Leisure and Sport

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Leisure and Sport



Women, Work, and Leisure. The emergence of the modern dichotomy between leisure and work during the nineteenth century had deep consequences for women of all classes, especially those of the middle class. Domesticity was not defined as productive labor. Working-class women sometimes of necessity did “work” for wages, but running errands, cleaning house, or raising children was not considered work. For middle-class women, managing of the household and supervising the rearing of the children fell outside the classification of “work,” while the vital social obligations fulfilled by bourgeois women—such as the time-consuming activities of letter writing or paying and receiving social visits—were considered “leisure.” In fact, the middle-class woman’s so-called leisure activities had a major influence not only on her family’s social status but also on her husband’s success or failure in the business world. During the middle decades of the nineteenth century, paying or receiving visits (which were rarely longer than fifteen minutes) became ritualized and carefully staged occasions through which the family’s social standing and circle of acquaintances were secured. (A list of a family’s social circle might include more than fifty names.) Filling the afternoons of society women, these visits, far from being relaxed and casual, required planning and careful attention to social nuances. Failure to make the requisite condolence calls, congratulatory and charitable visits, and trips to see the wife of a husband’s business superior spelled expulsion from polite society. Visits, therefore, were serious and risky affairs. At every moment a woman’s dress, demeanor, and status were on display. Hosting visitors in the family parlor offered important opportunities to show off family heirlooms, fashionable furnishings, and other signs of consumer affluence. Evening occasions placed a woman’s social talents at center stage. At a dinner party, for example, the hostess’s taste, social connections, and domestic management were on display. At the same time, the hostess had to seat guests correctly by status and carefully steer conversations. Unless professional musicians were hired, musical evenings often required the daughters of the household to display their vocal or instrumental talents.

Traditional Sport. Much as the English were at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, they took the lead in the standardization of sports during the nineteenth century. As early as 1838, William Howitt in his Rural Life in

England declared that a “mighty revolution” was overturning the “sports and pastimes of the common people.” Indeed, there appears to have been a fundamental change around the middle of the nineteenth century in the nature and meaning of the games Europeans played. Medieval and early modern Europeans hunted, danced, hawked, fenced, boxed, wrestled, gambled at cards and dice, attended cockfights and bearbaitings, and even played varieties of football. Their games were competitions based in agrarian routines and provided opportunities for collective activity, sociability, and pleasure. The end of the harvest and commercial fairs were celebrated with “sporting” activities that were not isolated from other forms of amusement and formed a part of a wider culture of village revels, which included Carnival or May Day celebrations. The upper classes had their sports as well. Weddings, baptisms, royal coronations, birthdays, or military conquests afforded opportunities for gentlemen to sponsor sports such as horse racing. One notable feature of all these pre-industrial sporting activities is the absence of regulation and uniformity. Well into the nineteenth century, violence, brawling, and bloodshed marked traditional sporting activities, spilling over from daily confrontations on the streets and in the workshops. Cudgeling matches, fistfights, and wrestling attracted large audiences. Fistfighting was perhaps the most popular of these spectacles. A fight “up and down” permitted the combatants to kick or punch any part of the opponent’s body, even to choke the other fighter, which frequently led to death. Males were not the exclusive participants in such brawls. Not only did women shout encouragement and sometimes form the ring, they also fought each other. Writing in the eighteenth century, William Hickey described a public contest between two bare-breasted women. Animal combat also attracted large crowds of bettors and spectators. Throughout the early modern period, spectators from all classes were drawn to bearbaitings, dogfights, and bullbaitings. At a cockfight in London in 1710, Zacharias von Uffenbach noted the presence of both gentlemen and simple folk sitting with “no distinction of place,” shouting like “madmen,” and betting large sums of money.

