University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

The American Vacation: Travel Is Not Just for the Wealthy

Image: “Yellowstone National Park, Ranger Naturalist Service,” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest cure and exercise treatments for neurasthenia changed the way Americans thought about leisure and travel.

Winslow Homer

Image: “Two Are Company, Three Are None,” by Winslow Homer, 1872.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By the 1850s – 1870s, wealthy Americans were already accustomed to leaving hot, unhealthy cities for weeks or months in the mountains or by the sea. Wives and children would retreat during the hot months, and the men of the family would join them whenever business or professional affairs allowed. This move was seen as necessary for health – to remove the family from yellow fever, malaria, and other diseases associated with hot, humid climates and crowded cities.


But Americans were uneasy about time away from work. Americans worked prodigiously and disapproved of idleness, and there was no concept of “vacation.” In contrast to the rest of the world, even the wealthy were expected to work, if not in business then in improving society and the lives of their fellow citizens. Time spent “doing nothing” seemed morally and socially suspect.


Neurasthenia treatments changed Americans’ ideas about leisure. Physicians instructed their neurasthenia patients to rest and retreat from the duties of everyday life. The fast pace of modern life and the clamor of cities were considered major causes of nervous exhaustion. Therefore, even healthy people needed to “get away from it all” to recharge their nerve force and maintain good health.

Originally, neurasthenic patients had been almost wholly from the wealthy elite, who could afford rest cures. But the diagnosis expanded to include more people, and the American middle class wanted the same health advantages as the wealthy. From the 1880s onward, more and more people traveled to mountains, forests, lakes, and the seashore to spend leisure time in hotels, boarding houses, or even camping. By the early 1900s, the wealthy were raising money to send the wives and children of the working class to the mountains or seashore for their health.

Soon, mountain lodges such as those at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, or seaside hotels such as Hotel Hygeia near Hampton, Virginia, or those at Atlantic City or Cape May, New Jersey, welcomed trainloads of middle class Americans who came to restore their nerves and keep up their health. The guests ate healthful, simple meals, went walking and horseback riding, and spent restful hours on wide verandas reading and talking.

The American vacation had arrived.

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Notice: This exhibit was created by Normajean N. Hultman, Historical Collections Assistant. For permission to reproduce any of the text or those images owned by Historical Collections and Services or to make comments or suggestions, please contact a member of Historical Collections.