Ironically, “spring break,” as it is known today, that week of devilment, debauchery, and desperately deleted Facebook posts that occurs sometime between the first week of March and Easter Sunday, did not originate as a week of fun in the sun. Instead, it has as its origins winter athletic training. Of course, from ancient times, man has celebrated the coming of spring. (Even plants and other animals do that!) And those early celebrations have not always been peaceful and laid back—as evidenced by the Roman springtime celebration in honor of their god of wine, Bacchus, which resulted in the word “bacchanalia” becoming synonymous with orgies and drunken revelry, and Medieval Christian pre-Lenten celebrations of carnival, which are perhaps epitomized by “The Greatest Show on Earth,” the annual February/March carnival celebrations of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
In the winter break of 1935/36, Sam Ingram, swimming coach at Colgate University, took his team down to Fort Lauderdale, Florida in order to train at the Casino Pool, the first Olympic-size pool in Florida. When the team showed up on campus after the Christmas holidays, bronzed and buffed, word spread. Two years later, in 1938, the city, recognizing the commercial potential in swimming teams from around the country converging on Fort Lauderdale for winter training, hosted the first College Coaches’ Swim Forum at the Casino Pool. And it is that event that is credited with being the benign beginnings of the modern-day bacchanalia called spring break.
But spring break did not become depraved overnight; it took decades to decline into decadence. In 1958, twenty years after the city’s first Swim Forum, an English professor at Michigan State named Glendon Swarthout overheard some of his students talking about going to Fort Lauderdale for spring break. He accompanied them, that trip inspiring his 1960 book, Where the Boys Are, the first comic novel about the annual invasion by American college students of the beaches of southern Florida in the annual phenomenon called “spring break.” [TIME first reported on spring break in April of 1959 in an article titled, “Beer & the Beach”]. Swarthout’s book served as the basis for the 1960 coming-of-age film of the same title, starring the eternally tanned George Hamilton, about Midwestern college co-eds spending spring break in Fort Lauderdale. The high-grossing, low-budget film and accompanying hit song, also of the same title, performed by Connie Francis (1960), set the stage for college students from all over America flocking to the warmth of Florida each spring in search of sun, fun, and perhaps even true love…. Within a year of the film’s release, 50,000 college students were converging on Fort Lauderdale to participate in what was to become the American college students’ rite of passage.
By the mid-1970s, the Sexual Revolution in full swing, the formula for the moral nose-dive of spring break had been calibrated. In 1974 Glen Tortorich, a public relations specialist from Louisiana, introduced a version of the Brazilian “tongas” bikini constructed of cotton, crochet, and denim. Immediately thereafter, tanned, barely covered butt-cheeks became the uniform of spring break. Then one year later, according to writer Joshua David Stein in his March 10, 2014 New York Magazine article, “A History of Spring Break,” John McGuire, an owner of Pierre’s Restaurant and Bar in Metairie, Louisiana, announced what is believed to be the first wet T-shirt contest, a fashion statement that would gain iconic status two years later in 1977 because of Jacqueline Bisset in the film The Deep. And with the Atlantic Ocean providing all the water anyone could need, wet T-shirt contests found their way and became almost obligatory at spring break venues in Florida.
By the mid-late 1980s, the event that had its humble beginnings as winter training for competitive swimmers had gotten decidedly racier and raunchier. And close to 400,000 students were insisting that their parents regard spring break in Florida as a legitimate college expense. Spring break had graduated into a college institution. Just as devout Catholics needed an annual “let-your-hair-down” respite, called carnival, from the rigors of Catholicism, so did college students from the burdens of academia. Spring break, therefore, was not a time to rest up, catch up on backed-up reading, and chill out…. Instead, it was a time to do all the things no decent, respectable adult would dare do. So everything from “balcony-diving,” a practice where students would access each other’s hotel rooms and floors by dangerously climbing—oftentimes while drunk—from balcony to balcony; to flat-out jumping off hotel balconies and rooftops into swimming pools, sometimes successfully, sometimes not; to drunken revelry, orgies, drug fests, flashing, and trashing hotel rooms, became part of the spring break tradition. And Fort Lauderdale was dubbed “Fort Liquordale.”