Boxing. Despite its rough origins, the sport of boxing was among the first to establish rules, a commercial organization, and a national championship. James Figg (circa 1695 - 1734), who fashioned himself a “Master of the Noble Science of Defense,” established a boxing academy in 1719. At his Figg’s Emporium in London, he sparred with and trained aspiring pugilists. To give his audience a clear view, Figg held exhibitions of fencing, cudgeling, and bare-knuckle boxing on a raised, circular stage called the ring. His successor, Jack Broughton (circa 1704 - 1789), eliminated sword and cudgel fighting from the program. Deeply shaken after he accidentally killed an opponent in the ring in 1741, Broughton sought to regulate the sport of boxing and make it safer by drawing up the first written rules for boxing matches. “B rough ton’s Rules” (1743) forbade blows below the belt, leg holds, and beating a downed fighter. They also divided the fight into rounds separated by thirty-second rest intervals. The length and number of rounds was left undetermined, and a fight ended only when a pummeled fighter became so disoriented that he could not “toe the mark” in the center of the ring, voluntarily gave up and “threw in the towel,” or was knocked unconscious. Broughton’s rules governed the sport for nearly one hundred years, serving as the basis for the London Prize-Ring Rules of 1858, which were replaced by the Queensberry Rules in 1867.

Boxing Champions. Prizefighting became a national pastime, with legendary champions such as Broughton, the Jewish fighter Daniel Mendoza, “Gentleman” John Jackson, “The Butcher” John Gully, and Tom “The Gas-Man” Hickman. Their exploits were reported in new weekly papers devoted to the sport. Prizefights attracted gamblers from all classes, who lay enormous wagers and promised substantial purses to professional fighters. Many pugilists hailed from the growing urban, laboring classes of Europe, who were eager to establish some autonomy and earn more money than they could in a lifetime of factory work, even at the risk of their lives. The sport flourished into the 1820s, but thereafter suffered from attacks by middle-class reformers and evangelical crusaders who condemned gambling, bloodletting, and drinking as threats to morality and labor discipline. Some middle-class gentlemen continued to box, but after 1867 they followed the “civilized” rules to which John Sholto Douglas, Marquis of Queensberry, lent his name. For the first time, fighters were required to wear padded boxing gloves; rounds were limited to three minutes, and the ten-second count was introduced. Many middle-class boys and men abandoned boxing for sports such as golf, yachting, cricket, rugby, or rowing. Boxing remained an important part of working-class culture, however, into the twentieth century.

Folk Football. Like boxing, football (or soccer) drew wrathful denunciations from middle-class reformers during the middle of the nineteenth century. Such condemnations were not new. Folk football was a rough sport played by villagers in medieval Europe. There were no standard rules, but in all versions the object was to propel a ball forward toward an opponent’s goal, and high levels of violence and injury were common. In England the sport was actually banned by royal edict in 1314, 1349, 1389, and 1401. The Puritans of the seventeenth century denounced football as more “a friendly kind of fight than play or recreation, a bloody and murdering practice than a fellowly sport or pastime.” Neither royal decrees nor local ordinances could stop villagers from playing football, but the Industrial Revolution did. Once farm laborers and craftsmen migrated to urban centers to find work in factories, the crowded ghettos of industrial cities had little space in which to play football. With workdays before the mid nineteenth century so long (up to sixteen hours) and exhausting, workers had little time or inclination for such entertainment. Sundays, by law and by necessity, had become days of rest. With their limited spare time, workers retired to pubs and taverns, where they could bowl or play darts and billiards. By 1840 folk football was nearly moribund.

Modern Football. When football was revived in the second half of the nineteenth century and became more like the game Americans call soccer, it was reborn on the playing fields of English “public” schools, where the sons of England’s elite were educated. At Eton, Rugby, Harrow, Winchester, Charterhouse, and other similar institutions, games such as football, cricket, or rowing were viewed as training for England’s future leaders. In the words of William J. Baker, sports taught these boys “to exert their personalities and thus to wield power over the younger, weaker, or more timid members of their society.” Each school played football according to its own rules. Winchester and Charterhouse dribbled the ball with their feet, allowed occasional handling, and permitted no long kicks or tackling (because the playing fields were paved brick). At Eton a brick wall 120 yards long marked one sideline while the field was only 6 yards wide. Up and down this narrow corridor some twenty players attempted to propel the ball toward a garden door at one end or a tree stump at the other. The sport was banned at Eton after a rough incident, but the schoolboys then moved their game to an open field, where a sport much closer to modern soccer developed.

