Part of an occasional series answering readers’ questions about Maine

Q: Whose idea was it to call Maine “Vacationland”?

Since 1936, Maine license plates have borne the slogan “Vacationland.” 

The phrase, like it or not, has come to be known as the unofficial brand of the state and has long perpetuated and promoted Maine’s reputation as a vacation destination and summer playground.

While it has certainly stuck, the origins of the slogan are unclear. No one has been able to pinpoint a place, person or entity that first coined the phrase. 

Maine’s reputation as a vacation destination goes back before statehood 200 years ago, and it’s long been seen as a mixed blessing by those who live here. That was never more evident than this year during the coronavirus crisis.

On one hand, the decline in travel has been a painful reminder about how much businesses and the economy depend on the millions of people who come each summer to enjoy our coast or our forests. Tourism is Maine’s largest industry and the state has the highest proportion of vacation homes in the country – 19 percent of the housing stock.

But, at the same time, Maine imposed quarantine restrictions on visitors from outside the state. And some residents sent the clear message in the early weeks of the crisis that people from away were not welcome this year.

While it is neither our official nickname (Pine Tree State) nor an official motto (Dirigo), Vacationland is pretty deeply tangled up in our state identity at this point.

According to State Historian Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., Maine tried to promote itself as a vacation destination after the end of the Civil War.

The coast, and especially the Bar Harbor region, attracted wealthy and powerful summer residents in the late 19th century, even before what would become Acadia National Park was established in 1919.

“For destination marketers, being nicknamed Vacationland is an advantage no other destination can claim,” said a spokesperson from the Maine Office of Tourism. “While we don’t use it often in our marketing materials, it does give us bragging rights.”

During the Great Depression, the state’s 56th governor, Louis J. Brann, took several steps to increase Maine’s profile on the national scale.

Among these efforts were several “welcome home days” – huge rally-like events that started at the State House and spilled out into Capitol Park.  It was under Brann’s administration that the word first appeared on a license plate.

“I think they were looking for a tagline, a word, a slogan, a motto that would capture the public imagination and bring attention to the fact that Maine was Vacationland,” Shettleworth said. The phrase also appeared on postcards the year before.

However, some records indicate the phrase dates back far earlier. George H. Lewis, a native Mainer and professor at the University of the Pacific, wrote in 2008 that the phrase was first coined by publicists at the Maine Central Railroad in the 1890s.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened tensions over Maine’s popularity as a destination for outsiders, it seems that the brand may be hard to shake.

Most recently, in 2019, there was an effort by state Rep. Kent Ackley,  I-Monmouth, to change the phrase to “Staycationland,” in hopes of attracting younger families to move to the state, rather than just visit. The bill did not pass the House.

  • The place we live in is an endless source of small mysteries. Whose idea was that? Where’d that come from? What’s up, when and why? Tell us what’s puzzling you about Maine or your local community using the form here. We’ll pick questions that have broad interest, find the answers and report back. So, got questions, Maine? We know you do.
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