Resort Life in the 19th Century

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Photo Credit: The Beach and The Sea, Blankenberghe, Belgium, from “Views of Architecture and Other Sites in Belgium” catalogue, 1905, Detroit Publishing Company: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD old 100)    

“Get a thousand people crowded into one hotel … and let ’em buzz around—that seems to be the present notion of enjoyment.” (Warner, location 22)

If you’ve subscribed to my newsletter or have been reading my blog, you know Waxwood, the setting for the Waxwood Series, is a small seaside town that morphs into an exclusive resort town as the 19th century comes to a close (to read about the real town that inspired Waxwood, go here). Starting in Book 2, False Fathers, the Alderdices become one of the many wealthy Gilded Agers who make staying at a resort for the summer season part of their yearly agenda. 

My original conception of the series included the idea of the Alderdices spending their summers in a small resort town. But I didn’t realize that there was a thing such as resort life until I read Charles Dudley Warner’s book Their Pilgrimage. Warner was a contemporary of Mark Twain and, in fact, cowrote with Twain the book that coined the term “the Gilded Age” (which you can read more about here). Published in 1884, Warner’s book takes place at the height of this age and focuses on the rocky romance between a young man born to “old money” and a young woman of the “new money” class. The romance happens against a backdrop of resort town life, where King and his artist friend and the Bensons wander around from one hotel to another along the East Coast.

Resort life for the wealthy, as Warner depicts it, was relaxing, exciting, and, many times, boring. Some traveled for their health to places such as Palm Springs in California. Others traveled in the winter to get away from harsh weather in their home town. And many did it because it was “the thing to do” among the wealthy. 

The idea of seeing and being seen was prevalent throughout the Gilded Age, and resort life offered just the platform for this. As one guest remarks to King, “‘So few women know how to listen; most women appear to be thinking of themselves and the effect they are producing’” (Warner, location 146). What people do or what they see seems less important than who they see and who they know. At the same time, the anonymity of resort life gave the tightly-laced Gilded Age blue bloods a freedom to be themselves that they didn’t have at home. King himself observes, “[It] is precisely in hotels and to entire strangers that some people are apt to talk with less reserve than to intimate friends” (Warner, location 164). Away from the resorts, wealthy Gilded Agers had to watch what they said and did so as not to be shunned by their neighbors or get their names in the papers. But at a hotel, no one knew them, and they could loosen their grip a little bit.

Resort life was predominantly for women, though there were men and children as well. The hard-working, aggressively competitive Gilded Age man couldn’t take time off for vacations in the Gilded Age. Ironically, women found a level of release and independence in the resort hotels that they couldn’t have at home, with the rigid boundaries of the separate spheres:

“There was a preponderance of women, as is apt to be the case in such resorts… American men are too busy to take this sort of relaxation, and that the care of an establishment, with the demands of society and the worry of servants, so draw upon the nervous energy of women that they are glad to escape occasionally to the irresponsibility of hotel life. (Warner, location 68)

There were some who traveled year round, going to summer resorts in the winter and to winter resorts in the summer. Resort life was so popular that these hotels were often crowded to capacity during the season. Warner makes a keen observation about the atmosphere at these resort towns and hotels at the beginning and end of the season:

“The first man of the season is in such a different position from the last. He is like the King of Bavaria alone in his royal theatre… It is a very cheerful desolation, for it has a future, and everything quivers with the expectation of life and gayety… Nothing is so melancholy as the shabbiness of a watering-place at the end of the season, where is left only the echo of past gayety…” (Warner, location 276-281)

The resort towns, then, were aimed at offering luxury and leisure to their wealthy guests but became like ghost towns when those guests left.

The Alderdice family aren’t exactly the kind of Gilded Age traveler Warner’s novel depicts. They come to Waxwood for summers, but their lives are firmly rooted in San Francisco. But, like their blue blood companions, they take full advantage of the extravagances offered once they do arrive and, in more ways than one, they become different people immersed in resort life for even just that short a time.

You can read about the Alderdices’ experience of resort life in Book 2 of my series, False Fathers. Book 3, Pathfinding Women, coming out this summer, also gives you a sense of resort life in the last year of the 19th century. If you want to find out more about the Waxwood Series, you can check out this page.               

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Works Cited:

Warner, Charles Dudley. Their Pilgrimage. 1884. A pubic domain book. Kindle digital file.

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Author: tammayauthor

Tam May grew up in the United States and earned her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14, and writing became her voice. She writes characters who examine their past in order to move into their future and are influenced by the time in which they live. Her first book, a collection of contemporary short stories titled Gnarled Bones And Other Stories, was nominated for a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family saga. The first book, The Specter, is now available, and the second book will be out in December, 2019. She is also working on a historical mystery series featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman sleuth. Both series take place in Northern California. She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area “home”. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and historical fiction, watching classic films, or cooking up awesome vegetarian dishes.