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"Are We There Yet?"
Cannonballs make a nice backdrop for a family photo.

If you are of an age — say a baby boomer or thereabouts — you probably remember the summer family vacation.

It probably went something like this: Your parents piled you and your siblings into the back of the Pontiac or the Plymouth or the Chevrolet, or maybe even one of the new Ford station wagons, and set off to see the country.

Maybe you remember squabbling in that back seat because your brother stuck his foot on your side of the car. Maybe you played the license game, trying to be the first to see license plates from all the states. Maybe you wanted to stop at the clean, shiny restrooms that gas stations were touting, where you could also pick up a free map of whatever state you were in. Maybe when you got hungry, you mother pulled out a loaf of bread, some peanut butter and jelly and made you a sandwich.

Maybe you had more adventures than you wanted: a flat tire, a disastrous "shortcut," a radiator that boiled over in the desert heat.

Maybe you remember going to Disneyland, Yellowstone or even the nation's capital. Maybe you got to buy some souvenirs that you treasure to this day.

What you probably didn't realize at the time was that you were part of a trend. You were participating in a "Golden Age of Family Vacations."

That era began as the end of World War II ushered in a time of prosperity.

"Summer vacations became an established summer tradition," says Susan Sessions Rugh, a history professor at Brigham Young University, who has written a cultural history called "Are We There Yet? The Golden Age of American Family Vacations" (University Press of Kansas, $29.95).

The golden age lasted until about the mid-'70s, she says, "when family road trips declined in popularity. Family vacations continued after that, but they weren't the same. The family wasn't the same."

Rugh has always been interested in the history of the family, she says. "As I talked to people about their family life, I realized that one of the things they remembered most was a vacation. I decided that was a fun way to look at the history of the family — through leisure activity."

But what started out as a history of the family "turned into a history of a time, a history of an age, a place. Along the way it also became a history of tourism and travel."

In studying the vacations of that time, she says, "the one thing that surprised me the most was how much trouble it took to take a family vacation. The work, the preparation, the driving, the money spent — the lengths that parents went to in order to take their children places."

So, why did they do it?

"They wanted to teach their children something. They wanted to show them America and what it meant to be a citizen of this country. They wanted their children to learn history, and they wanted to pass on an appreciation of nature. And they really believed that it would draw the family closer together, that it would make the family better. So they could justify spending all the time and money."

The patriotism they felt at the end of the war had something to do with that sentiment, but there were other factors that contributed to the rise of the family road trip, Rugh says.

"More middle-class families could afford to take vacations because of the increasingly liberal vacation benefits awarded American workers," she says. The two-week paid vacation became the norm in post-war America.

More and more middle-class families also bought cars. In 1956, the Interstate Highway Act was passed to create better roads. People loved their cars, says Rugh.

Ford introduced the first station wagon in 1947, but the "decade of the '50s was the heyday of the station wagon, and by the early '60s, it was the only answer to the booming family."

As more people hit the road, other support for the trip came along. "Fast food restaurants revolutionized family travel," Rugh says. McDonald's, Dairy Queen, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Insta-Burger King all came along in this period.

"The family vacation craze spurred the growth of the motel industry," she says. "The number of motels peaked in the 1960s, with 61,000 in operation."

As to destinations, there was a huge variety. National parks, which has been closed during the war, were open once again. Camping in the parks was especially popular, Rugh says. Amusement parks were springing up. Country resorts with their own fishing ponds were attracting attention. And then, as now, people went to stay with relatives.

A lot of people in the East wanted to head west, she says. They had read or seen movies featuring the Western landscape — and they wanted to see it. Some of them visited places in California and such and decided to move there, so vacations spurred the Western migration of the population.

A lot of people in the West headed east to see many of the historical sites associated with the birth of the country. "They really saw that as an educational experience."

Rugh also points out that this time was not a golden age for all Americans. "African-American families traveled in a segregated environment in the South and were often turned away from motels and restaurants outside the South."

There were special guidebooks, including "The Negro Travelers' Green Book" to help them avoid the humiliation of being turned away. "But the image of a black family having to sleep in the car because they couldn't find a motel was a powerful argument for the civil rights movement," she says.

Anti-Semitism was also widespread in some places. Jews had to contend with signs that said "Gentiles Only" or "Clientele Carefully Selected," which led them to build their own resorts in the Catskills, she says. "Anti-Semitism was easing up by the '50s. The Jews were ahead of the blacks in protesting unfair treatment, but both were often excluded from mainstream travel until the '60s."

By the mid-'70s, the family road trip began to wind down. "The family vacation, along with the nuclear family, had lost its cachet," she says. There were also economic factors, such as the oil embargo of 1973 and the fact that more middle-class Americans could afford to go to Europe. There were also social factors, including the fact that more women were working and that a new generation of children rebelled against the authority of their parents.

"The travel industry let go of the image of the white, middle-class suburban family in favor of narrower niche marketing," she says.

But that doesn't mean that family vacations are not still important. "Vacations do create memories, and they are powerful memories." As she's done radio shows in connection with the book, "so many of the callers have talked about their memories of family vacations."

Her advice: Trim the budget somewhere else and take the family on a vacation. "It can have a huge impact on how they see America, how they see communities. And being there is so much more powerful than just reading about it or seeing it on TV."

Let children help plan the vacation, she advises. "And don't let them just listen to their iPods all the time. Take time to sing songs and play the license game."

After all, she says, travel is so much easier now. She looks back to the golden age, and she sees heroes. "Just think, there was no air conditioning, no seat belts. Cars were bigger, but they went slower. Roads were not as good. But those vacations were bonding experiences."

If you go

What: Susan Rugh book signing for "Are We There? The Golden Age of American Family Vacations"

When: Tonight, 7 p.m.

Where: Barnes & Noble, Sugar House, 1100 E. 2100 South


E-mail: [email protected]