Colonial-Era Leisure and Recreation

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In his copious diaries from the early years of the eighteenth century, Virginian William Byrd II, one of the colonies' most prominent landed citizens, kept a daily chronicle of the events that he attended, the activities in which he partook, and the recreations that he observed. His diary catalogs the most popular entertainments that the colonists enjoyed prior to the Revolution, including gaming, dancing, and cock fighting. So prevalent were these activities throughout the colonies that when the Continental Congress met in 1774 to pass resolutions for the governance of the new nation, they expressly forbade the practice of gaming, cock fighting, horse racing, theatergoing, and all other diversions calculated to distract the minds of the colonists from the seriousness of the impending war with Great Britain. Yet up until the Revolution, the colonists continued to enjoy a wide variety of entertainments. Many had roots in Europe, but their form underwent a sea change in the movement across the Atlantic.

Though many colonists enjoyed seemingly similar forms of entertainment—whether it was music, dancing, or sport—significant regional distinctions reflected the varying settlement patterns. Religious and ethnic differences also played an important role in shaping the popular culture of each colony, as the Scots-Irish Presbyterians or the staunch Quakers of Pennsylvania banned certain entertainments in which their Anglican brothers to the South felt free to indulge. Beyond regional, religious, and ethnic differences, gender and community relationships necessarily guided the way in which leisure activities would be enjoyed and understood in specific cultures. For example, women in rural Virginia or North Carolina favored horseback riding, an activity not considered unwomanly in a culture where hunting and outdoor sports were common. Their northern counterparts seem to have preferred tea parties or other more sedate pastimes. The recreational activities and leisure entertainments of the colonists, from the earliest settlement of the country up to the age of the Revolution, reveal a great deal about how Americans understood their local cultural identity, and how they shaped that identity into a broader American character.

Dancing Instruction

Dancing was one of the first forms of entertainment to be publicly condemned in the northern colonies, in Increase Mather's 1684 An Arrow Against Profane and Promiscuous Dancing Drawn Out of the Quiver of the Scriptures. Yet social dancing formed an important part of the colonists' repertoire of diversions. Almost before there was sufficient population to sustain them, dancing schools sprang up throughout the colonies in cities as varied as Boston, Newport, Philadelphia, Charleston, Williamsburg, Annapolis, and Savannah. These schools trained their pupils in the latest dances from both France and England, including the minuet, the cotillion, and the allemande. Lessons in English and Scottish country-dances became increasingly popular throughout the eighteenth century. The craze for dancing schools was fed by the passion for private and public balls—described extensively in the diaries of the period. For example, Philip Fithian (New Jersey–born tutor at Nomini Hall, the home of the Carters, a prominent Virginia family) recorded plantation entertainments centering around formal balls that lasted for several days—in one case from a Monday through the following Saturday. In the Virginia capital of Williamsburg, William Byrd attended two separate balls within two days, including both a public fete hosted by Charles Stagg (a former actor at the failed Williamsburg Theatre who subsequently opened a dancing school) and a private dance hosted by the governor of Virginia .

Traditionally the minuet (a French formal dance characterized by its slow stateliness) opened the festivities, with the highest-ranking couple present leading the dance. The evening would then be rounded out by a host of other popular dances, including French quadrilles and Scottish reels. The steps for these intricate dances could be found in John Playford's The English Dancing Master, first published in England in 1651, and reprinted at least seventeen times in both England and the United States over the next seventy-five years. Playford's guide, along with The Art of Dancing (based on numerous translations from the French text of Raoul A. Feuillet), and John Weaver's Orcheseography of the Art of Dancing by Characters (1716), helped lay the foundation for the development of American dance. Colonial dancing masters relied on these sources to teach their pupils, and the books themselves allowed those individuals without access to a dancing master to assimilate and practice the steps on their own.


Though many of the colonies' most well-to-do citizens enjoyed the luxury of private balls, their passion for dancing demanded a more organized venue in which to display their carefully cultivated skills. Evenings at the Philadelphia Dancing Assembly (founded in 1749) followed a specific format, beginning with a minuet, followed by popular country-dances and gigues, the French court version of the Irish jig, popular among the upper classes in England and America. Among those dances known to have been enjoyed at Philadelphia's Dancing Assembly were "Sweet Richard," "Munster Lass," "Ahi Caira," "The Prince's Favorite," "Egham Races," "Virginia," and "The Duke of Clarence's Fancy" (Brooks, p. 4). These dances gradually supplanted the older "box" style, in which groups of couples formed separate squares, joining hands and exchanging partners. As assemblies grew increasingly formal, the emphasis shifted to dances that consisted of lines of couples arranged up and down the room. Socializing was a critical element of the assembly. According to dance historian Lynn Matluck Brooks, the managers of the Philadelphia Dancing Assembly took pains to ensure that there was an even number of couples on the dance floor and that all those present were members of the assembly, or had been expressly invited.

