A History of Spring Break

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Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP

The Greeks had the Dionysian mysteries. Medieval Catholics had carnival. American students have spring break, a range of weeks between March and April when everything goes Day-Glo, then blackout. Over the past half-century, it has become big business: Student Monitor LLC, a market-research firm, projects spring-break expenditures of $1.6 billion in 2014. Here, a guide to the annual bacchanalia, past and present.             

The First Spring Break:
In 1935, a swimming coach at Colgate University brought his team to train in Ft. Lauderdale during spring break. An annual aquatic conference followed, as did swimmers’ less athletic friends.

The First Pop Culture Homage:
In 1958, an English professor overheard students talking about a trip to Ft. Lauderdale. The prof tagged along and wrote a book, Where the Boys Are, which became a hit movie and song. Within a year, 50,000 students flocked there.

The First Tanned Butt Cheek:
In 1974, a Louisiana PR man named Glen Tortorich introduced a version of the Brazilian “tongas,” made from cotton, denim, and crochet. After the show, Tortorich took a model on a local media tour. “I said, ‘Hit it!’ And she would drop the dress.” The exposed behind became a spring-break staple.

The First Wet T-shirt Contest:
In 1975, John McGuire, an owner of Pierre’s restaurant and bar in Metairie, Louisiana, invented the first commercial wet T-shirt contest. (Many credit Jacqueline Bisset in 1977’s The Deep with popularizing the style.) McGuire awarded prizes of $75.

“There was one woman who lost and complained that she was bigger than the others. But we were judging on quality, not quantity. Also, I think she was a stripper. This was supposed to be an amateur contest.” —Doug Christian, DJ and judge in first wet T-shirt contest

The First Televised Mayhem:
In 1986, MTV began to broadcast an annual Spring Break special from Daytona Beach. Mr. Mister and the Beastie Boys performed.

“The ’86 Spring Break was the first time the word ‘woody’ had been used on television. Also, the directors in the booth had the camera guys scope out girls taking off their shirts. Little did they know that there was a live feed going out across America.” —Alan Hunter, MTV Spring Break’s original VJ

The First Spring Break Planned City:
In 1988, after it was leveled by a hurricane, Cancún was rebuilt purposefully as a spring-break mecca. Today, Cancún hosts more than 30,000 spring breakers annually. Recent violence in the region has done little to stop the foot traffic to Señor Frog’s.

The First Flavored Condom:
Kiss of Mint was introduced in 1988 by LifeStyles. But tasty prophylactics weren’t big until 1995, when Durex introduced flavored condoms in strawberry, apple, and banana. Sales were particularly high in the South Central region, including Florida.

The Great Spring Break Migration:
In the late 1980s, Ft. Lauderdale erected a wall separating the beach from the road, made open containers illegal, and raised the drinking age. Many spring breakers—350,000 by 1985—moved 240 miles north to Daytona Beach. Briefly. By 1989, the city sickened of the madness and cracked down on bars and clubs, arresting hundreds of students, who, in turn, moved farther up to Panama City Beach, as well as to Texas’s South Padre Island; Cancún, Mexico; and Negril, Jamaica. PCB, as it is called, however, is still tops, attracting nearly 500,000 partyers annually.

The First Wild Girls:
In 1997, a 24-year-old production assistant named Joe Francis began a series of VHS videos of drunk women exposing their breasts in Ft. Lauderdale during spring break.

“Soon people started believing what we showed. Girls Gone Wild became spring break.” —Joe Francis, founder Girls Gone Wild

Spring Break 2014
(According to the staffers of website Total Frat Move)

Drink: 
“Doesn’t matter as long as someone else is buying them.”

Contest:
“Trying not to black out before your friends do … LOL.”

Amateur Move:
“Getting ‘Iced.’ ”
“Getting pregnant.”

“SPF over 20.”

Expert Move:
“A laminated card with my name and local address on it for help getting home.”

Reading Material:
“Tinder.”

*This article appeared in the March 10, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.