1815-1850: Sports and Recreation: Overview
1815-1850: Sports and Recreation: Overview
Sloth and Sin. In the early nineteenth century most Americans believed that time was meant to be filled by work. They looked with disfavor on recreational pursuits, including sports, dancing, drinking, music, theater, and art. This stern view of life had religious, technological, economic, and political roots. In part it was a relic of the powerful Puritan work ethic that spread from New England across the upper West, rooted in the belief that material success gained by constant labor was a sign of heaven’s favor and reinvigorated by the preachers of the Second Great Awakening who warned their listeners that indulgence in idle pastimes was sinful. Leisure was also a casualty of the inventions that increased the pace of daily life. People traveled faster (by railroad and steamboat), communicated faster (by telegraph), worked faster (in mechanized factories), and even ate faster, shocking European observers such as Frances Trollope with “the voracious rapidity with which the viands were seized and devoured” at American tables. The time saved by such speed was not wasted in recreation but put to use to make money. The development of a capitalist market economy gave every American, in theory, the opportunity and incentive to become rich through hard work and took away excuses for economic failure. Finally, the political glorification of the hardworking common man in the Jacksonian era carried with it the condemnation of aristocracy and its trappings. When a billiards table appeared in the White House during the presidency of John Quincy Adams, his political opponents seized upon it as a sign of Adams’s effete, antidemocratic ways and used it with success as a campaign issue in 1828, when Adams lost the presidency to Andrew Jackson.
Sportsmen. While most middle-class Americans focused their energies on succeeding in the emerging market economy, there were those at the high and low ends of the social and economic ladders who rejected the idea of all work and no play. At the bottom of the scale were the people who assembled shoes, guns, ready-made clothing, and other products in large shops and factories. The prospects of economic success and independence, which motivated the entrepreneurs and white-collar workers who owned and organized these enterprises, seemed remote to the unskilled wage laborers who did the work. Worse, the increasing subdivision of labor,
which set such workers to performing the same simple tasks repeatedly, made their work less satisfying than in the days when artisans crafted individual items from start to finish. As workers found less hope or meaning in their labor, they valued their hours of leisure more and often spent them watching or participating in sporting events. At the other economic extreme the enjoyment of leisure was cultivated by southern planters and eastern gentlemen of inherited wealth, who rejected the material values of the market economy. For those who preferred and could afford a more aristocratic way of life, pursuits such as fox hunting, yacht racing, billiards, theatergoing, and other forms of recreation remained popular.
Public Spectacles. One of the earliest patrons of sports in America was John Cox Stevens, heir to a steamboat fortune, who organized yachting and horse-racing events that drew thousands of spectators. On 27 May 1823 he sponsored the “race of the century,” the first in a series of North-South challenge matches that continued until 1845, when harness racing began to supplant thoroughbred racing as the nation’s most popular spectator sport. For the 1823 event as many as one hundred thousand fans made their way to the Union Course on New York’s Long Island to see a northern horse, American Eclipse, defeat a southern horse, Sir Henry, in a series of four-mile heats. In 1835 Stevens attracted twenty thousand fans to watch a footrace, called the Great Race, when he offered $1, 000 to any man who could run ten miles in less than an hour. Henry Stannard finished the race in fifty-nine minutes and forty-nine seconds. Throughout the 1840s footracing grew in popularity, as did other sports, such as billiards (after Charles Goodyear’s discovery of vulcanized rubber in 1839 provided a cheap material for the cushions along the sides of the table), bowling, and boxing. Bare-knuckle prizefighting rivaled harness racing as the most popular spectator sport by 1850 even though it was illegal in most states, forcing organizers to schedule fights at the last minute and to change venues frequently to elude the police. In the South planters organized and wagered on boxing matches between slaves, but the sport was dominated by ethnic contests in the North between Catholic Irish immigrants and American-born Protestants.
Respectable Sports. Although middle-class people generally disdained sporting events and the violence, gambling, and drinking that frequently accompanied them, there were some forms of physical recreation that gained respectability. Educational reformers promoted “gymnastics,” which took in a wide range of physical activities as a way of improving public health and morals. Many of the academies and colleges founded in the 1820s, including Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia, featured a gymnasium on campus or required students to participate in gymnastic exercises. Women as well as men were encouraged to exercise by books such as Catharine Beecher’s Course of Calisthenics for Young Ladies (1831). In the early 1840s the first intercollegiate
sports were organized, beginning with rowing contests between Harvard and Yale. Although football games between colleges would not be organized formally until the 1860s, a primitive rugbylike version of the sport gained popularity and served as an initiation rite for freshmen at Harvard beginning in the 1820s.
Baseball. Although not yet America’s national pastime in 1850, baseball was well on its way. For decades boys had played street games featuring balls, bats, and one or more bases. In the 1840s young men began to form clubs and formalize the game by adopting written rules. Alexander Cartwright organized the New York Knickerbockers Base Ball Club in 1845, one of the first of its kind, and other clubs followed. On 19 June 1846 the Knickerbockers defeated the New York Nine at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, in what many consider the first modern baseball game although it differed substantially from later versions of the sport. Umpires dressed in tall top hats and tails, and rather than call pitches they simply sat along the first baseline and helped settle any disputes that arose. The pitcher threw the ball underhand and tried to give the batter a ball he could hit. As a result the number of runs scored was high; the Knickerbockers outscored the New York Nine 23-1, for example, and fifty runs per team in a game was not unheard-of. By 1850 New York City was known as the center of baseball, and the sport was beginning to be called the national game.
