How to Have the Ultimate Vintage Americana Summer

It’s just not a real summer without backyard dinners, swimming, and bonfires on the lakeshore.

Have you ever wanted to bring back a nostalgic, All-American summer from your childhood, or just me? When you think about everything that encapsulates the most nostalgic summers of your childhood, you realize it doesn’t get much better than the traditional Americana summer. Admittedly, I had a 1950s-style childhood even in the 1980s and 1990s, where we played outside all day and still came home to a family dinner in the evening.

So how can you have an old-fashioned Americana Summer this year?

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My Idea of Americana Summer

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An Americana summer is one that’s classically American, involving activities such as attending baseball games and concerts, eating hot dogs and hamburgers, backyard dinners from the grill, making s’mores, watching fireworks on July 4th, going to summer camp, and spending a day at the lake or up in the mountains. Even mosquito bites and chiggers are part of it! 

Here are some ideas for a vintage Americana bucket list:

Attend a Bonfire

Part of growing up in rural America means that there were SO MANY summer bonfires. 

They were at lakes, on people’s farms, and even just at summer camp. Almost every weekend, someone would be having a bonfire. You didn’t go to all of them, of course, but at least 2-3 bonfires a summer is something to try for.

Usually bonfires are accompanied by food — try hosting a lakeshore potluck picnic and bonfire yourself this summer.

Go to an Outdoor Concert

Here in Northern New Mexico, we not only have outdoor concerts and music festivals, we also have outdoor Shakespeare, outdoor dance performances, and outdoor opera!

Seriously, though, try a country music festival, or a classic rock concert at an outdoor venue to give your summer a real Americana vibe. Even if you don’t like country music, there’s something classically summery about country concerts. Try to find an outdoor concert in your area where you can pack a blanket, lie on the grass, and enjoy a picnic and some good music. 

And hey, maybe even learn a little line dancing, too!

Send Your Kids to Summer Camp

To be fair, sleep-away camp was the highlight of my summer every year until high school, so I am biased.

But honestly, this should be the only truly scheduled activity you insist on all season. A few weeks in a summer camp high in the mountains or deep in the woods is a CLASSIC American experience, and has been since the late 1800s. It does so many things, but originally it was meant both as a change of scene and an encounter with Nature for city kids.

I HIGHLY recommend finding a sleepaway camp that lasts anywhere from a week to a month, especially if your kids are homeschooled.

Spend a Day (or a Weekend) at the Lake

Obviously, the ultimate in Americana is a cottage or a houseboat AT the lake, where you spend most of the summer.

But, even for those who don’t have so much as a boat, a day at the lake covers all the bases.

Plan to swim in the lake, fish, have a picnic, and just sit for a while — and try to do it more than once this summer, too!

Pick Fresh Berries

There’s something undeniably nostalgic about picking fresh berries in the summertime. 

The sun warms your skin as you reach for plump, juicy strawberries, blueberries, or raspberries. The air is filled with the sweet scent of ripe fruit, and the sound of birds singing in the trees. It’s a sensory experience that transports you back to your childhood, when summer days seemed endless and the only thing that mattered was enjoying the simple pleasures of life. 

If you have a berry farm near you, this is YOUR sign to take the family and pick some berries to make some memories.

Go Camping

Family camping gained immense popularity in the 1950s, with car companies (especially Ford Motor Company) writing coffee table books about how it offered a nostalgic (yes, even then!) and adventurous way to bond and create lasting memories. 

Car camping became a quintessential American pastime. Families packed their station wagons, loaded up camping gear, and hit the open road, seeking solace in nature’s embrace. As early as the 1910s, families had begun car camping (like whole, multi-day camps, with platform tents and kerosene stove) in National Parks like Yellowstone for weeks at a time.

You can check out the Ford Treasury of Station Wagon Living and see a whole vista of 1950s camping delight to replicate in your Americana summer — Road Trip!

