School Calendars and the Creation of Summer Vacation in the Nineteenth Century

In 1869, New York City education commissioner William Wood wanted to change the school calendar. When he brought his recommendation to the school board at their July 21 meeting, it was defeated. He tried again in 1870 and 1871, and was unsuccessful both times. Finally, in 1872, the school board approved his plan: to lengthen summer vacation by ending the school year on July 3rd.

According to Kenneth Gold, in his book School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools, the school year became steadily shorter in urban schools across the country throughout the nineteenth century. When American public schooling had its start in 1842, the school year in New York City averaged 245 days. In Detroit, the school year lasted 259 days, and ran year-round: the school year comprised four quarters, each one followed by a one-week vacation, with additional short vacations at Christmas and in the summer.

These Christmas and summer vacations, which came in the middle rather than at the end of terms, “occasioned great confusion, and almost entirely disorganized the schools,” according to a contemporary source quoted by Gold (51). In an effort to rationalize the calendar, Detroit moved to a three-term calendar in 1849, with two weeks off at Christmas and in April, and four weeks off in August. By the eve of the Civil War, the Christmas and April vacations had shrunk to one week each, and the summer vacation had swelled to eight weeks in July and August.

Between 1842 and 1867, the school year as a whole in Detroit had slipped from 259 days to 200. New York City schools followed the same trend, as the school year shrank from 245 days in 1842 to 203 days in 1875. Most of the change was due to the increasing length of the summer vacation.

When William Wood proposed a longer summer vacation in New York in 1869, his opponents on the board worried about children “roaming about the streets while the schools were closed” (65). In 1856, an earlier Superintendent of the New York City schools had crticized vacations on the same grounds, worrying that school vacations exposed children “to the varied dangers of the street.” And then, as now, school vacations left parents to make other arrangements of the care of their children. As the Superintendent put it in 1856: “[Vacations] are obnoxious to parents, because eery hour a child is relieved from the wholesome guardianship at school, is added to the cares and responsibilities of his overseers at home” (61).

Wood, on the other hand, was reflecting a commonly held belief that “overstudy,” too much time spent in school on academic pursuits, was bad for a child’s health. As one educational journal put it in 1850: “Children in towns and cities where annual [i.e., year-round] schools are kept go to school too much for their mental and physical good…It is not strange that they become listless and inanimate; that they too often regard the school room as a prison house, and their teacher as a cruel task master. We dwarf and enfeeble the intellect by this constant pressure” (84). The lengthening of summer vacation (and the concommitant shortening of the school year) throughout the nineteenth century was in large part a response to this concern about the mental and physical health of students.

By the end of the nineteenth century, summer vacation was firmly entrenched. In the twentieth century, there would be a reaction, as summer schools were established to address the issue of “summer deterioration” (129), or what we would call “summer slide.”

Many of these issues are still relevant as we think about school calendars at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Vacations from school still raise issues of child care for parents. “Summer slide” continues to be a concern, especially among low income students who often lack opportunities for summer enrichment. And vacations still provide mental and physical health benefits for students and teachers. In the words of a recent contributor to The New York Times: “The importance of restoration is rooted in our physiology. Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously. Rather, we’re meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy.” Periods of rest, including vacations, renew the mind and body, and lead to greater productivity.

There will be an opportunity to learn more about the history of school calendars, and to talk about these and other issues, at a special forum to be held in the Northfield High School upper cafeteria on Thursday, March 7, from 7 to 9 p.m. You can learn more about it from Dr. Richardson on this Patch video.


Kenneth M. Gold. 2002. School’s In: The History of Summer Educaiton in American Public Schools. New York: Peter Lang.

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