Everyday Entertainments

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Everyday Entertainments


A Simple Life. Most Americans in the nineteenth century lived relatively isolated lives in the country and had limited opportunities to see sporting events. Farm families found enjoyment in periodic trips to town, but for the most part they found their amusements close to home. Unless distance precluded visits, Americans dropped in on one another with great frequency. Womens diaries often record nearly daily visits from friends for tea, to help with projects, or just to sit and chat. During the Civil War women would get together to knit and sew for soldiers, write letters, or roll bandages.

The Parlor Table. In many homes the center table in the parlor, where family or neighbors would spend time together in the evening, was the spiritual and moral heart of the home. Family members would read to one another, sew, or talk. Their games included musical chairs and the charadeslike Dumb Crambo. Other activities included humorous or poetic recitations, singing, and tableaux vivants, an elaborate entertainment in which participants create detailed costumes and sets to portray scenes from literature and poetry. These scenes were only shown for a few seconds; actual acting was considered improper for mixed company.

Hoedowns and Balls. Dancing was one of the chief social recreations of Americans of every class. Even some of the strictest Protestants, who disapproved of public entertainment and band music, would dance to songs if

there were no instrumental accompaniment. Most Americans knew how to do the figured, or square dances. Waltzes and polkas were also immensely popular. The interest in dance led to the publication of books such as A Complete Practical Guide to the Art of Dancing (1863), in which the etiquette advice of the author, Thomas Hillgrove, suggests that dancing was not just the pastime of the refined:

Loud conversation, profanity, stamping the feet, writing on the wall, smoking tobacco, or throwing anything on the floor, are strictly forbidden. . . . The practice of chewing tobacco and spitting on the floor, is not only nauseous to ladies, but is injurious to their dresses. They who possess self-respect, will surely not be guilty of such conduct.

During the Civil War soldiers from both sides treasured the rare opportunités to dance with local girls. Charity balls were held in both the North and the South to raise funds for the war effort.


Long-distance footracing, or pedestrianism, came into vogue before the Civil War when the yachtsman John Cox Stevens offered $1,000 to any man who could run ten miles m under a hour. Between 1835 and 1860 footraces increased in number and size, and it was not uncommon to see events with fifty thousand spectators cheering on their favorite runners. While some prizes were as much as $4,000, most purses ranged from a few dollars to several hundred. Running could substantially supplement the income of any farmer, artisan, or laborer, especially in an age when $250 represented the annual wage of most workers. Some runners such as John Gildersleeve and William Howett even managed to live off their earnings from the races they attended in various cities

While every major city in the country had pedestrian races by the 1850s, the sport developed the most in the New York City metropolitan area. Fans could watch the races at the Union Course on Long Island for a dime. The day was usually quite exciting, with the colorful uniforms of the runners and the intense drama of competition, drink, and good cheer adding to the festive air of the contest. However, like most mid-nineteenth-century sporting events, crowd control was a problem. Pickpockets, prostitutes, and professional gamblers were found at every race. Also, overcrowded stadium conditions and free-flowing alcohol lead to violence on more than one occasion.

Source: Elliot J. Gorn and Warren Goldstein, A Brief History of American Spem (New York: Hill Ôc Wang, 1993).

Clubs. As Americans moved into the anonymity of cities they often found that joining or creating clubs provided them the means of escaping the cares of the workaday world. While the most intense period of creating and joining clubs did not occur until the 1880s, the movement was clearly gaining momentum in the years after the war. Immigrant groups formed their own brotherhoods, such as the Irish Ancient Order of Hibernians and the German Sons of Hermann. Long-established groups such as the Freemasons and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows began to flourish in the late 1860s and 1870s. Other important groups included the Knights of Pythias, which formed toward the end of the Civil War, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (1868), and the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (now known as the Shriners), who organized during the early years of Reconstruction. Many

of these groups were dedicated to chanty, but they were also social clubs whose members enjoyed throwing large parties, marching in elaborate parades, and wearing exotic costumes. Although most of these clubs and fraternities were representative of a wide range of social classes, they rigorously excluded African Americans.