Rugby. At Rugby School players kicked the ball to advance it, but the rules also permitted them to handle the ball, run with a carried ball, and tackle. To score, a player could kick the ball through a goal but could also “run in” the ball across the goal line. When schoolboys from Rugby and Eton attended university, however, disagreement on the rules of the game necessitated some codification. In 1845 Rugby school graduates wrote up a set of rules for their version of football. Published in 1846, these rules became the basis for the “Cambridge Rules” of 1848, which set the standard for intercollegiate competition in the separate sport of rugby. With the formation of the Football Association, established by representatives from several clubs and university sides in 1863, English football divided into rugby and soccer versions. Rugby remained a schoolboy game.

Professional Football. After 1885 association football (soccer) began formally accepting professional players, and henceforth the sport became as much a part of working-class culture as that of the middle class. Entrepreneurs saw opportunities for profit in the game, and football teams were filled with salaried players wearing new uniforms and competing in large stadiums before ever-growing crowds of paying spectators. Professional teams were soon organized into leagues and competed in a variety of tournaments. The first Football Association Cup final was held in 1872 and drew an audience of only 2,000 fans. By 1901 the number of spectators at this annual match had risen to more than 110,000. In 1900 a professional footballer earned nearly £ 2 per week, the equivalent of a skilled craftsman’s wages. The sport also afforded a degree of social recognition otherwise denied working-class youths. For working-class spectators as well, football served as the basis of a new form of community solidarity. As J. B. Priestly noted, cheering for a team “turned you into a member of a new community, all brothers together for an hour and a half, . . . and there you were cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swapping judgements like lords of the earth, having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid kind of life. . . .”


Most young athletes learn the rules of various sports from watching television, playing in neighborhood games, and joining organized teams. But before the rules became standardized, having watched or played a sport in one place did not guarantee that one would know the rules in another. In his popular novel Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), set at Rugby School in England, Thomas Hughes included a conversation between “new boy” Tom Brown and his schoolmate East that reveals the differences in football rules from school to school and suggests the importance of sport in establishing social hierarchies in the elite English “public” schools:

“You just will see a match; and Brooke’s going to let me play. . . . That’s more than he’ll do for any other lower-school boy.. . .”

“Who’s Brooke?”

“Why that big fellow who called over at dinner. . . . He’s the cock of the school, and head of the Schoolhouse side, and the best kick and charger in Rugby.”

“Oh, but do show me where they play? And tell me about it. I love football so, and have played all my life. Won’t Brooke let me play?”

“Not he,” said East, with some indignation; “why, you don’t know the rules—you’ll be a month learning them. And then it’s no joke playing up in a match, I can tell you.... Why, there’s been two collarbones broken this half, and a dozen fellows lamed. And last year a fellow had his leg broken.

Tom listened with the profoundest respect to this chapter of accidents, and followed East across the level ground till they came to a sort of gigantic gallows of two poles eighteen feet high, fixed upright in the ground some fourteen feet apart, with a cross bar running from one to the other at the height often feet or thereabouts.

“This is one of the goals,” said East,” and you see the other across there, right opposite. .. . Well the match is the best of three goals; whichever side kicks two goals wins: and it won’t do, you see, just to kick the ball through these posts; it must go over the cross bar; any heightll do, so long as it’s between the posts. You’ll have to stay in goal to touch the ball when it rolls behind the goal posts, because if the other side touch it they have a try at goal. Then we fellows in quarters, we play just about in front of goal here, and have to turn the ball and kick it back before the big fellows on the other side can follow it up. And in front of us all the big fellows play, and that’s where the scrummages are mostly.” Tom’s respect increased as he struggled to make out his friend’s technicalities, and the other set to work to explain the mysteries of “off your side,” “drop-kicks,” “punts,” “places,” and other intricacies of the great science of football.

“But how do you keep the ball between the goals?” said he.” I can’t see why it mightn’t go right down to the chapel.”

“Why that’s out of play,” answered East [after explaining the boundaries]. “As soon as the ball gets past them, it’s in touch and out of play. And then whoever first touches it, has to knock it straight out amongst the players up, who make two lines with a space between them, every fellow going on his own side.”

Source: Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown’s School Days (Mahwah, N.J.: Water-mill Press, 1988).

