Recreation and Social Life

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In antebellum America (1840–1860), recreational and social amusements tended to differ according to region, ethnicity, class, and gender. Rural communities frequently combined socializing with work such as quilting bees or barn raisings. Get-togethers were largely informal, with all who attended actively participating. In the cities, however, class defined leisure pursuits. The middle class frequented theaters, ice cream parlors, and restaurants. Home amusements, such as parlor games, dinner parties, and holiday celebrations, were also popular. The custom of calling and receiving visitors, once reserved for the upper class, had become a favorite social activity of middle-class women. The working class could also be found in theaters, but drinking in saloons was the most common form of socializing for working men. In the streets of working-class neighborhoods, children played, women visited, men smoked and drank, fire companies staged races, and militia and ethnic groups paraded. The upper class gathered at more exclusive places for socializing and recreation. Mountain and beach resorts, which were difficult to reach and therefore expensive, attracted elite families from across the country. The society and amusements of places such as Saratoga, New York, the Virginia springs, and Newport, Rhode Island, drew the upper class, as did the opportunity to escape from hot weather and improve their health. Plantation elites also spent their leisure time at barbeques, balls, horse races, and card and

dinner parties. Their slaves often spent their off times at religious gatherings that blended singing, shouting, and dancing, reaffirming their communal ties.

The Civil War and its accompanying urbanization and industrialization significantly altered the nature of society and the ways Americans spent their leisure time. During the war, many theaters and resorts closed or were used as hospitals. After the war, railroads made most of the resorts more accessible. The expense that had ensured the exclusivity of these places disappeared. Railroads also made travel to other sites across the country, such as Atlantic City, Niagara Falls, and Yellowstone Park, relatively easy and inexpensive. The movement of large numbers of people by train began to blur the regional distinctions that had previously characterized most recreational areas. More importantly, after the war leisure became a regular part of more and more Americans' lives in the form of the vacation, and new kinds of entertainment emerged to meet the insatiable appetite for pleasure. Parks, railroad excursions, beaches, scenic sites, and sporting events all offered pleasure-seekers respite from ordinary life. Commercialized public amusements, such as dance halls, penny arcades, vaudeville theaters, and amusement parks—especially Coney Island—became increasingly popular after the war. At these new venues, male and female members of the working and sometimes middle class easily socialized with one another. Most of these commercial amusements, however, excluded African Americans. In response, African Americans established their own, yet similar, places of recreation, including mountain and seaside resorts, amusement parks and theaters, though they still regarded their churches as their primary place for socializing.

Postwar urbanization and expansion of the railroad networks also influenced the development of athletic activities and the increasing organization of sports. In response to accelerating industrialization, many people began to view sports as a necessary and safe outlet from the pressures of work. Baseball had become enormously popular among soldiers during the war, and it emerged as the nation's favorite team sport and the major spectator sport in the post-Civil War era. Rail expansion allowed teams to travel quickly to other cities and facilitated the development of professional national leagues. Between the Civil War and World War I, sports assumed an important role in American life for both men and women. Indeed, women in ever-increasing numbers played tennis, golf, basketball, and other sports, and participated in the cycling craze. Baseball, boxing, and football, however, remained the preserve of men. After the war, sports attracted a growing proportion of the general American public and became one of the main forms of recreation and entertainment


Aron, Cindy S. Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Braden, Donna R. Leisure and Entertainment in America. Dearborn, MI: Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, 1988.

Dulles, Foster Rhea. A History of Recreation: America Learns to Play, 2d edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965.

Nasaw, David. Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Charlene M. Boyer Lewis

See also:Urbanization.