Once a year the season of rebirth occurs. Along with the blooming flowers and melting ice, students are rewarded with a mid-semester calm, a period of rejuvenation – spring break. This cultural phenomenon is widely welcomed as the slow trek towards summer continues; it is essentially a taste of what is to come. A spirit of lively renewal is often the theme that accompanies spring break’s image of stretching beaches, road trips and wild parties. This is how it has come to be known, but what of the tradition’s origins?
Spring break and its humble beginnings can be traced back as early as the 19th century when wealthy college students would venture to the coast seeking refuge from their enduring academic lives. The idea of traveling became embedded in spring break culture as the next century rolled in with the invention of cars, and thus the birth of the “road trip.”
The next crucial point in spring break’s history occurs in 1928, in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where the state’s first Olympic-sized pool was built. Because of the significant damage done to the city by a hurricane and the growing popularity of competitive swimming, the Casino pool’s construction was meant to attract visitors.
In 1935, Colgate University’s swimming coach Sam Ingram saw an opportunity to whip his athletes into shape after the winter holidays and utilized the Casino pool to do just that. The local businesses sensed a potential for revenue from these trips, rightfully so, because within the next two years, the College Coaches’ Swim Forum was formed. This conference hosted hundreds of swimmers and coaches from across the country, along with their friends who tagged along.
This annual trip to the sunny shores of Ft. Lauderdale continued into the 1950s.
As the story goes, Glendon Swarthout, an English professor at Michigan State University, joined the throngs of students southbound, where he found the inspiration to write “Where the Boys Are”. This coming-of-age novel, eventually adapted into a movie, told the tale of four midwestern students travelling to Ft. Lauderdale for spring break. The impact of Swarthout’s 1960 novel forever changed the tradition of spring break, transforming it into an American rite of passage for college students and further solidifying it as a cultural phenomenon.
Southern Florida from then on became known as spring break headquarters, and what started as a crowd of roughly 15,000 students, soared upwards to 370,000 over the next 20 years. Thanks to the efforts of a lone professor, spring break gradually turned into the party animal we know it to be today.
The less desirable aspects of spring break began to emerge in the 1970s, as partying became an untamed affair. The surrounding communities hosting the herds of students grew a sensitive awareness to their rampant behavior. Themes of alcohol, sex and the free nature of adolescence plagued the local beaches and hotels. Soon enough, these locations fell victim to the spring breaker madness and commonly suffered property damage. So much so that by the 1980s, laws were enacted with the intention of calming the tempest of college parties – like “The National Minimum Drinking Age Act.”
Cities eventually shied away from wanting to be known as the “spring break capital” because of the troubling aspects tied to them. This label was passed around in a hot-potato fashion so that Florida is now home to many different spring break hotspots including Daytona Beach, Panama City, Key West and Miami South Beach.
Spring break is holy to the college student, whether to catch up on sleep or to make the pilgrimage south; it is highlighted and triple-underlined in every student’s calendar.