In Philadelphia, Savannah, and elsewhere, the dancing assemblies offered a ritualized way of establishing who was or was not an accepted member of the cities' elite cultures. None of the mechanic or small merchant class was offered admittance to these elite activities. Other wealthy colonists followed similar patterns of excluding the poor from their lavish entertainments, whether it was the 1744 ball given by "most of the Ladies of note" in Annapolis, or the 1752 King's birthday ball held in Williamsburg and attended by a "brilliant appearance of Ladies and Gentlemen" (Spruill, pp. 90–94). For the colonies' elite citizens, dancing was a means of establishing social status and demonstrating gentility.

Dancing at Weddings, at Fairs, and at Home

For those colonists unable to afford either dancing lessons or assembly dues, what were the options for enjoying social dancing? Weddings, court days, log rollings, house raisings, corn shuckings, harvestings, and fairs provided festive occasions when any citizen could join in a host of popular entertainments—including dancing. As Julia Spruill has noted, "The dances on these occasions were not the minuets and country dances enjoyed by more polite society but three- and four-handed reels and jigs" (pp. 110–111). While guests at an elite assembly often danced to music provided by a small orchestra, or at least a French horn, harpsichord, and violins, the informal gatherings of the colonies' less wealthy citizens were more likely to rely on a bagpipe or a group of fiddles (or even a single one) to provide musical accompaniment.

Not surprisingly, the steps at these less formal gatherings rarely conformed exactly to those outlined in Playford's or Weaver's guides. Historian Bruce Daniels has observed that most New England colonists drew their folk dancing traditions from English rural dances, and suggests that these country-dances (or "contra dances," as they came to be known by the end of the century) were the most prevalent form in prewar Massachusetts and Connecticut. Northerners found the country-dance more respectable, disdaining the French minuet as symptomatic of French (i.e., Popish) degeneracy. New Englanders also objected to Irish jigs (which, it should be noted, were different from the French adaptation of gigue mentioned above). They derided the native Irish jigs as wild and uncontrolled, and associated them with lewd or aggressive behavior. Although most jigs had their roots in Irish or sailors' folk culture, some eighteenth-century observers described jigs as having the appearance of "Negro dances."

Cock fighting

As an entertainment that flourished under the Stuart monarchs and among the nobility of seventeenth-century England, cock fighting ranked among the most popular sports in the colonies in the years before the American Revolution, one that helped colonists to sustain their sense of connection to the mother country. Far from "home," transplanted Englishmen in the colonies could enjoy accounts of English cock fights (reprinted in local newspapers) and imagine that their own sports, staged in a variety of locations from tavern rooms to city squares, were emulating the entertainments of their brethren across the Atlantic. They could even purchase English training manuals, including Gervase Markham's The Pleasure of Princes (1614) or Charles Cotton's The Compleat Gamester (1674), for advice on preparing their animals. Trainers who followed Markham's and Cotton's regimens fed their animals a special diet, gave them sweat baths, and trained them to fight with "spurs" made of silver, steel, or bone attached to their legs. Fights were traditionally to the death. In the colonies, a series of fights might last a day, rather than an entire week (as in England), for it was a rare trainer with forty or fifty fighting cocks at his disposal.

Cock fighting was enjoyed both on southern plantations and in larger cities such as New York, Williamsburg, and Charleston. The sport appears to have been less prevalent in New England, though there are scattered records of fights, including one held at the "Town House" in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1744. In fact, northern and foreign visitors frequently criticized their southern counterparts for engaging such a bloody pastime. As one commented, "I soon sickened of this barbarous sport" (Dulles, p. 35).

Cock fighting was also an activity that crossed all classes of society, as the diaries and letters of the period attest. The cock fights advertised in newspapers like the Virginia Gazette in 1752, 1755, and 1770 drew spectators who could afford to wager large sums, and the fights were often coupled with dancing assemblies after the day's sport. Some of the wealthiest and most prominent men in the colonies are known to have been cock fighting enthusiasts, including William Byrd II, Robert Carter (of Virginia), and George Washington.

Those who castigated southerners for participating in cock fights did so partly on the grounds that it encouraged a "promiscuous" mingling of "genteel people . . . with the vulgar and debased." The public cock fights held at fairs and court days offered too many opportunities for the poorer classes to associate with the wealthy, and in the days before the Revolution, the nation was still a class-based society that depended on a system of social deference. Of even greater concern to some observers was the fact that the sport fostered interracial interaction as well, since both blacks and whites attended the fights and wagered on the outcome (Dulles, pp. 34–35).

Apart from its entertainment value, cock fighting was associated with long-standing English folk traditions. The practice appears something akin to the European traditions of mumming or charivari, with participants making noise in the streets and acting out episodes of mock violence. Evidence of American "cock-skailing" appears as early as 1687 in the diary of New Englander Samuel Sewall, who complained of a fellow citizen, walking the streets while ringing a bell and carrying a rooster in a bag as others followed him, striking at the bag with "cartwhips" (Wright, p. 189).

