Professor will take her audience on a road trip through the history of family vacations |

Professor will take her audience on a road trip through the history of family vacations

Dr. Susan Sessions Rugh, author of "Are We There Yet? The Golden Age of American Family Vacations," will present "Riding the Highways in the Family Car’ from 5-6 p.m. on Wednesday, April 18, at the Park City Museum Education and Collections Center, 2079 Sidewinder Drive.
Courtesy of Susan S. Rugh

Historian and author Dr. Susan Sessions Rugh, the dean of undergraduate education at Brigham Young University, will present ‘Riding the Highways in the Family Car” from 5-6 p.m. on Wednesday, April 18, at the Park City Museum Education and Collections Center, 2079 Sidewinder Drive. The free event coincides with the museum’s “America’s Road: The Journey of route 66,” which is on display through May 6. For information, visit

Dr. Susan Sessions Rugh, professor of American history, has fond memories of road trips with her family.

“I have a favorite family vacation memory and that is going to Yellowstone National Park in the back of a camper in the 1960s,” Rugh said. “My sisters and I would sit in the back of the camper and play cards, and I remember my dad stopping by the side of the road in the Tetons and opening the back door of the camper to tell us to look at the scenery.”

Rugh, dean of undergraduate studies at Brigham Young University, will speak about family vacations during her lecture, “Riding the Highways in the Family Car,” at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, April 18, at the Park City Museum Education and Collections Center, 2079 Sidewinder Drive.

The free event coincides with the Park City Museum’s “America’s Road: The Journey of Route 66,” which is on display at the Museum’s location on Main Street through May 6.

“Remember, thiswas a time when there were no McDonald’s restaurants, 7-Elevens or Wet Wipes…”Dr. Susan Sessions Rugh,author and historian

Rugh, author of the 2008 book “Are We There Yet? The Golden Age of the American Family Vacations,” will discuss the evolution of road trips.

“I’ve done extensive research about road trip vacations, even down to the games children played, the routes people took, what people had in their suitcases, what they ate and what people saw,” Rugh said. “In many ways the lecture will be a nostalgia trip for someone who remembers going on vacations with their families.”

The road trip is an iconic American experience, she said.

“It’s because we feel like this whole country is ours,” Rugh said. “The road trip feels like a rite of citizenship for Americans, because there really aren’t borders (between states). You can travel and explore the whole country in a car.”

Rugh pointed to the Department of the Interior’s recent decision to abandon a major hike to National Parks entry fees (all five in Utah will see increases of $5 instead) as a showcase of Americans’ feelings toward these destinations.

“We got upset because we see these parks as our parks,” she said of the bipartisan backlash to the proposal, which would have doubled entry fees.

Rugh decided to explore family vacations for “Are We There Yet?” as a way to understand family (material) consumption in postwar America, because that is when the concept American family vacation, a product of the explosive growth of the country’s middle class, began taking hold.

“This is a fascinating time period because there were several factors at play that set up the success of the family vacation phenomenon,” she said.

The first factor was the Baby Boom.

“People after (World War II) had big families, and the cheapest way to take a family vacation was in a car,” Rugh explained.

The second factor was the expansion of the highway system.

“The federal government in 1956 signed a law that funded the highway system that would provide roads that families could travel on in their cars,” Rugh said. “Route 66, Highway 40, S.R. 89, are other highways in Utah that were the result of this law.”

The third factor was the introduction of the paid vacation for America’s workers.

“This was won by the auto unions in Detroit and it spread through the whole country where it became standard for the working person to have a two-week paid vacation,” Rugh said.

Postwar automobile production also encouraged families to take more recreational drives.

“It wasn’t until first year after the war, 1946, when new cars came out, and this was a big engine of the American economy,” Rugh said. “One of the most notable inventions was the station wagon, which is the quintessential family car. It was advertised as a living room on wheels, so (families) took their domestic space on the road.”

A couple of things — namely games and food products developed for travel– reiterated the idea that the station wagon was a mobile living room.

“There is a whole library of car games I found when I was doing my research at Princeton University,” Rugh said. “People played tic tac toe, of course, there were some matching games, card games called Touring, a board game called ‘Touring America.’

“All the children were in the back seat, not using seat belts or (sitting) in car seats,” she added. “Safety wasn’t such a concern, but the games were, because kids had to be entertained for long stretches of road.”

Because of safety issues and technological developments, many children don’t play games on road trips in the present day, Rugh lamented.

“I think with everyone having their own electronic devices plugged in their ears, or the TVs in the headrests, the American family vacation togetherness has been lost,” she said.

As far as food went, most families brought their own snacks as they rolled down the highways.

“Remember, this was a time when there were no McDonald’s restaurants, 7-Elevens or Wet Wipes,” Rugh said. “A new thing called coffee shops would spring up, but often families, like mine, would carry a cooler with a loaf of bread and package of bologna. And parents would put damp washcloths in plastic bags to clean up.”

Rugh also plans to show how the interstate system changed the landscape of tourism.

“In the early era of road trip tourism, families would drive through towns, and that’s where the motels and restaurants were,” she said. “After the interstates were built, families skirted the towns, and the development of districts where the motels started to be built.”

While the American family road trip was a dream that everyone wanted, the experience differed for Americans of color.

“The biggest surprise that I found in my research was how difficult it was for African Americans and other families of color to travel,” Rugh said. “They traveled in a legally segregated environment in the South, and de facto segregated environments everywhere else.”

That meant many of these families couldn’t to buy gasoline, use restrooms or receive service at restaurants.

“There were very few places where they could stay in the state of Utah, and they were turned away at restaurants and hotels all over downtown Salt Lake City,” she said. “That’s why some people, even wealthy people of color — even veterans, had to slept in their cars. So while everybody wanted a road trip, it was really a privilege that was not available to everybody.”

That aspect of the history of vacations helped the Civil Rights Movement, Rugh said.

“The story of the black family on vacation sleeping in their car became a meme in the fight for civil rights and helped pass the Civil Rights (Act),” she said. “If you read and see the stories and testimonies and hearings of the Civil Rights Act, you will see that the image of a family in the car is brought up quite often.”

After her lecture, Rugh said she will open up the floor for people to share their own road trip experiences.

“I would like to hear them,” she said. “This is a great phenomenon for America.”

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