For weary New Englanders, vacations didn't always mean battling traffic to a crowded beach on Cape Cod, Jet-Skiers whooshing across Lake Winnipesaukee or removing your shoes at Logan for a cramped flight to Cancun.

For weary New Englanders, vacations didn't always mean battling traffic to a crowded beach on Cape Cod, Jet-Skiers whooshing across Lake Winnipesaukee or removing your shoes at Logan for a cramped flight to Cancun.


In a more genteel age, a whole family took a train to the Nahant Hotel for an evening ball or switched from a train to a stagecoach or steamboat to reach Moosehead Lake in Maine for a "rustic experience" canoeing and camping.


Those innocent holidays come alive again in "Always Delightfully Cool," an enjoyable and informative exhibit at the Boston Athenaeum that examines how 19th century Americans spent newfound leisure time.


Organized by Catharina Slautterback, it offers 57 objects including rare photos, colorful advertising prints, maps, sheet music covers and large-scale chromolithographs that capture the heyday of dramatically changed resorts at Lovell's Grove, North Weymouth, and Mount Desert Island, Maine, at Nantasket Beach and the White Mountains.


They provide a charming, perhaps idealized view of orderly resorts where a few bold women frolicked in the waves in full-length bathing gowns or bucolic excursions by men in suits and women with parasols.


"We all feel a vacation is our national birthright," said Slautterback, the associate curator of prints and photographs who organized the exhibit. "But before 1825, vacations for pleasure were the exclusive privilege of the upper class."


Subtitled "Summer Vacations in Northern New England, 1825-1900," it runs through Aug. 22 in the Norma Jean Calderwood Gallery in the Athenaeum at 10 1/2 Beacon St., Boston.


For Slautterback, the convergence of three factors the growth of railroads, changing attitudes toward nature and the emergence of a middle class triggered the popularity of vacations as an American institution.


Finely detailed lithographs and vividly tinted chromolithographs suggest early vacations were often a luxury for the new middle class, who rarely left their decorum at home.


Visitors will discover certain vacation sites attracted a particular clientele that wasn't always welcome elsewhere.


The Rose Standish House and a nearby amusement park were built in Hingham by a progressive Bostonian as a "refuge of the weary worker" but were eventually shut by locals alarmed by rumors of heavy drinking and nude bathing.


Around the 1870s, Lake Pleasant in the little town of Montague in Western Massachusetts became a summer retreat for the New England Spiritualist Campmeeting Association, which attracted mediums, fortune tellers and "offbeat vendors of all stripes."


Only developed after the Civil War, Bar Harbor, Maine, became known as "Queen of the Summer Resorts" for its rich and famous visitors.


At first, New England's most popular vacation spots had nothing in common with Spring Break where everything goes. Instead of thongs and bikinis, American women enjoyed "the pure, fresh, exhilarating breezes of the seashore" in bloomers and black stockings that covered them from their ankles to their shoulders.


And for a nation bred on Puritan virtues of frugality and hard work, Slautterback said the first vacationers felt a little guilty about having too much fun. "Taking a vacation was a paradox for middle-class people who were suspicious of idleness, which they associated with the poor or filthy rich," she said. "At that time, people were being told fresh air and vacations were good for the lungs and well-being. But they were also being told that upright Christians didn't play billiards."


The free exhibit provides an ideal reason to visit, and possibly join, the stately Boston Athenaeum, the nation's largest subscription library.


Established in 1807 by the Anthology Club, the Athenaeum has grown into the nation's largest independent subscription library with 600,000 books and half of George Washington's private library from Mount Vernon.


Director and Librarian Richard Wendorf said the Athenaeum is open to researchers and always looking for new members to utilize its resources and enjoy its spectacular art collection and quiet atmosphere.


He described the Athenaeum as a center of learning that continued the legacy that attracted national luminaries including John Quincy Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Daniel Webster and Lydia Maria Child. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, author of "John Adams," recently visited the library.


Rising above Beacon Hill, the Athenaeum's five galleried floors contain an outstanding collection of paintings, sculptures and lithographs. It hosts three or four free exhibits annually and about 100 member-only events, including lectures, musical presentations, documentary films and teas.


Like finding your grandparents' lost photo album in the attic, "Always Delightfully Cool" provides a nostalgic journey into a tamer time when our forebears seemed to be satisfied with simpler pleasures.


In the early Industrial Age, Slautterback explained the word "vacation" only entered the national vocabulary of the United States around 1850. It is derived from a French word that meant "freedom or release" from a duty or obligation but came to mean something distinctly American throughout the 19th century.


Working principally with the Athenaeum's extensive collection, Slautterback documented the economic and social changes that sent New Englanders from their farms and small towns to wade in the Atlantic, sketch sunsets from Mount Washington or enjoy breezy mosquito-free evenings at the Mount Kineo House in Moosehead Lake.


"Before 1825, vacations for pleasure were the exclusive privilege of the upper class," she said. "The railroads changed all that. Along with steamboats, they made new regions accessible to travelers."


Just as sunburns led to the invention of Coppertone, trains and boats full of passengers provided the economic incentive to build hotels that catered to a full spectrum of visitors from merchants looking for low-cost fun to high-society grandees who demanded and got more.


In time, said Slautterback, "the tourist industry brought in more money than agriculture or manufacturing."


As agriculture gave way to industrialization in the early 1800s, Slautterback said a spiritual revival called the Great Awakening and Transcendental beliefs that humans could know God through nature sent droves of Americans into the vanishing wilderness. "The irony is that just as Americans began to yearn for the wilderness they were becoming accustomed to the creature comforts that came with the great hotels," she said.


By combing idyllic images of an almost vanished New England with impressive research about how 19th century vacationers experienced it, Slautterback invites us to consider whether we're much different.





After all, when Henry David Thoreau visited the Crawford House hotel in the White Mountains in 1858, he carped that its gas lighting, salon and dance band made it "as much like a city as they can afford."


Now what would Henry think of Disneyland, a Carnival cruise to Aruba or getting stuck behind an 18-wheeler on the Maine Turnpike?


THE ESSENTIALS:


The Boston Athenaeum, 10 1/2 Beacon St., Boston, is just a short walk from the State House.


Admission to the gallery is free and open to the public. Gallery hours are: Monday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Starting May 24, the gallery is closed Saturdays.


Guided tours are given every Tuesday and Thursday at 3 p.m. by reservation only.


For more information call 617-227-0270 or visit www.bostonathenaeum.org.