Just as the 1960 film Where the Boys Are had helped establish Fort Lauderdale as a spring break destination, a generation later, the 1985 film Spring Break, starring Tom Cruise, helped to solidify the annual tradition’s place in Americana. Then in 1986, that year from Daytona Beach, MTV inaugurated what would become its annual spring break broadcast (from varying locations), exposing for all the world to see, girls stripping off their swimsuit tops to bare their “milkyways,” boys “mooning” the sun, and thousands of heavenly beach-bodies entangled in hellish revelry.
By the end of the 1980s, however, the town of Fort Lauderdale had seen its share of spring breaks. So much so that the town enacted stricter laws, such as raising the drinking age and making the carrying of open containers of liquor illegal, and its then-mayor Robert Dressler went as far as to make an appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America to inform students that they had become personae non gratae. [But the hard-line stance came at a cost. By 2006, Fort Lauderdale, that in the 1980s hosted upwards of 350,000 spring breakers annually, was registering numbers of around 10,000. And in 2008, the city led the nation with a 73.7% increase in vacant retail space].
But just as the saying goes, “Don’t stop the carnival,” the same rings true for spring break. And the waves of students moved to more welcoming shores—first 240 miles north to Daytona Beach, until that city’s 1989 crackdown, then further up to Panama City Beach as well as to Texas’ South Padre Island. Cancún, Mexico, and Negril, Jamaica also benefited from the Fort Lauderdale exodus. [In 1988, after a hurricane devastated Cancún, the city was rebuilt specifically to serve as a spring break mecca. And based on 2014 arrival numbers, Panama City Beach, PCB as it is called, ranked number one in terms of annual visitors, registering 500,000 students]. Spring break’s reputation as “lewd and lascivious” endured into the 1990s, as evidenced by the 1997 and beyond VHS Girls Gone Wild series by Joe Francis depicting college women exposing their breasts on camera.
According to a March 30, 2009 TIME article by Loren Bohn titled “A Brief History of Spring Break,” the American Medical Association has been issuing warnings to spring breakers on binge-drinking and high-risk sexual behavior. And universities make available to students “safe break bags” containing such items as condoms, sunscreen, and sexual assault pamphlets. Efforts to “evolve” spring break are also underway. Alternative spring break programs that focus on community service rather than salacious activities are becoming increasingly popular. Atlanta, Georgia-based Break Away, founded in 1991 by Vanderbilt University alumni Michael Magevney and Laura Mann, trains college students to, while away on spring break, engage in social causes such as tutoring migrant farmers in Florida or registering voters in Mississippi. According to the organization’s data, 2009 saw student participating levels at around 68,000.
But traditions, by definition, are enduring. And spring break characterized by excesses continues to be more the norm than the exception. But even at spring break, a gentleman must behave like a gentleman. And as such, there is one, basic, catch-all don’t: Thou shalt not jeopardize a bright future for one week of hedonism. Drunkenness, date-rape, drugs, sexual misconduct, indecent exposure, nudity, racist and other intolerant conduct, etc., cannot be condoned and will not be excused in the name of “boys being boys on spring break.” Social media killed off “the good, old-boy network” years ago! So today, that which is done in public (and oftentimes, private) becomes global knowledge in a matter of seconds. Besides, a gentleman should always be a gentleman—regardless of whether he is being observed or recorded! Buy today, with practically every bad act being recorded, one minute of inappropriateness could haunt a young man for his lifetime. By all means, a young man should enjoy spring break. But he should, before arriving, compile a list, preferably in writing, of what vices he will not indulge. And, of course, he must be committed to acting, always, within the boundaries of the law. By establishing parameters in advance, then remaining committed to them (and having trusted friends remind him of them in the face of transgression if necessary), a young man is likely to enjoy his much-deserved vacation and return to his campus with his reputation intact and, probably, enhanced.