Theater. Like the racetrack or the boxing ring, the theater was a morally suspect but popular place to spend one’s leisure time. The Bowery in New York, the Tremont in Boston, and the New Chestnut Street in Philadelphia drew large crowds. Smaller cities such as Buffalo, Cincinnati, Charleston, and New Orleans also supported theaters, and traveling troupes brought theatrical performances even to frontier settlements. As was true at sporting events, the highest and lowest elements of society made up much of the audience. Most theaters were divided into three separate seating areas, arranged by ticket prices. Upper-class patrons sat in the most expensive seats in the boxes while middle-class viewers occupied the pit. The gallery or balcony was reserved for the working poor (apprentices, factory workers, and domestic servants), African Americans, and prostitutes. Walt Whitman, in his essay “The Old Bowery,” idealized the character of theater audiences in his younger days: “pack’d from ceiling to pit with its audience mainly of alert, well dress’d, full-blooded young and middle-aged men, the best average of American-born mechanics.” During the 1840s Whitman believed the atmosphere changed at the theater, with “pandemonium” and “rankness” accompanying the “Cheap prices and vulgar programmes” that became prevalent.
Minstrel Shows. Most performances of William Shakespeare or other classical drama were followed by an “afterpiece,” usually a farce or minstrel skit. These minstrel pieces were performed by white men who dressed up in blackface by rubbing burnt cork on their faces and painting on large white mouths. By the 1840s these actors were the main attraction in hundreds of minstrel shows performed by troupes, most notably Christy’s Minstrels, who traveled the country to perform in small towns and on showboats. Minstrel shows included music, dance, and burlesque skits. The central feature of a minstrel show was the exaggerated imitation of black speech and mannerisms, which produced a stereotype that took hold in American culture and was prominent in many forms of entertainment and literature well into the twentieth century. The images of African Americans that minstrels propagated, as docile, happy, ignorant, lazy, and above all content with their lot, was influential in shaping white Americans’ views, in part because minstrels were often performed in areas where audience members had little or no contact with black people.
Museums. The popularity of museums soared in the 1840s. Earlier, museums had focused on natural-history exhibits, including mammoth bones and stuffed birds, but in response to competition from other sources of entertainment, they began to feature a hodgepodge of art, fossils, stuffed creatures, and curiosities, such as the “great sea serpent” displayed at the Philadelphia Museum. None excelled the showmanship of P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, which opened in New York in 1842. Barnum exhibited the likes of Joice Heth (a slave he claimed was 161 years old and George Washington’s former nurse), the original Siamese twins Chang and Eng, and the Fiji Mermaid, which was supposedly half monkey and half fish. Barnum’s most popular attraction was General Tom Thumb, a dwarf less than three and one-half feet tall.
In presenting oddities so bizarre that the public’s credulity was strained to the breaking point Barnum capitalized on the idea that in a republic the individual is free to decide for himself rather than rely on the authority of experts. One English visitor reported that he asked Barnum, “‘Is it real or is it humbug?’… and Mr. Barnum replied with a smile, ‘That’s just the question: persons who pay their money at the door have the right to form their own opinions after they have got upstairs.’” As a result the museum was transformed from a center of education to a center of entertainment, where the primary activity became not the absorption of culture and knowledge but the challenge of trying to detect the authenticity of a given exhibit; the game between hoaxer and audience became the main event.
Cemeteries. Although cemeteries are rarely thought of as recreational facilities, they became so in the 1830s. Until that time the dead were typically interred in gloomy church graveyards or family burial plots. With the opening of Mount Auburn Cemetery outside Boston in 1831 a new concept was born. Mount Auburn presented a carefully landscaped bucolic setting that emphasized the beauty and harmony of nature and invited visitors to contemplate the dead in their final resting places as part of the natural world. The word cemetery, which entered popular use after 1831, came from a Greek word meaning “sleeping place,” reflecting both the peacefulness of the scene and the idealization of ancient Greece that sparked the Greek Revival in art and architecture. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, giving the dedicatory address at the opening of Mount Auburn, correctly predicted that it would become a refuge for the living as well as the dead; the cemetery soon drew thirty thousand visitors annually, including European observers such as Charles Dickens, who made it a stop on his 1842 American tour. Similar rural cemeteries soon appeared, including Laurel Hill in Philadelphia (1836), Greenwood in Brooklyn (1838), and Hollywood in Richmond (1849) among many others, providing the residents of America’s increasingly crowded and dirty cities with a chance to escape for a few hours from the tumult of urban life and eat a picnic lunch while contemplating nature and the meaning of life and death. The popularity of these urban green spaces spurred the development of New York’s Central Park (1856) and other municipal parks.
Benjamin G. Rader, American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Televised Sports, third edition (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1996);
Steven A. Reiss, “Sport in Antebellum America,” in The American Sporting Experience: A Historical Anthology of Sport in America (Champaign, 111.: Leisure Press, 1984);
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