As I was sitting in a long line of traffic to get both on and off Cape Cod over Memorial Day weekend, I was thinking how some things stay the same no matter what—as long as there have been cars, there have been summer traffic jams. But what did people do for their summer vacations in the days before the automobile? Where did they go? Cape Cod? The Berkshires? Martha’s Vineyard? Boston’s North Shore? Some interesting finds in the State Library’s collections give a glimpse into the typical summer vacation of the mid to late 1800’s and, believe it or not, the favorite Massachusetts summer vacation spots of today are not much different from those of the past!
From a 2017 perspective, a somewhat amusing Book of Summer Resorts: explaining where to find them, how to find them, and their especial advantages, with details of time tables and prices published in 1868 claims to be “a complete guide for the summer tourist.” In its introductory chapter it outlines the five top things that an “experienced traveler makes a particular care:”
- He owns a good trunk
- He carries thick clothing, even in the hottest weather
- His hand-satchel is never without camphor, laudanum, and brandy for medicine
- He does not drink water in unaccustomed places
- He buys through tickets, even when not going beyond a local station
I suppose we can translate most of this sage advice for today by substituting “suitcase” for trunk, “layers” for thick clothing, “tylenol” for laudanum (no comment on the brandy) and it is still good advice to not to “drink the water” but as for buying “through tickets,” I am mystified as to why I would buy a ticket to somewhere I don’t intend to go! The book continues on to describe in great detail the history and attractions of numerous summer vacation spots (including the nearest hotels and telegraph locations) in Massachusetts and beyond that were places in the Eastern U.S. and Canada accessible by rail from Boston, Philadelphia, or New York. In the book’s section on “Lakes, Rivers, and Mountains,” the author singles out Massachusetts’ Williamstown as “stand[ing] at a considerable altitude, and boast[ing] the purest of mountain air” and Pittsfield as one of the “most beautiful villages in all New-England.”
If you prefer the seashore, then how about going where “fashionable Boston” used to move during the month of July in the mid-19th century: Swampscott (!?!)--although the author of the Book of Summer Resorts sees “little which can account for its extraordinary popularity” excepting its proximity to Boston—only a 40 minute train ride in that day. Today we would probably say the preferred North Shore summer hot spots have moved a bit farther north from Swampscott to encompass the Cape Ann peninsula and the beaches of Salisbury, Rockport, and Plum Island. However, once the railroad was extended to Provincetown in 1873, Cape Cod became the foremost summer vacation location by the seashore in Massachusetts and arguably remains so to this day.
Cape Cod summer vacations also include the much beloved islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket—still reached by the famous island ferries--the same as in the 19th century. In The Cottage City, or, The season at Martha's Vineyard, published in 1879, the author professes on the title page that “there can be found in New England no other summer resort presenting so many attractions and affording so many comforts with so few undesirable attendants, as Martha's Vineyard gives to the thousands who every year throng her well managed hotels and dwell in her pretty cottage homes” which was true then and continues now, 138 years into the future, as any visitor to this beautiful island can tell you (including the 42nd and 44th Presidents of the United States!). Happy travels this summer, whether it be woods or beaches!
- The Famous summer resorts of central and southern Berkshire: drives, rambles, views, places of interest, hotels, manufactories, business houses, &c., 1875.
- In Berkshire: a guide to the famous places and summer resorts of Berkshire County, 1880.