Jonathan Zimmerman: Nation Could Use a Vacation

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press). He can be reached at

In August 1937, Good Housekeeping ran an article titled "Why Is a Vacation?" The short answer was to obtain rest, the magazine advised, "and the best way to do that is to work hard at something that is enjoyable."

And that tells you all you need to know about the Great American Vacation. More than 70 Augusts later, we're still working hard to relax. And, more often than not, we're falling down on the job.

The problem dates back to our Puritan forebears, who drew a sharp distinction between recreation (good) and amusement (bad). "A recreation is something which recruits, restores, and prepares the man for better service," a New England newspaper explained in 1851, two centuries after the Puritans landed on these shores. Amusement, by contrast, was "pleasure for pleasure's sake." That was taboo....

That's why the average American worker gets nine days of paid vacation per year, while Europeans get two or three times that. It's even more telling that almost half of Americans don't take all the vacation days they are entitled to.

So keep working, America. Or, if you can, go on vacation. At the end of the day - or of the summer - there may not be that much of a difference.

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