American Idle: A History of Leisure

T-G-I-F — four of the most beloved letters in the alphabet… but who’d be thankful if Saturday weren’t a day off? In fact, it wasn’t officially part of the American weekend until 1940 (although “St. Monday” was often reserved for nursing hangovers). In this episode: The history of time-off. When did leisure become something for the masses? What are the origins of the weekend? And why does relaxation involve so much…work? Cindy Aron reveals the beginnings of the modern American vacation, and Tom Lutz provides a cultural history of slacking.

Show Highlights

Working at Play

Historian Cindy Aron discusses the origins of the modern American vacation. She explains why traveling to the beach didn’t used to be appealing, and why Americans have often preferred “self improvement” vacations to lazing around in a hammock.


Related Links

Listen to more commentary from Cindy Aron on the history of vacations on NPR’s All Things Considered

Read a sample of Tom Lutz’s Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America

Hey BackStory fans–we’re not thrilled with this explanation of “blue laws.” Do you have a better one (even a guess)? Leave a comment!

Colonial games


Comments (5)

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  1. Adrian Reilly

    Your site and radio show are a wonderful addition to the popular study of history!

    I am the webmaster for the National Endowment for the Humanities’ educational resources site (, and we have a lesson plan on the evolution of leisure in late 19th century America ( It even includes a student interactive I created on the Fall River
    Line ( Please check us out, and please continue with this great concept of yours.

  2. Charlotte Crystal

    For your show on “American Idle: A History of Leisure” you might want to consider contacting Cindy Sondik Aron, on U.Va.’s history faculty, who has written a book on a related topic, “Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States.”

  3. Adolphus

    My understanding, without evidence, was that it is related to “Blue Monday” which is the effect of workers to be less than productive on Monday after a weekend of debauchery. Absentee rates were (are?) higher on Monday as well. (My father is convinced you can decipher a vehicle’s VIN to tell what day of the week it was made and you should NEVER buy a car on Monday. Not sure if this is true, but it shows the extent of the Blue Monday myth) Therefore employers and local officials passed laws to limit excessive enjoyment of a Sunday of leisure. Or maybe they call it “Blue Monday” after the Blue Laws. Don’t know for a fact.

    Also there is such a thing as the “Blue Flu” which is a labor action in which a large number of workers arrange to call in sick on the same day to show solidarity and strength. Of course, this “blue” could relate to the fact that it is used by police a lot since they are often prevented by law to strike.

    I do think it is curious that all these labor related issues have “blue” in them. Bit which came first?

  4. Kate

    I found it very funny that I was listening to this podcast…while I worked from home. I am starting from the beginning of Backstory to listen to all of what you have presented. And hearing you joke about that was really funny! This was great! Thank you so much for a great episode.