Recreation, Sports, and Games

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By 1750 sport and recreation had become an important part of everyday life in colonial America. The settlers who came to North America brought with them the love of games and amusements that characterized "Merrie Olde England," but recreation had to give way to the creation of a new society in an intimidating and dangerous environment. Early on in both the

Massachusetts Bay Colony and Jamestown, leaders felt compelled to "suffer no Idle persons" and to adopt laws "in detestation of idleness." During the early decades of settlement, strict proscriptions against dancing, bowling, dice and cards, and the playing of games of ball were imposed, although enforcement was sporadic. As the colonies developed stable economic and social foundations, however, such prohibitions broke down and colonists of all classes engaged in a wide range of games and amusements.

By the mid-1700s distinctive regional patterns for individual and organized sport had taken root. Attempts to enforce seventeenth-century laws prohibiting popular leisure activities had long since ended. Interest in sports grew with rising income levels and a growing colonial economy that made leisure activities more attractive. To their credit the Puritans in Massachusetts and Connecticut had sought, with varying degrees of success, to outlaw "butcherly sports" like cockfighting and animal baiting, although it has been said that they banned them not so much because of the sufferings of animals but the pleasure the practice gave spectators. Such prohibitions grew out of the essential work ethic of Calvinism: games might provide amusement, but they detracted from the labor that had to be accomplished in field and shop. Nonetheless, the erosion of theocratic control meant that New Englanders increasingly enjoyed their dancing, cards, and dice, even an occasional horse race. Children were encouraged to engage in vigorous activities, especially hunting and fishing for the boys. Young males also played a ball and stick game of "rounders," the precursor to baseball, and "foot-ball," which was somewhat akin to modern soccer and rugby. Swimming was a popular

summer pastime, as was ice skating in winter. Girls were generally cautioned against vigorous exercise after reaching puberty and encouraged to prepare for early marriage by playing with dolls and learning from their mothers the skills of housekeeping and cooking. By the eve of the Revolution, New Englanders regularly participated in dancing and parlor games, challenging traditional Puritan values. In the mid-1750s the young Boston lawyer John Adams found such dalliances disconcerting but inevitable: "Let others waste their bloom of life at the card or billiards table among rakes and fools," he grumbled. Nor did he appreciate the popular pastime of dancing: "I never knew a dancer good for anything else."

In the middle colonies the Dutch Calvinist and Quaker influences initially put a damper on exuberant play, but later people enjoyed whist, croquet, tennis, lawn bowling, and badminton, even a rudimentary game played with "gouff sticks." In both New England and the middle colonies, taverns served as a center for organized events, their owners arranging horse races, cockfights, wrestling matches, and bowling contests to attract customers. The taverns also were the natural home for ongoing games of checkers, dice, darts, shuffleboard, and cards, serving as precursors of the organized men's athletic clubs that would appear in the mid-nineteenth century. The increased number of laws passed during the early eighteenth century in New England prohibiting popular recreations suggests that more people were engaging in these activities more often.

As the Calvinist leadership valiantly but vainly sought to focus its people on a life of solemn industriousness, conversely the dominant Anglican culture in the Tidewater encouraged the playing of games. From the earliest days of settlement, members of the southern aristocracy consciously sought to emulate the landed aristocracy of England, where life revolved around horses, hunting, drinking, and gambling. The slave-owning classes of Maryland and Virginia felt compelled to work hard at their play because their slaves did the arduous work. Women supervised the household and went on continuous rounds of visiting, card parties, balls, and banquets; men oversaw work in the tobacco fields and enjoyed gambling (often high stakes) at cards, dice, backgammon, cockfights, lawn bowling, and especially horse races.

Quality horses were central to the lives of the slave-owning class. Ownership of a spirited and elegant horse in colonial America was the equivalent of possession of a sleek automobile in the twentieth century—it set a gentleman apart. In emulation of the British country gentry, the southern male aristocrat relished riding to the hounds in pursuit of a frightened fox. George Washington was proud of his stable of fast horses and his pack of trained hounds, and he imported the best hunting firearms from England along with buckskin riding breeches and brilliantly colored riding frocks. His diaries report frequent forays for "ducking" and fox hunting. During the first two months of 1769, for example, he rode to the hounds no less than fifteen times, and he enjoyed the many balls, receptions, and banquets that he attended in Alexandria, Williamsburg, and Annapolis. Thomas Jefferson equally enjoyed the life of a gentleman slave owner: "I was often thrown into the society of horse-racers, card-players, fox hunters," he once wrote approvingly. His advice to a friend on the perfect life was, "Get a pair of keen horses, practice the law in the same courts, and drive about to all the dances in the county together." That Virginia common law included a code for the conduct of races and the settling of wagers afterward attests to their centrality in the life of colonial Virginia. After the American Revolution the first thoroughbred horses of Arabian origin were imported from England, and urban newspapers would report as early as 1820 on major races conducted at enclosed tracks in New York and Virginia.

Lower-class whites in the South pursued their own games, largely unfettered by the religious constraints of the northern colonies. At small roadside taverns they enjoyed food and plenty of drink, quoits, cards, dice, and shuffleboard. Tavern owners attracted business by holding wrestling matches and bare-knuckle fights, cockfights, and dog baitings. Similarly, in the middle and northern colonies during the eighteenth century people enjoyed drinking and wagering at table games in taverns. One popular entertainment was "gander pulling," at which a tavern owner would tie a poor goose to a tree limb, its head slathered in grease, and patrons, fueled by hearty drink, rode past on their horses in an attempt to pull off the squawking bird's head. The winner got to take the goose home for dinner.

