2,000 Years of Partying: The Brief History and Economics of Spring Break

The long shadow of March mayhem, from ancient Greek festivals to white Florida beaches -- and into the tax coffers of Bay County

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Reuters

Like Western democracy, Socratic philosophy, written histories, epic poetry, and every other foundational pillar of high culture, spring break began in ancient Greece.

Called "Anthestreria" by the local teens, and their parents, it was a festival dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine and whoopee and just about every excuse to party. For three days, people would dance, singers would perform, women would deck themselves with flowers, and Greek men would compete to see who could be the fastest to drain a cup of red wine.

Two thousand years later, practically nothing has changed except our taste in chugging alcohol. While Anthestreria is immortalized in terracotta wine vessels in world-class museums (below), you might think today's spring break rituals are as easily forgotten by history as they are by memory-blighted college students. But for the American cities that host students, the impact is not so brief, as John Laurie explained in his fascinating economic study Spring Break: The Economic, Socio-Cultural and Public Governance Impacts of College Students on Spring Break Host Locations.

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The paper begins, as spring break did, in Greece, before the rise of Christianity put an end to kylix head-stands and other childish things for two thousand years. It wasn't until the mid-twentieth century that modern spring break emerged. In 1934, Sam Ingram, a Colgate College swim coach, was looking for a warm place to keep his swimmers in shape. He chose the small, quiet town of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. More swimming instructors followed. During World War II, rich Ivy League students, who occasionally visited Bermuda during their spring breaks, were suddenly spooked by rumors of German U-Boats roaming the Caribbean. The best intracontinental alternative was to meet up with the swimmer co-eds in Florida. And so, Ft. Lauderdale became the first official home of the American Anthestreria tradition.

The Spring Break Effect
Fast-forward six decades and, by the early 2000s, nearly 40 percent of college students travel en masse for spring break, spending "nearly $1 billion" in Florida and Texas alone, according to Laurie. In addition to the peculiar joy of reading a paper with these sort of topic sentences -- "Spring Break has a temporal as well as descriptive definition" -- it makes a substantive point about the economic benefits of spring break to the cities receiving hoards of boozing college students.

The spring break effect is, in a word, meh.

But how exactly do you measure "the spring break effect"? Laurie graphs sales taxes and hotel development taxes for various undergrad hotspots in Florida, Texas, and Arizona. His overall conclusions are:

(1) Spring break can be great for some small businesses and bars that make their money selling cheap rooms and liquor on volume; BUT ...

(2) It's not a dependable revenue generator for the counties at large, which suggests the economic benefits of the event are overrated, even for the most popular destinations; AND ...

(3) The only local industry that is clearly and consistently stimulated by spring break is law enforcement.

What Hath Spring Break Wrought? The Panama City Story
Just inside the armpit of Florida's panhandle, looking into the Gulf of Mexico, sits Panama City Beach, the "spring break capital of the world." Every year, the area draws up to 500,000 college students -- that's 42 co-eds for every city resident counted in the 2010 Census. For many years, Panama City has been MTV's home base for spring break coverage, and partiers spend $170 million during six-week period, according to a 2004 study.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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