The History of Vacations

You’ve probably never thought about it before, but the vacation as we know it had to be invented. Sure, we’ve been nomads since the hunter-gatherer days, but this type of travel was wholly practical. A vacation, by formal definition, is a “specific trip or journey for the purpose of recreation or tourism.”1 Throughout the years, the vacation has taken on many names: gap year, pilgrimage, grand tour, holiday, etc. But the idea of taking a break from work and getting out of town for the sole purpose of relaxation is something that didn’t fully evolve until the last couple of centuries.
Ancient History
It all started with the ancient Romans, the earliest people to travel for the sole purpose of leisure. The first requirement for the invention of the vacation was a time of peace, which the Romans achieved — after conquering all the neighboring lands, that is. But this also contributed to the formation of the vacation. As the Roman empire grew, the amenities of Roman life were spread to other parts of the world. This meant that you could travel a long distance without ever being in a “foreign land,” away from the luxuries of home.

The Romans also encouraged recreational travel by building one of the largest networks of roads ever conceived. At the height of the Roman empire, roads spread from Portugal to Turkey, covering almost 75,000 miles in total. The earliest vacations might be better equated to the modern sabbatical since people were often away for years at a time. Of course, only the very rich and elite of society could afford to do this.

During the Dark Ages, new wars began and it was no longer safe to travel long distances. The vacation disappeared, for the most part, leaving behind the pilgrimage in its place. But these journeys were taken for spiritual fulfillment, not recreation. Travel for leisure returned during the Tudor period but was again reserved only for the rich and elite. Royal families and their courts would take a long journey, called a “royal progress,” for the purpose of diplomacy and relaxation. The average commoner stayed home and rarely ventured further than the next town over.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, vacations morphed into what the Europeans called a “grand tour.” These trips, primarily taken by young, affluent men, were aimed at increasing worldly knowledge and inspiring maturity. It was seen as a rite of passage and a time for education, not necessarily a trip of leisure.
North America
At the same time as the grand tour was gaining popularity in Europe, the Puritans, having escaped religious persecution in England, were spreading across the east coast of what is now the United States. The philosophy behind Puritanism did not leave room for anything resembling a vacation. Workers would labor for six days and attend church services on the seventh. Idleness was strongly preached against and no good Puritan would have dreamt of asking for time off.

Unfortunately, this staunch Puritan lifestyle led to an increase in health problems among workers, particularly “brain fatigue.” Preachers and town leaders began advocating for recreation time spent away from the church or other work. Still, the type of recreation, fishing and hunting being the two most popular, was very restricted by Puritan beliefs and it rarely involved extended travel.
The First “Real” Vacations
Vacationing as we know it today began due to three important factors: transportation, work efficiency, and affordability.

Railways built across the US in the early 1800’s allowed people a chance to travel farther distances in less time. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Henry Ford began manufacturing cars that allowed for even more freedom to travel. The invention of the steamship contributed to increased numbers of people traversing to foreign lands. And the first commercial flights began in the 1920’s (although this transportation method didn’t become popular until after WWII), increasing the possibilities for travel. As transportation methods improved, more and more people had access to and an ability to travel.

Along with transportation, the shortening of the work week and industrialization of work processes allowed workers the freedom to get away from the daily grind. Henry Ford was one of the first employers to offer his workers a five-day workweek. He noticed that rested workers who had a chance to enjoy leisure time with their families came back better rested and were more productive. Other businesses soon followed suit and the “weekend” became a cultural norm.

Along with additional time for recreation, the industrial revolution produced machinery and factories that enhanced the manufacturing process. Work became more efficient and fewer workers were needed to complete the same job, meaning companies could afford for workers to leave on trips without a large inconvenience or drop in productivity.

Unfortunately, even into the early 20th century, vacations were still only taken by the very wealthy. Even though transportation wasn’t an issue, the costs of taking time off work (coupled with already low pay) made it prohibitive to the middle and lower classes. Things continued this way until post-WWII when employers began offering extended time off work for travel and leisure time.
Vacations Today and in the Future
Today, the vacation is much more accessible but there is still a long way to go. A quarter of the US workforce receives no paid vacation time whatsoever and over 70% of workers leave their vacation days on the table each year. While transportation and productivity are no longer barriers to travel, the financial burden of taking a vacation stops many from enjoying their time off. In a 2015 poll, 45% of people said that having “time and money for vacation” was a necessary requirement of being considered middle class.2

Taab is here to change the vacation trends again, aiming to make travel affordable for everyone. By creating an employer-matched program, we are putting money in the pockets of workers who will use it to celebrate the great vacationing traditions of the past. Take your employees into the future by offering Taab in your workplace.