Summer Days in Winter Months: “Snowbirding” as Time Travel

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This winter, Canadians will continue their long tradition of flocking to warm-weather destinations. A record 3.7 million Canadian “snowbirds,” a popular term since the 1960s, visited Florida in 2013, the bulk of them in the winter months. This Canadian mass migration and rejection of winter’s physical realities through “snowbirding” does not appear, however, to match how important those winters have been to the construction of the Canadian self and nation.

Canadians, as I have argued elsewhere on The Otter, have long been proud of their cold-weather survival skills, and winter has been a distinct part of Canadian cultural identity. So why are millions of Canadians so eager to abandon their special winters for the southern sun? On closer look, the history of “snowbird” travel advertising reveals a certain logical gymnastics that reflects the Canadian ambivalence towards their winters. Specifically, rhetoric surrounding wintertime travel to what Air Canada still calls sun destinations, mostly Florida, Bermuda, and the Caribbean, suggests that wintering in warm climates is an act of time travel. Rather than necessarily travelling to another place with a distinct warm climate, “snowbirds” were rewinding (or fast-forwarding) to what felt like Canadian summer. Inadvertently, then, the Canadian climatic imaginary never completely disappears when “snowbirding,” but is intead simply deferred, delayed, or skipped over.

This strategy is not entirely unique to the postwar period, nor is it an exclusively Canadian phenomenon. At the turn of the 20th century, Caribbean travel narratives reflected the replacement of “winter” with “summer” (rather then the replacement of one place with another.) One of the most popular, published in a variety of editions across the turn of the 20th century, was American Charles Stoddard’s Cruising Among the Caribbees (New York: Charles Scribner, 1903.) His account is fairly standard for the time–cannibals, exotic dances, tropical fruits–but the subtitle, “Summer Days in Winter Months,” shows Stoddard’s concern with weather, climate, and the seasons. Stoddard’s departure from New York City was “wintry in the extreme,” for instance, but after five days of ocean travel, he “enjoyed the wonderful transition from winter to late spring.” The initial move from North America to the Caribbean is measured in time, not space; in a week, February became “a moist June morning.” The seasons here are flexible when mapped against calendar time. It’s never really winter in the Caribbean, since “the winter sun in…Barbados was as hot as the July sun in New York.”

This strategy of describing southern winters in terms of northern summers was invigorated once relatively quick, easy, and inexpensive air travel to southern destinations became possible. Trans Canada Air Lines (now Air Canada,) inaugurated air travel to Bermuda in 1948, followed quickly by Nassau and Jamaica, and by the early 1950s, the airline was also flying regularly to Trinidad, select Florida cities, and Barbados. The early years of TCA’s sun destination advertising were punctuated by references to time. For instance, the interwar introduction of the “two weeks” paid vacation inspired travel advertisers to incorporate time-saving rhetoric to help consumers capitalize on their “two weeks.” A round trip to Bermuda from Toronto would have involved more than a week at sea in the 1950s–not a terribly effective time-management strategy–and TCA capitalized on the relative speed and efficiency of its airliners to show how “you get more time there when you go by air!” Travel historian Richard Popp has shown the influence of the temporal aspects of vacationing on travel promotions, especially with the advent of the “two weeks” vacation, and in the “snowbird” context, saving hours by air dovetailed with the concept of saving entire seasons by swapping Canadian winters for summers.

In the first generation, so to speak, of TCA’s sun destination promotions, the airplanes themselves were black-boxed into “magic carpet” time machines that allowed passengers to exchange “rain or snow or cold for the pleasures of a glorious health-renewing summertime,” as one early 1950s brochure claimed.

1950 TCA magazine advertisement. Source: Air Canada Collection, Canada Aviation and Space Museum.
1950 TCA magazine advertisement. Source: Air Canada Collection, Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

Another full-colour magazine advertisement from October 1950 featuring man in swim trunks, with a beach towel draped over his arm, reminded Canadians that in Bermuda, Jamaica, or Florida, “it’s always ‘June in January.'” But it’s not. It’s still January there, just the same as it is in Toronto or Montreal. By associating “summer” months with Bermuda, Florida, and the Caribbean and “winter” ones with Canada, these advertisements suggest that travellers are not abandoning Canadian January entirely, just substituting it for Canadian June. There was some self-awareness in this wordplay; internal TCA coverage of the inaugural flight to the Bahamas (in November 1948,) claimed that even though “the residents called it the ‘winter season,’…the first wave of Canadian visitors…thought the term was highly inappropriate.” “Winter” and “summer” were measured by Canadian standards.

1967 Vancouver regional Air Canada advertisement. Source: Air Canada Collection, Canada Aviation and Space Museum Archives.
1967 Vancouver regional Air Canada advertisement. Source: Air Canada Collection, Canada Aviation and Space Museum Archives.

This rhetoric faded somewhat in the 1960s, especially as turbine-powered aircraft and a gradual reduction in cost made “snowbirding” more commonplace. Unlike the 1950s, sun destination winters and Canadian winters were increasingly seen as simultaneous, and substituting one for the other would help Canadians “be a good sport about winter.” A common trend, especially as colour photography became standard in advertising, was to contrast the bronzed faces of Caribbean locals with the blinding whiteness of both the untanned faces of “winter” Canadians and snow itself for which we recommend to check this new winter collection But the language of time travel never entirely disappeared. Advertisements continued to suggest that Canadians exchange, according to a 1969 newspaper ad, “sunshine for snowstorms [or] a round of golf for clearing the driveway” when they “fly from northern winters…to Spring in Bermuda.”

Canadians travellers were not, in these advertisements, expected to substitute their winters for someone else’s winters. Instead, the calendar year became elastic; “winter” was the Canadian season and “summer” was the Caribbean season, regardless of the month. At least until the late 1960s, when air travel was approaching “mass transit” status, “snowbirding” was an act of extending summer. Painting warm-weather vacationing an an act of time travel implied that Canadians could continue to hold on to their winter-weather-identity while still escaping its physical realities.

*Cover Image: Detail from a 1951 TCA “sun destination” advertisement. Source: Air Canada Collection, Canada Aviation and Space Museum Archive.

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Blair Stein

I am Assistant Professor of History at Clarkson University in northern New York State. I teach history of science and technology and environmental history, and I write about the links between geography, technology, and modernity in twentieth-century Canada, with a special interest in aviation.

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