Other Sports. An equally important leisure culture was established around games played in the private grounds or clubs of the elite. Cricket was dominated by such clubs. The Marylebone Cricket Club in London, for example, attracted merchants, country gentlemen, and successful professionals eager to participate in the sporting culture but also to set themselves apart from the clerks, managers, and shopkeepers of the petty bourgeoisie. Rowing, bicycling, and yachting also afforded entertainment apart from working-class participation or intrusion. Croquet, badminton, lawn tennis, archery, and golf also offered genteel entertainment suitable for hardy competition and restricted social mingling. The lawn itself served as an important marker of middle-class distinction, a luxurious green space next to the confined, paved courts of urban tenements. Croquet was the first lawn game to catch on widely. Though one version of the game was brought to England from France in the mid seventeenth century, the game that became modern croquet was brought to England from France by retired army officers after the Napoleonic Wars. This adaptation of the jeu de maille (mallet game) became extremely popular in England and the United States during the 1860s. Badminton and archery soon followed as popular leisure activities. In 1873, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield adapted the ancient royal game of tennis to the budgets and lawns of the middle classes. Henceforth, versions of lawn tennis played in the privacy of the bourgeois garden provided opportunities for socially appropriate meetings between the genders and for genteel competitions between social equals. In 1875 the All-England Croquet Club changed its name to the All-England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club and radically altered Wingfield’s game, lowering the net, covering the rubber ball with felt, allowing the server a second attempt, and altering the dimensions and shape of the court. Two years later the club held its first lawn-tennis championship match at Wimbledon. Its 1885 tournament drew more than 3,500 spectators.

Gymnastics. Perhaps the most significant alternative to modern, Anglo-American sporting culture was the emergence in Germany and Scandinavia of modern gymanistics. The earliest proponents of German gymnastics, called Turnen, were inspired to develop the sport by the educational ideas of the French Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and by Napoleon’s defeat of the Prussian army. Preaching Rousseau’s admonition that physical exercise engendered not only good health but also moral character and wisdom, German educator Johann Friedrich Guts Muths (1759-1839) promoted the importance of games and rigorous calisthenics as part of the academic day. Guts Muths’s regimen included running, jumping, vaulting, and climbing various apparatus as a means of developing muscular strength and coordination. Perhaps the most influential German physical educator of the first half of the nineteenth century, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852) combined a passion for physical fitness and individual liberty with an ardent nationalism and fanatical hatred of the French. Jahn concluded that the future of the still un-unified German people depended as much on the physically fit as on the intellectually able. Jahn took his pupils on demanding hikes and put them through a program of exercise. Expanding on the apparatus originated by Guts Muths, Jahn built a playground, or Turn-platz, in a field near Berlin, with a running track, parallel bars, beams, vaults, rings, and other climbing apparatus. Soon adults were also attracted to the activity. Adherents to German gymnastics did not just practice physical fitness. They also aggressively encouraged a liberal egalitarianism, wearing gray uniforms to eliminate marks of class distinction, and a devout patriotic determination, singing patriotic songs and drilling in groups with near-military synchronization. In the end, the political activities of German gymnastic associations involved them in failed attempts to bring a liberal constitution to Germany and resulted in a twenty-year ban on such sporting associations. German gymnastics did not disappear, however. By the 1840s gymnastics had been incorporated into the Prussian school curriculum, and with the foundation of the Deutsche Turnerschaft (German Gynastics Club) in 1860, the liberal politics of early gymnasts were supplanted by a devotion to fitness and the possibilities of German empire.

The Olympic Games. The emergence of the modern Olympic games largely resulted from the efforts of a Pari-sian aristocrat, Pierre, Baron de Coubertin, who started out on a mission to improve the physical fitness of young Frenchmen after the humiliating defeat of France by Prussia in 1870. His campaign had little initial impact on French sport, but he was much more successful when he decided to revive the ancient Greek spectacle of the Olympic Games, which several other nineteenth-century Europeans had attempted with little success. Coubertin’s correspondence with international sporting figures and his lectures in European and American cities, however, came at a time when an enthusiasm for sport as character education was growing among the elite of Europe. The first International Olympic Games were held in Athens, Greece, in 1896, and Coubertin served as president of the International Olympic Committee until 1925. Among the sports included at the first modern Olympiad were ancient contests such as the javelin, discus, running events, and wrestling, as well as modern competitions, including cycling, sharpshooting, tennis, and rowing. The Athens Games were marked by true amateurism and little before-hand preparation. The victor of the Athens marathon, Greek runner Spiridon Loues, had never before won a race in his competitive career, and he never raced again. The informality of the first Olympics did not last long. By the London Games of 1908, a spirit of national expectation suffused the games with a sense of urgency and national pride, which had been less pronounced during the earlier rather low-key games in Athens, St. Louis, and Paris. In London more than 300,000 spectators watched the teams of nineteen nations, attired in team uniforms and competing for supremacy on the athletic stage. Even at this early date in the development of the Olympic movement, anxieties about sport as a measure of racial virility and national character were already apparent. As Europe prepared for seemingly inevitable conflict, the Olympics became less a vehicle for world peace and increasingly an alternative forum for national confrontation.

