heal diseases as varied as gout, consumption, and rheumatism. Recuperation and restoration, thus, motivated many of those who found their way to the early American resorts—places like Balston Spa and Saratoga Springs in New York, Newport in Rhode Island, Cape May in New Jersey, and White Sulphur Springs in Virginia.

Not all visitors were invalids or ailing, however, and even those in search of health needed amusement during their stay. Since travel was difficult—especially to inland springs—many who made the arduous journey chose to remain for the season. Resort owners learned quickly to cater to clients who hoped to combine recreation with recuperation. Health resorts could and did serve equally well as pleasure spots where guests indulged in a variety of activities—some gender-specific but most available to both women and men. Billiards, for example, quickly became a staple of resort life—but only for men. Men also gambled, often at cards. Women and men both enjoyed bathing in salt or mineral waters (although they usually did so at separate times) and both played together at nine pins—or bowling. During the evenings some guests got up games of charades or tableaux vivants (a game in which participants would dress as historical characters or mythological figures and would pose for an audience, presenting themselves as a painting or piece of art), but evenings were primarily devoted to balls or dances. These events encouraged courting, another important amusement for which watering places quickly became known. Resorts, even those initially renowned for their health-giving possibilities, offered arenas for men and women to meet, socialize, play, and sometimes find mates. The entertainment available at early nineteenth-century resorts befitted the class and status of the clientele. Guests were, for the most part, genteel people pursuing genteel pleasures. Only the elite, after all, had the time and the wherewithal to frequent resorts during the first half of the century.

Beginning in the 1850s and only temporarily interrupted by the Civil War, the growth of summer resorts proceeded especially rapidly in the three decades after 1870. The vacationing public expanded as members of an emerging white-collar and professional middle class found themselves the beneficiaries of a designated period of paid vacation. As these growing numbers of vacationers demanded more resorts, savvy entrepreneurs did what they could to accommodate. Railroads played a critical role in fueling the expansion of summer resorts, feeding this new industry in a variety of ways. First, the railroads offered an efficient means of getting visitors to their resort destinations. Trips that in the antebellum period had taken days could by the 1870s be accomplished in hours. Railroads in many cases also provided the capital to build resorts as well as the advertisements to lure visitors there. Supply and demand worked in tandem, making summer resorts more prevalent and more visible in the American landscape. Along the coasts, in the mountains, near river and lakes—resorts appeared throughout the country. No one region claimed a monopoly.

Postbellum resorts varied widely—in size, cost, location, clientele. Some resorts were small towns that swelled to crowded, mini-metropolises during the summer season—places like Cape May, Atlantic City, and Saratoga Springs. Other resorts, like the Catskill Mountain House and White Sulphur Springs, presented a rural demeanor. The more fashionable resorts were usually large, pricey, and known to attract a well-to-do, fashionable clientele. Bustling crowds, often promenading in fancy dress, filled the streets and piazzas of fashionable resorts. Visitors to less-celebrated spots reported calmer surroundings and relaxed, easygoing days. Both fashionable and quieter resorts, however, provided some of the same sorts of amusements: Seaside resorts offered swimming; mountain resorts touted the pleasures of country walks, hikes, and rides; inland springs added bathing to the pleasures of strolling or riding either through town or countryside; lakes tendered the possibilities of fishing and sailing. Nearly all vacation spots had facilities for bowling, billiards, and croquet. Guests at most resorts spent time lolling or loitering on the porches of hotels, chatting with friends, making new acquaintances, napping, and eating. By the end of the nineteenth century more visitors were engaging in active sports and games—lawn tennis, golf, swimming matches, bicycle races. Like in the early part of the century, vacationers at resorts looked forward to evenings spent at dances and balls, where flirting and courting were primary forms of entertainment.

Women and Summer Resorts

Summer resorts provided middle-class women with a significantly wider range of amusements and pleasures than normally available to them in the postbellum United States. At a time when middle-class cultural norms dictated a restricted range of activities for women and warned about the dangers of "promiscuous" (meaning mixed gender) entertainment, women at summer resorts participated in a variety of recreational activities, usually in the company of, or even in competition with, men.