Women Join Up. Womens clubs also flourished, particularly when they were tied to religious or temperance societies. Confederate women formed sewing circles known as Thimble Brigades to sew for soldiers, and Union women participated in Soldiers Friends Associations and relief societies. Statewide and nationwide charity

associations, temperance brigades, and woman suffrage groups gained many new members in the 1870s. There were also working-girls clubs, formed to promote self-improvement and education.

Outdoor activities. As fresh air and exercise began to be seen as good for both health and morality, young people were encouraged to spend time outdoors in organized, respectable activities. Men and women enthusiastically participated in winter recreations, especially ice-skating and sleigh riding. Roller-skating became a national craze in the 1870s following the invention of the four-wheeled skate in 1863 by New Yorker James L. Plimpton. Americans flocked to popular seaside resorts such as Newport. Some of the more daring New York ladies took swimming lessons from instructors at the beach, where they wore the new bathing costumes, which consisted of a short dress over full bloomers.

Central Park. In the 1850s New York Citys wealthier merchants and bankers began to promote the idea of a central park that would serve as the lungs of the city. Since many of these men owned lots along the upper east side, they hoped that such a park would not only improve public health and morals but also their own property values. In 1853 the New York state legislature set aside nearly seven hundred acres in upper Manhattan for an immense public park. The state ran a nationwide design competition, won by Frederick Law Olmsted. The nations first landscaped, planned park opened to the public in 1858 but was not finished until 1876.

More Parks. By 1858 all major American cities had begun plans for similar public parks. In 1861 Philadelphia completed its Fairmount Park, which was followed by parks in Baltimore, Brooklyn, Chicago, Hartford, and Detroit. The public park in Saint Louis included baseball fields and racetracks. Americans also began to become more aware of the importance of main

taining and preserving the countrys natural heritage. Yosemite was formally created as the first state park in 1864 (it would become a national park in 1890), and Yellowstone was recognized as the first national park in 1872.

City Entertainments. City life offered Americans many entertainments beyond a day at the park. City dwellers of various classes frequented bars and hotels, which featured band music, dances, puppet and magic shows, and ventriloquists. Animal acts and menageries were always enormously popular. Minstrel shows, also a popular attraction at circuses, featured white actors in blackface attempting to imitate slave life and free black northern dandies. One of the oddest of urban amusements was tightrope walking. Ropewalkers abounded in cities, and even a few daring ladies tried their luck at crossing streets on slack ropes strung between buildings. One man reported a memorable performance in Virginia City, Nevada, in which Miss Ella LaRue walked a rope before a crowd he estimated at fifteen hundred to two thousand people: Bright moonlight, bonfire in the street, and red fire burnt at each end of the ropebeautiful sight. She was dressed in short frock, tights & trunks. great shapemore of it than I ever saw in any female. Immense across the hipshuge thighs.

The Circus. Along with spectator sports, mass entertainments were also on the rise. People in the country went to county fairs while residents of a few big cities could see circuslike exhibits at museums, the most famous being Col. Joseph H. Woods in Chicago and P. T. Barnums in New York. The circus was probably the most popular occasional entertainment of the period. Barnums circus was the best known. In the 1850s he brought Jenny Lind, the enchanting Swedish Nightingale, to tour the United States, launching a nationwide craze. Little girls played with Jenny Lind dolls, ladies wore the Jenny Lind collar, and all gentlemen declared themselves madly in love with her, for she was pious, gentle, and virtuous. In the 1860s Barnums shows became ever more marvelous, with their giantesses, dwarfs, bearded ladies, and mysterious Circassian beauties.


Elizabeth Aldrich, From the Ballroom to Hell: Grace and Folly in Nineteenth-Century Dance (Evanston, 111.: Northwestern University Press, 1991);

Foster Rhea Dulles, America Learns to Play: A History of Popular Recreation, 1607-1940 (New York & London: D. Appleton-Century, 1940);

Daniel E. Sutherland, The Expansion of Everyday Life: 1860-1876 (New York: Harper & Row, 1989).

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