Women and Sports. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, men agreed that women should be excluded from sports. The founder of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre, Baron de Coubertin, said flatly: “The role of woman is what it has always been. . . . She is above all the companion of man, the future mother of a family, and she should be brought up with this fixed destiny in mind.” Critics feared that women’s participation in sports would undermine male authority in the family and would lead to a collapse of public morals. Of course, spectacles of half-dressed women boxing or wrestling, a common feature of working-class entertainment, seemed to support the notion that women’s athletic activities aroused the prurient interest of men. Despite such widespread male disapproval, nineteenth-century European women did participate in individual and team sports. Indeed, the rhetoric of “character building” employed in praise of middle-class male athleticism also provided the justification for women’s sports. After all, exercise would “build” hardy mothers. In late Victorian schools, therefore, some attempt was made to offer physical education for young women. In 1876 the London school board required physical exercise for young girls and appointed Concordia Lofving to train teachers in the Swedish system of gymnastic exercises. Lofving was later replaced by another Swede, Martina Bergmann-Osterberg. Middle-class women’s participation in sports subtly reinforced ideals of domesticity

and class distinction as well. While women were permitted to play tennis or croquet, modesty and fashion could not be ignored. It was considered unfeminine for women to compete strenuously or dress inappropriately. They were not to bare their ankles during competitions, and a fashionable tennis outfit might consist of “a cream merino bodice with long sleeves edged with embroidery; a skirt with deep kilting, over it an old-gold silk blouse-tunic with short wide sleeves and square neck” topped off with a “large straw hat.”

Women, Cricket, and Football. Between 1740 and the 1830s, upper-class women in the south of England competed against each other in cricket, while village women from Sussex, Hampshire, and Surrey occasionally played the game as well. By the middle of the nineteenth century such competitions became offensive to the middle-class conception of femininity, and women’s cricket nearly dis-appeared. Though women resumed play in the final decades of the century, female cricketers were never accepted by men because sport had come to be an exclusive marker of masculinity. Women footballers faced similar objections. When the British Ladies Football Club (BLFC) formed in 1894, with the guidance of a Miss Nettie J. Honeyball and the sponsorship of Lady Florence Dixie, it was greeted with derision and soon disbanded. The first match drew some ten thousand curious spectators. The press subsequently declared that “girls are totally unfitted for the rough work of the football-field. As a means of exercise in a back-garden it is not to be com-mended; as a public entertainment it is to be deplored.” Women footballers, like women cricket players, threatened the masculine monopoly on team sport.


William J. Baker, Sports in the Western World, revised edition (Urbana:University of Illinois Press, 1988).

Denis Brailsford, Sport and Society: Elizabeth to Anne (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969).

John Ford, Cricket: A Social History, 1700-1835 (Newton Abbot, U.K. &David Charles, 1972).

Elliott J. Corn, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986).

Alan Guttman, Games and Empires: Modern Sports and Cultural Imperialism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

Richard Holt, Sport and the British: A Modern History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

Holt, “Women, Men and Sport in France, c. 1870-1914: An Introductory Survey,” Journal of ’Sport History, 18, no. 1 (1991): 121-134.

Kathleen E. McCrone, “Class, Gender, and English Women’s Sport, c. 1890-1914” Journal of Sport History, 18, no. 1 (1991): 159-181.

Bonnie G. Smith, Ladies of the Leisure Class: The Bourgeoises of Northern France in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).

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