Women not only played croquet, nine pins, and tennis, but occasionally even amused themselves at the billiard table; by the turn of the century, they were finding their way onto the golf course. They also fished in lakes and frolicked in the ocean, took strenuous hikes in the mountains, and, perhaps most shockingly, flirted with strangers at dances and balls.

Alternatives to Regular Summer Resorts

As the resort culture grew and expanded, some began to fear that resorts were offering guests an environment too beset with sinful temptations—opportunities for drink, gambling, and sexual encounters. As a result, throughout the last half of the nineteenth century institutions took shape that provided the middle-class vacationing public with alternatives to regular summer resorts. Some began as Protestant (predominantly Methodist) camp meetings and grew to be religious resorts where vacationers could be protected from some of the potential dangers of resort life. Wesleyan Grove on Martha's Vineyard, Ocean Grove in New Jersey, and Rehoboth Beach on the Delaware shore all started as camp meetings and became established summer resorts by the 1870s. Although Methodists controlled most religious resorts, members of other denominations made occasional efforts in the same direction. Christian resorts established rules that differentiated them from other summer vacation sites. Some prohibited dancing and gambling; others banned tobacco and card playing. Uniformly, however, they forbade the drinking of alcohol and did their best to proscribe amusements of any kind on the Sabbath.

While religious resorts primarily focused on preventing immorality, other sorts of resorts adopted a curriculum aimed at self-improvement. Chautauqua, founded in 1874 and located in western New York, offered vacationers a unique resort experience. Guests could indulge in a variety of amusements—fishing, boating, swimming, tennis, croquet, and baseball during the day, fireworks and concerts in the evenings—as well as engaging in serious educational endeavors. Chautauqua hired prominent educators and intellectuals who gave courses and lectures in philosophy, religion, economics, art, and literature. Like Christian resorts, Chautauqua kept a fairly tight reign on its guests, interdicting liquor and refusing people entrance on the Sabbath. Regardless, Chautauqua was enormously popular and spread geographically. Within a decade of its founding there were thirty Chautauquas offering people from California to Maryland and from Minnesota to Texas access to a summer resort where they could mix education and recreation.

Discrimination at Summer Resorts

Most American resorts welcomed only white visitors. By the early twentieth century some vacation sites—Atlantic City, Niagara Falls, Cape May—accommodated African Americans in segregated boarding houses or hotels. But racist incidents often plagued black visitors, motivating some to build and frequent their own, separate vacation communities. Some succeeded better than others. An African American resort built at West Baden, Indiana, in 1908 was, by 1916, suffering. But the early twentieth century witnessed the beginnings of what would become enduring black resort communities. Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, Highland Beach on the Chesapeake Bay, Sag Harbor on Long Island, American Beach in Florida, and Idlewild in Michigan all survived to serve generations of vacationing African Americans.

Like blacks, Jews also faced exclusion from turn-of-the-century resorts. Some resorts advertised openly that "Hebrews need not apply"; others used more subtle means to discourage Jewish clients. As a result, Jews—again, like blacks—established their own resorts, often in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where they could attract New York City's large Jewish population. Fleischmann's, one of the earliest, was catering to well-to-do Jews by the 1890s.

The Working Class and Summer Resorts

In the decades between World War I and World War II, a growing number of working-class Americans found themselves able to enjoy the pleasures of a short vacation and the resort industry grew and changed to accommodate these new vacationers. Resorts that provided low-cost cottages or campsites sprang up around lakes or near the seashore. At the same time, places like Atlantic City began offering more overnight accommodations to people of limited means. While hotels at these resorts continued to welcome both the rich and the middle class, cheaper boarding houses catered to a socially and ethnically diverse crowd. Thus, the process of democratization that had begun as mid-nineteenth-century resorts began to attract a middle-class clientele continued throughout the twentieth century as more members of the working class made their claim to time spent at a summer resort.

See also: Beaches, Early National Leisure and Recreation, Gilded Age Leisure and Recreation, Leisure Class, Tourism, Vacations


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

Brown, Dona. Inventing New England: Regional Tourism in the Nineteenth Century. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

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

Irwin, William. The New Niagara: Tourism, Technology, and the Landscape of Niagara Falls, 1776–1917. State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

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

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

Cindy S. Aron