On the eve of the American Revolution, sporting events remained informal and local, with little resemblance to the heavily organized and regulated amateur and professional sporting activities of today. Except for firearms, most equipment was handmade, and rules were created locally. Many contests—bare-knuckle fights, foot races, shooting contests—often occurred spontaneously as a means to resolve disputes but also provided amusement for onlookers. In a predominantly rural society, work naturally melded with play. The average citizen found amusement in corn huskings, quilting bees, and community harvests, frequently with music and dancing. Local fairs often featured demonstrations of strength and agility necessary in everyday life—wrestling, target shooting, plowing contests, horsemanship, wood cutting, log rolling. Often the distinction between work and play disappeared entirely as community activities like a barn raising included socialization, demonstration of carpentry skills, and physical prowess. Hunting and fishing required special skills and merged the worlds of work and play until they were indistinguishable.

The Revolutionary era put a damper on popular sport and recreational activities. Opposition to colonial rule from abroad inspired attacks on members of the native privileged class, who were closely associated with the sporting life. Thus horse racing virtually ceased after the First Continental Congress passed legislation urging the states to "discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gambling, cockfighting, exhibitions of shows, plays, and other expensive diversions and amusements." Several state legislatures enacted similar legislation, and informal Revolutionary groups, such as the Sons of Liberty, served as extralegal enforcers of these prohibitions. The ardent revolutionary Sam Adams urged that each of the thirteen states seek to become a "Christian Sparta." This zealous republican Revolutionary spirit spent itself by the late 1780s, after which the American people comfortably resumed their public pursuit of amusement.

The end of the War for Independence unleashed a heavy migration into the trans-Appalachian frontier. There popular recreations, such as target shooting, often revolved around hunting. Other activities, especially wrestling, emphasized physical strength. The peculiar phenomenon of "rough-and-tumble" developed in western Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. A particularly violent form of human combat, it was part wrestling, part fisticuffs, part pure mayhem that included kicking, clawing, and gouging. Tearing off body parts—testicles in particular—was a primary objective, although the ultimate victory occurred when an adversary's eyeball was extracted. To that end, local champions grew their fingernails long and filed them to a sharp point. These gruesome contests were sometimes scheduled at shooting matches, fairs, and by entrepreneurial tavern owners, but most often they simply grew out of a dispute between two hot-blooded young men who saw their honor as at stake and sought to gain "respect." Spectators joined in the fun, naturally betting on the outcome. Visitors to the old Southwest long after the Civil War reported observing surprising numbers of aging men with badly scarred faces and empty eye sockets.

Following the War of 1812 the growing tide of modernism altered popular recreations. By 1830 machine technology, steam power, and major innovations in transportation had led to factory manufacturing and a new urban environment. The emerging corporate economy influenced the games Americans played. Local and regional sports organizations were formed to establish standards of play. The time when sporting events were spontaneous extensions of the rigors of daily life and labor would be replaced by structure, bureaucratic organization, written rules, and formal records. A wealthy gentlemen no longer rode his own prize quarter horse in an informal sprint for glory, but instead owned a thoroughbred ridden by a professional jockey wearing attire specifically prescribed by the Jockey Club of America. Newspapers and magazines began to provide national coverage of horse racing and other sporting events, encouraging the standardization of rules, methods for setting betting odds, and the keeping of records.

By 1820 the indigenous middle-American sport of harness racing emerged. It was first reported in New York City in 1803. Men gravitated after work to the five-mile graveled stretch of Third Avenue to show off their family horse and buggy. The animals were of common stock, not the fancy thoroughbreds of the elitist Jockey Club set. Informal races often ended at one of the many taverns along the thoroughfare. By the 1820s this "roadster" phenomenon had given way to oval tracks for "trotters" where organized competition was scheduled. The new sport of harness racing quickly spread; by the 1830s several race tracks for trotters and pacers had been opened in the West and South. Harness racing remained a sport of the middle class, becoming a constant at county fairs, an American tradition that continues to this day.

Not only horses attracted public attention. In Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, rowing clubs were formed to sponsor various forms of small craft racing as well as to provide exercise for the desk-bound, urban middle-class male. Longdistance foot racing—popularly known as "pedestrianism"—was also the rage. In 1835 a twenty-four-year-old Connecticut farmer, Henry Stannard, thrilled the nation when he won $1,000 put up by New York's leading sportsman, John Cox Stevens, by finishing ten miles in less than the prescribed sixty minutes; Stannard beat the clock by just twelve seconds.

By 1830 sport in America had thus begun to make a grand transition from an emphasis on localism and spontaneity to standardization, routinization, and organization. By 1845 the simple informal game of rounders played by youngsters in colonial times had been transformed into the formal game of baseball—complete with written rules, an umpire dressed in judicial black, and manufactured equipment—played before cheering spectators by grown men wearing distinctive uniforms. Within another decade the "New York City Game" had become professionalized with top players now being paid by team owners who charged spectators admission to see the action.

See alsoClass: Development of the Working Class; Class: Overview; Domestic Life; Firearms (Nonmilitary); Gambling; Games and Toys, Children's; Work: Work Ethic .


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Daniels, Bruce C. Puritans at Play: Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.

Dulles, Foster Rhea. A History of Recreation: America Learns to Play. 2nd ed. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1965.

Gorn, Elliott J. "Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Back Country." American Historical Review 90 (February 1985): 18–43.

Struna, Nancy L. People of Prowess: Sport, Leisure, and Labor in Early Anglo-America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

Richard O. Davies