Popular myth states that the reason schoolchildren have off during the summer is due to 19th century farming practices, and the need for parents to have extra hands around the farm in summer. Unfortunately, while that story certainly fits into America’s hard-working ethos, the truth is a bit more spoiled than all that.
To begin with, it wouldn’t make much sense to let farm children off during the summer, when there isn’t half the amount of work to be done than in spring (planting season) or fall (harvest season). Prior to the Civil War, farm kids sweated it out in school during the summer and shivered in their classrooms in the winter, taking the spring and fall to help their parents. If you weren’t a farmer’s son or daughter, you had the great luck to be in school practically all year long, even in the summer. School years in the pre-Civil War era could last as long as 260 days!
But it was actually the city kids who spurred the advent of the summer vacation. Sort of, at least. As more and more people moved to cities, population and industry caused the temperature to rise. An effect known as the “urban heat island effect” made walking down a brick-lined city street feel like you were clay baking in an oven. The upper- and middle-class were, of course, not going to deal with any of that nonsense, so it became fashionable to take summer trips to the country, where it was significantly cooler. And since school attendance wasn’t mandatory or enforced, that meant that summer classrooms held half as many children as classrooms during the rest of the year. They were also incredibly hot.
To combat this waste of resources, politicians began to campaign for summer vacations for children; this fit nicely into a culture that was beginning to embrace vacations in general due to the emergence of unions and shortened workdays. Since the parents suddenly had time to themselves, it seemed logical to extend the courtesy down to their children so that parent and kid alike could indulge in a leisurely summer vacation. One of the most popular arguments for summer vacations was that overworking students could lead to brain strains – it was commonly believed that the brain was a muscle and could be overworked.
By the time the 19th century was coming to a close, most urban schools had enacted summer holidays for their students – schools in the country followed suit, not wanting to be left behind by their urban brethren. And, in true American fashion, people found a way to make money of the new phenomenon by establishing resorts, cruises, camps, and other vacation destinations. Today, the vacation business is one of America’s most profitable industries.