Susan Sessions Rugh: ‘The Golden Age of American Family Vacations’

Travel Interviews: Elyse Franko asks the author of "Are We There Yet?" about the rise and fall of the family vacation, segregation in travel and how family trips are changing today

07.17.08 | 12:19 PM ET

imageThere are few childhood memories as distinct as those of family road trips. In her new book “Are We There Yet? The Golden Age of American Family Vacations,” Susan Sessions Rugh explains how the prosperous period between the end of World War II and the gas crisis of the 1970s gave Americans the unprecedented opportunity to see the country by car. What’s more, she uses the subject as a vehicle to explore American social norms and racial tensions of the time. I recently chatted with the Brigham Young University professor about the rise—and fall—of the American family vacation.

World Hum: What was the driving force behind the “Golden Age” of the American family vacation?

Susan Sessions Rugh: Certainly post-war prosperity. People had money to buy cars and money to spend on vacations. Part of that prosperity included the two-week vacation benefit that was available to more than half the population. There was also the construction of interstate highways and more roads. The travel industry got into gear at that time and states promoted themselves as tourist destinations quite vigorously. Then there was of course the baby boom, which caused changes in the family: All those children needed to be entertained in the summer.

You talk about the Cold War-era family vacation as a symbol of American strength and proof of “American-ness.” Can you think of any other country that has developed a similar sort of patriotic tourism?

There was a movement after World War II in Italy promoting Italian patriotism through tourism. But I think America is unique in this kind of tourism. No other country is as large, no other country is so self-conscious about democracy.

Why were families so focused on patriotic tourism that educated children about the country’s history?

My sense is that the veterans had just fought this war for the country and Washington was seen as the democratic capital of the world. Taking children to Washington, to Mt. Vernon, to the war sights, taking them to Lincoln sites, was all part of the patriotism. There was a feeling that this was your country and you should be educated about it.

imageYour book sheds light on the gender roles that came into play in family vacations. Women packed, cooked, kept the children clean and organized the campers and tents upon arrival; men kept the car in good condition for traveling. Do you think the gender roles have really changed much in family vacations today?

That’s why family vacations are such a great way to look at a family. I think women are more involved in the planning, but it does still seem to hold true that women do the packing. But when I had my own feminist awakening, I started insisting that I drive more. Today women are taking the wheel more often, which is an indication that they have more control. And with women bringing a second income to the household, they have more say and more control in where they go [on vacation].

You dedicate a chapter to the difficulties black families had while traveling. You also say that “outside the South, most whites were probably oblivious to the fact that they were traveling within racially segregated spaces because whiteness was the norm.” Do you remember encountering racial segregation while traveling?

I never traveled in the South and I don’t really remember seeing segregation. But I think it usually wasn’t visible to white Americans. When I would bring up the subject while talking to people for the book, they would say, “Oh, blacks vacationed?” But it’s of course hard to tell how many whites knew about it or if they can be blamed for being complicit [in the segregation on the road]. But of course they vacationed—many black families were in the middle class and had the money to vacation. They were the ones who really began opposing Jim Crow. It seemed to be almost heroic—they seemed to be undaunted. They refused to accede to the segregation. I began to see them as pioneers.

When did the Civil Rights Act of 1965 actually begin changing travel conditions for black Americans?

In the South, some of the establishments immediately challenged the law. Certainly in the South, I’m sure it took at least another decade. Given the ability to boycott, corporate hotel chains very quickly observed the law. But I’m sure there’s still segregation in some places today.

You also mentioned that Jews set up their own establishments in the Catskills to avoid discrimination. Did other ethnic or religious groups have similar problems with segregation?

It’s too soon to tell. Asians really didn’t start migrating here until the 1960s, unless you’re talking about the Chinese in California, which is really such a limited group. In my research, I’ve not been able to find much about Latino travel. That’s research that really needs to be done.

On a recent trip to the American Southwest, I couldn’t help but notice the droves of European families and couples—Germans, in particular—around the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Monument Valley. Why is the American “Western adventure” seemingly the great choice for the modern European family vacation? Does it have to do with Karl May’s cowboy literature?

It is partly from his books. And the Utah Office of Tourism markets the American West to Europeans, especially Germans—they always have marketed to Germany. Twenty-five percent of all foreign visitors who come through are German. But I think there’s the appeal of the “mythic West” and the struggle of cowboys and Indians. It symbolizes America, with the wide open spaces and national parks. It’s so different from Europe. They’ve never seen anything like our national parks.

What do you think the “ideal” for a family vacation is today?

I think in many ways the ideal is still the road trip. But vacations today are more frequent and they’re shorter. It used to be one vacation for two weeks. Now people take more vacations. They’re shorter and airline use is more frequent. 

How have family vacations changed as families themselves have changed?

It seems to me that taking a family vacation defines you as a family. They are just as, if not more important, to single parent families and gay and lesbian families as they are to the traditional family. They may not have the income to go as often, but still find it very important to travel. What I do think has changed is the inclusion of grandparents. Especially in the Latino cultures, three-generation family vacations are very common. The travel industry is changing to accommodate it—the whole cruise industry targets multi-generation vacations. So does Disney World.

How do you think rising gas prices will affect family vacations? What will families do to still enjoy vacations without spending half their budget on gas?

I think people won’t go as far and they may stay with relatives to cut costs—they won’t splurge as much. They may trim food costs by taking food along. I think the family vacation is too strong a tradition for it to die because of gas prices.

In the book, you mention the comedy of family vacations—how stressed out people can get when they’re trying to relax. So why do people keep going on vacations if they’re such a hassle?

I think it’s an ideal and we have trouble acclimating to the reality. There’s this hope that the vacation is going to solve all the family’s problems, which it obviously won’t. Everyone remembers the sibling fights in the back seat. What’s important is not always that the vacation will be happy but that it will be memorable.

Why did the “Golden Age” end?

It had to do with the gas crisis. People were waiting in long lines trying to get gas so it was harder to travel. The post-war prosperity also came to an end in the 1970s. The travel industry turned away from family vacations and leaned toward niche marketing. It was selling more getaways for couples. The idea of a family as the ideal was really fading.

But many families still take trips together regularly. Could we be encountering a rebirth of the “Golden Age”?

I feel we’re seeing a resurgence in family travel, especially after September 11. There’s a lot of family imagery being used to sell the vacations and to advertise hotel chains. I think in some ways we’re harking back to what it used to be. I’d say the family vacation is different: different because of the shorter vacations, gender roles, and electronics games, but it’s the same idea.

Elyse Franko is a Long Island native, a graduate of the American University School of Communication in Washington, D.C., and a former World Hum intern. During her time at university, she wrote and edited for several campus publications and fostered her love for traveling by spending time abroad in Istanbul, Turkey, and Berlin, Germany. She currently works as a teaching assistant in Vienna, Austria.

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