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Visit a National Park (or Several)

In the 1950s, the National Park Service received support and funding to expand visitor services and modernize park facilities. 

The renewed interest in the Parks coincided with the development of the US highway system and the creation of the first interstate highways. The NPS also published a national park magazine. Most of the nation’s campgrounds are still in the parks, forests, wilderness and recreation areas maintained by our state and national governments. 

Even in the 1950s there were 28 national parks, and 150 national forests, as well as state forests and parks.

Enjoying our incredible heritage of public lands is a great way to build nostalgic memories and channel your best vintage family life. Monuments are great places to learn history, and the parks are full of STUNNING natural wonders. (Yellowstone is both deadly and awe-inspiring.)

Find a national or state forest, park, or monument in your state, and take your children, even if it’s just for a day hike. 

Host a Backyard BBQ Just Because

Everyone loves a patio party!

Patio parties have been popular since long before the 1950s. They are essentially traditional matanzas and ox-roasts, mellowed down to fewer people and home backyards. In the 1950s, they became the popular, informal way to entertain.

Because of the informality, a patio barbecue party makes a great “just because” summer occasion. It’s simple, easy to plan, and usually quite enjoyable — especially when you include outdoor party games. It’s a good way to entertain the neighbors you might not want to invite for a formal dinner.

Plus, it’s a great excuse to wear your patio dress!

Celebrate Independence Day

The 4th of July in the 1950s was about being happy and proud to be an American.

Our flag was a symbol of our being in agreement on American principles we all valued. The holiday represented everybody who liked different presidents and different parties and their different takes on things. And it was easy to be proud of being an American in the ’50s.

I still celebrate with a BBQ, reading the Declaration of Independence, and maybe a trip down to the nearest town to see the parade and the games.

Drink Cherry Coke

Cherry Coke is an outstandingly, decadently awful retro treat, and you simply cannot let summer slip by without having one.

In my memory, cherry Cokes are indelibly associated with sleepaway church camp, the only summer camp I went to. Every afternoon had free time, and the “canteen” (a quintessential retro soda counter, gift shop and drug store) served cherry cokes and ice cream. 

I don’t know how they made theirs, but I make mine with a tablespoon of maraschino cherry juice, straight from the jar, mixed quickly with about 8 ounces of Coke, following the recipe in Square Meals by Jane and Michael Stern.

Try one while you sit out on the patio for your BBQ!

Go Swimming

For a good chunk of the 20th century, American towns offered community swimming pools as symbols of leisure and civic pride. 

They were testaments to public investment. The people who modernized America, built cars, roadways, planes, airports and schools, also believed in the value of teaching their children to swim alongside boating, fishing, hiking, and all the outdoor sports. Public pools and middle-class living went hand-in-hand in midcentury American summers.

Actually, public pools were one of the benefits of public life and civic engagement that were the key to making American democracy real. The pool was a community space that overcame the social distance that keeps people separate in most spheres of life.

Kids could spend summers at the pool, all day, every day. They could play Wiffle ball, showing off for pretty girls, trading baseball cards on the pool deck, learn to be polite and respectful around adults, and save the nonsense and horsing around for being unsupervised. Lessons that go beyond learning to swim.

And even today, when pool access has become a luxury, it helps retain those vintage values to invest in making sure that your kids get at least some time hanging out at a community pool and learning to swim.

Eat Popsicles

How to deal with summer heat: an old swing hung on a tree and a homemade popsicle after a swim.

Seriously, popsicles, homemade or store-bought, are a core memory from childhood. (If you don’t believe me, check out That Midwestern Mom’s summer series!) Ice cream cones are dessert, but popsicles are more like a special, summer-only snack — and that makes memories.

I usually make them out of lemonade or Koolaid, or I buy the traditional cherry, orange, and grape popsicles. I don’t usually do the Otter pop style, just because there is SO MUCH PLASTIC with 8 kids eating popsicles. At least the popsicle sticks end up as sand toys.

