Summer vacations were an invention of the wealthy in the 19th century ‹ Literary Center

What we think of as summer is truly a human invention. In this country, the idea of ​​vacation – to take time off from work, to go somewhere to protect yourself from the heat – appeared only in the 19th century, and it was first adopted by people who didn’t work that hard to begin with. It was the wealthy who, especially in the Golden Age, began to ritualize summer, traveling by steamboat or train to resort hotels, those huge wooden layer cakes, which began to sprout all over the east coast.

And it was the rich – or the super-rich, in fact – who started building their own summer spots: “camps” in the Adirondacks, twenty-thousand-square-foot “cottages” on the cliffs of Newport. Workers had no holidays, and farmers in particular were busiest during the hot summer months. The schools let the children out during the summer not so that they were idle or because the teacher needed a break, but so that they could help in the fields.

Summer didn’t have to be idle. Some of the earliest campsites, such as Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard or Ocean Grove, New Jersey, had a religious component; others, notably Chautauqua in western New York, were founded on the idea of ​​self-improvement, both moral and physical. But the big resorts had an air of exclusivity: you went there to be among people like yourself. Exactly what people were doing in these places is – to me, anyway – a bit of a mystery.

Swimming was not a particularly popular activity in the late 19th century, especially for women, who had to wear bathing suits so bulky and concealed that, when wet, they practically dragged the swimmer underneath. There would have been sailing and golf of course.

Around 1890, golf became something of a national craze among the wealthy in America, and country clubs sprang up everywhere. I also assume that then, as now, there was more sex in the summer than the rest of the year. But in the novels of the time — I am thinking of Henry James and Edith Wharton — there is hardly any mention of such activities.

What people mostly did was walk around and wait for the next meal, a bit like people in nursing homes: breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner. They also changed a lot of clothes and talked to each other all the time. Some of these large, old resort towns still exist, and visiting one – Pinehurst, for example, in North Carolina, or The Balsams in New Hampshire – is a bit like visiting an old cathedral, a monument to an ancient system of beliefs.

They all have long verandas for strolling, dozing or smoking cigars, and huge dining rooms, the chapels, so to speak. A string quartet might hum at one end, or a pianist tinkle something harmless, while squads of uniformed waiters carry dish after dish: terrapin, scrim, salmon, turbot, roast veal and beef, followed by jellies and aspics so popular then. Lots of wine if you wanted it, and surely many did: they must have been stupidly bored.

Many things have accelerated the decline of this summer resort culture, including its own unnecessary extravagance. But what pretty much ended it for good, save for a few big holdouts, now resembling 19th century theme parks, was the advent of the automobile, which allowed people to go where they wanted, not where the railroads took them, and, especially after the war, allowed middle-class families to enjoy their own summer spaces.

Instead of the large hotel with a veranda, there was the Motor Court, a small cluster of roadside cabins, and, increasingly, the family residence, the seaside house, the small cabin on the lake . Every year, for two weeks or a month, they offer families, young and old, a typically American escape, a chance to reinvent themselves: walk barefoot, gaze at the stars, read the books we’ve always hoped for, and become the person – freer, easier, more tanned, leaner – that you were always meant to be. If you’re like me, summer memories pile up in no particular order.

A quintessentially American escape: a chance to reinvent yourself: walk barefoot, gaze at the stars, read the books you’ve always hoped for…

Endless car rides, your thighs glued to the pale green vinyl of the backseat, where your brother crossed the invisible border halfway and now, despite your father’s cry, “Stop, you two”, requires a firm disciplinary kick to the shin. Boules and barbecues, fireworks and fireflies. Also mosquito bites, poison ivy and sometimes – if your ice cream vendor was as irresponsible as ours, letting his wares thaw and refreeze – ptomaine poisoning.

One summer, I vomited twenty-seven times in a row. And let’s not forget the sunburn. Before anyone knew about skin cancer, you could fry yourself in the midday glow, then stagger inside, lobster red and so hot you’d shiver. At night, the touch of a sheet on your bare back was almost unbearable. But then, within days, you had to peel the skin off your shoulders, long strips lifting like wax paper from a roll — a process so satisfying it was like breaking out of its own cocoon.

For many people, summer is tied to a particular place. That mothbally-smelling rental cottage your family took every year for the last two weeks of July, the one with the holey mosquito nets, fly paper in the kitchen, scary stains on the blue mattresses. Your old summer camp, the one with color wars, ghost stories around a campfire, and the teenage counselors, divine in their wisdom and experience, who taught you how to cover the new kids’ beds . (I went to summer camp for just a week when I was eleven and hated every minute of it, but I’m probably the exception. It didn’t help that the place my parents chose be Catholic, on the grounds of a former seminary, and that we spent almost as much time kneeling in the chapel as in the crumbling concrete pool.)

Or the summer spot you remember best might be your grandparents’ house, where they adored you like royalty and you slept alone in a room – no siblings to change! – with the windows open and the white cotton curtains flapping. the evening breeze.

Summer can happen almost anywhere. You could be happy in the back seat of the station wagon, dozing contentedly, or staring out the window and playing punch buggy with your sister, on the annual trip to a national park. You could feel ridiculously alive and happy on the tarmac playground where you went every summer morning and played box hockey while the little kids, screaming, danced in the sprinkler. At worst, this special summer spot could even be your own bedroom, transformed for about eight weeks into an unimaginable sanctuary of freedom: no homework, no bedtime, no hanging out in your pajamas all day if you don’t. don’t want it.

For Chip, that special place was the house where his mother and grandparents had spent their summers – the place on the hill across from us. It was called Snowdon – Snowdie for short – after the Welsh mountain beloved of Wordsworth and other romantics. It was a two-story shingle-style building at the top of a steep slope leading down to the water. There was a large, unkempt lawn out front and a long, narrow porch out back.

Built in 1902, the place used to be quite grand – a relic of that time when summer belonged mostly to the well-to-do – but maintaining it had become a bit of a challenge. Chip loved it all the same – the house and all of its summer history. It was one of the first things that struck me about him – that he had chosen to live year-round in what was for many a summer town, and that he had summer a kind of occupation.


Extract of THE SUMMER FRIEND by Charles McGrath. Copyright © 2022 by Charles McGrath. Excerpted with permission from Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without written permission from the publisher.