Vacations in the Early 20th Century: Affluent Cottages to a Day at the Beach

Beechwood, the Newport, Rhode Island, "cottage" of John Jacob Astor

Vacations in the Early 20th Century: Affluent Cottages to a Day at the Beach

Summer vacation is something most of us look forward to every year. It’s a time to get away, relax, see new places and do new things.  But have you ever stopped to think what vacations were like in past centuries? Did you realize that there was a time when people did not vacation?

Leisure Time Becomes Acceptable

Beechwood, the Newport, Rhode Island, "cottage" of John Jacob Astor
Beechwood, the Newport, Rhode Island, “cottage” of John Jacob Astor

The word vacation originated in the Middle Ages. It was related to the word “vacate” and meant freedom from something. It wasn’t until modern times that it came to mean freedom from work.

Prior to the mid-19th century, few people took vacations.  The idea of taking time off if you lived on a farm, for example, was unthinkable because it was impractical. Paid time off was not something offered by employers either, so the notion of taking time off to travel for fun wouldn’t have crossed most people’s minds.

In addition, religious leaders and society frowned on leisure as being frivolous and unnecessary.

The Affluent Summer Home

A group of women pose in front of a tent
Camping in the early 20th century

In the early 20th century, the wealthy abandoned their homes in the city and took up residence in summer homes. In places like Newport, Rhode Island, the wealthy built what they called cottages. Today, we would call them mansions. They contained dozens of rooms and were run by large staffs of servants.

The wealthy also traveled to resorts in the wilderness where they pretended to rough it.

The Middle Class Week Away

The boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey, early 20th century
The boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey, early 20th century

The middle class couldn’t afford to leave the city all summer, but they could afford to get away for a week.

The construction of railroad lines made access to faraway spots possible during a short time frame.

Popular destinations included mountain hotels, islands, beach resorts, and national parks.

The Working Class Day Off

The working class, if they were lucky, could afford to take a day off. Usually they saved all year for this break.  Popular day trips included amusement parks and beaches.

Want to learn more about summer around the turn of the 20th century?  Visit my Pinterest board Summer Vacation: 1890-1920.

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Updated:  22 October 2020
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.

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