The other day marked the “unofficial” end of summer in my household as my daughter boarded the school bus for the first time and rode off to kindergarten. The event found my wife and I discussing the tradition of summer vacation and its origins. We both shared the belief that summer vacation was tied to America’s agrarian past, however upon further inquiry we discovered that our assumptions were mistaken.
According to a PBS NewsHour article from 2014, the myth that summer vacation was directly tied to our nation’s agrarian roots is still very persistent. In realty, the early rural schools in America that were tied to an agrarian calendar had short summer and winter terms with breaks in the spring and fall. This makes a lot of sense when you consider that the busiest times for farm families were during the spring planting and fall harvest, and this is when the additional labor provided by children would be needed the most. The article also explains that schools in urban areas had different schedules than their rural counterparts and were effectively open year round – including summers. During this time period, schools were not mandatory but gave parents a safer place to send their children.
During the 19th century, a group of school reformers pushed to standardize the school year calendar. Giving students and teachers a long break during the summer months seemed like a logical choice. During an era without air-conditioning, schools could be unbearably hot during the summer months. In addition, many middle-class and wealthy urban families escaped the city heat during the summer by taking vacations. A long break would also give teachers an opportunity to train. Eventually, by the late 19th century the modern school calendar was in place and we continue to live with its legacy to this day.
Shane Johnson is a producer for WSKG’s History & Heritage team. Before arriving at WSKG, Shane earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Cinema and History, Master’s Degree in History, as well as his Master’s of Arts in Teaching in Social Studies Adolescence Education from Binghamton University. He has a personal interest in 19th Century American history, especially the Civil War, and as a young lad, he dreamed of becoming a railroad engineer.