And from swimming to popsicles to… SWINGS!

Set Up a Swing

This isn’t a swing set — I mean an old tree swing, a tire swing, or even a porch swing.

Don’t get me wrong, I miss those old playgrounds with the metal rockets, the merry-go-rounds, the hot metal everywhere. But they aren’t quite the same as an old wooden swing on a tree at the edge of the big backyard. Or an old, creaky porch swing just out of sight of the grownups.

Sitting on an old swing, not even trying to go anywhere and just gently moving back and forth, is an amazing way to spend an hour or so on a summer afternoon.

Visit a Carnival

Confession: I never ride on carnival rides — I don’t even like proper theme park roller coasters.

But I love carnivals. The games, the lights, the people. The cotton candy…

Anyway, even if you don’t go on even a carousel or Ferris wheel, a carnival is still a memory maker — the noise, the lights, and the whole she-bang will live rent-free in your head. Carnivals are one of those classic retro hometown staples. 

So many summertime memories are made at carnivals, and you can always skip the rides and opt for funnel cake and cotton candy instead.

Take a Hike

Hiking is enjoyable almost year-round, but summertime is the best time.

As opposed to walking, hiking connotes an intention: a plan, a path, and an experience to be had on the way. You need both leisure time for pleasure and a desire to exercise. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that a significant number of ordinary Americans actually had both at the same time.

This summer, pack up your family and hit up a trailhead near you. Hiking doesn’t need to be long and arduous either. For most, a quick walk in the woods is still the best cure for the ills of modern life.

Go to a Baseball Game

As America’s favorite pastime, baseball absolutely deserves a spot on your Americana summer bucket list. 

Baseball season kicks off in the spring and stretches all summer long, giving you plenty of opportunities to catch a local game. Head to the local park, grab yourself a seat in the bleachers and some peanuts and Cracker Jacks, and cheer for the home team! It’s a quintessential summertime experience

Or, why not play some catch with your kids in your own backyard? Once you play with them a bit, and make sure they have a ball, a mitt, and a bat, maybe they’ll find that they like playing sandlot ball on those long, hot BORING summer afternoons.

Go to the Beach

Imagine a perfect retro Americana-themed summer beach day: the sun is shining, you’ve got sunscreen on your shoulders, and the sand feels warm between your toes. 

You’ve packed all the essentials – a big umbrella for some necessary shade, a refreshing cold drink in your hand, and a juicy summer read that transports you back in time. Your kids are slathered in sunscreen and wearing playsuits. Sounds just like a day from my childhood!

Snack on fresh fruit while lounging on a classic striped beach towel, and let the day unfold with old-fashioned fun. Build an epic sandcastle, take a leisurely stroll down the shoreline, and challenge your friends to a game of beach volleyball. If your beach has a boardwalk, you’re in for a treat – think nostalgic games, thrilling rides, and snack stands offering everything from cotton candy to hot dogs. 

It’s the kind of day that makes you feel like memories aren’t a bad thing, full of simple pleasures and endless summer joy.

Walk Around Town

Picture this: you and your family are out for a delightful dinner at your favorite local spot, enjoying hearty conversations and delicious food. 

The sun is just beginning to dip, casting a warm, golden glow over the town. After dinner, you all decide to take a leisurely stroll around the charming streets, the soft evening breeze making everything feel just right. Laughter fills the air as you window-shop and share stories, the perfect way to unwind together. 

As you pass the corner ice cream parlor, you can’t resist stopping in for a scoop of your favorite flavor. You savor each bite of your ice cream cone, racing against the heat to finish it before it melts, the sweetness adding the perfect touch to an already magical evening. The kids get their ice cream all over their faces, but luckily no-one drops their cone — which means you get to eat the extra you got “just in case!”

It’s these simple summer moments, shared with family, that create memories you’ll cherish forever of what vintage Americana — an Americana summer — should be.

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