Cock fighting was a male-dominated form of entertainment; there are few mentions of women's involvement in the sport. However, the South Carolina Gazette of 1732 advertised a fight at a tavern described as "the House of Mrs. Eldridge on the Green" (Spruill, p. 296). Cock fights were often held in assembly rooms at taverns, and it is interesting to note that, even while women may not have been active participants in the fights, they were certainly not unwilling to sponsor them in their places of business.

By the mid-eighteenth century, cock fighting had become such a popular pastime in the southern and mid-Atlantic colonies that local officials periodically passed laws for its regulation. However, these were largely ineffective, and it was not until the Continental Congress ban of 1774 that the new nation took its first unified stance against the sport. Many colonists came to associate the cruelty of cock fighting with the tension and self-destructiveness plaguing the colonies on the eve of war. Thus, to renounce cock fighting meant to renounce not only the luxury and wastefulness of the sport, but its brutality as well. Though cock fighting did not die out in the wake of the Revolution, it did diminish in popularity, becoming much less prevalent than its pre-Revolutionary rival, horseracing.

Horse racing

One of the most widespread and widely enjoyed forms of entertainment in the colonies, horse racing crossed class, geographic, racial, and gender boundaries. Some participants claimed that horse racing benefited both the animals and their owners, since it allowed the owners to gauge a horse's stamina and suitability for breeding. Others viewed it as a natural outgrowth of the colonists' fascination with horses and horseback riding. From the 1680s up until the Revolution, both men and women were regular riders—especially in those areas with the least-developed roads, where trail or cross-country riding was the best option for traveling from place to place.

Although New England Puritans feared the potential taint of English sporting habits and tried to suppress other forms of English spectator sports, horseback racing was the one temptation to which they succumbed. By the 1730s, Newport, Boston, Narragansett, and South Kingsport had instituted organized horseracing, and in the years before the Revolution the custom spread throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut. Yet the sport enjoyed its greatest popularity in the mid-Atlantic and southern colonies, where at times it verged on an obsession.

The most widespread style of horse racing throughout the colonies was the "Quarter" race, run along a quarter-mile straight, flat track. Generally, the owners rode their horses themselves (rather than hiring riders). Jane Carson describes a typical eighteenth-century racetrack as ten or twelve feet wide, with poles to mark the finish line, and space at either end of the track to steer the horses at the end of the race. Although races were often held at fairs or on court days in conjunction with other celebrations and diversions, by the middle of the eighteenth century, horse racing had spread to the extent that some areas (including cities in Rhode Island and Virginia) held weekly races, separate from any other kinds of entertainment.

Racing and the Revolution

Ann Fairfax Withington has suggested that racehorses became symbols of both luxury and decadence by the time of the American Revolution. In the troubled years before the war, anti-British sentiment targeted southern planters, who by training horses to race, rather than to work, "spoiled" good animals.

In the South Carolina Gazette of 1758, one critic observed, "If Horse-Racing and other expensive Diversions are encouraged, the Descendants of many of them, may have little else left in time, but their [winner's] Plates to show" (Withington, p. 214). A planter's willingness to forgo horse racing was seen as a sign of solidarity with the American cause. Nor were the planters alone in their efforts to curb horse racing. By 1774, "Jockey Clubs" in cities including Annapolis and New York canceled their events out of respect for the Continental Congress's warning against horse racing. Only ten years earlier, more than a thousand people had attended races at Hempstead Heath, Long Island, where members of New York's foppish "Macaroni Club" wagered hundreds of pounds on the winners.

Unlike cock fighting, horse racing successfully reestablished itself as an elite entertainment in the post-Revolutionary period. New Yorkers reversed the ban on the sport in 1802 and established what would be one of the most famous racetracks in the country, the Union Course in Queens County, Long Island. Southerners, too, reclaimed the pastime, even as they developed their taste for racing's natural outgrowth, the hunt.


Of all the leisure entertainments that the colonists enjoyed, music was perhaps the most common, the most accessible, and the most accepted. The first book published in America, The Bay Psalm Book (Boston, 1640), suggests the significant role music played in the life of the colonists.

The English Civil War and the Interregnum interrupted the development of both court and church music forms in seventeenth-century England. Perhaps in keeping with the Puritan austerity of Cromwell's regime, the nation's music lost much of its operatic flavor (a legacy from the Italians), relying instead on rhythmic vocal blending—a form that was thought to foster both community within the congregation and humility (in music shorn of elaborate trills).

The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 had a profound impact on the development of both the English and the colonial musical tradition. Though he had passed his exile in the most extravagant European courts, exposed to many of the greatest artists of the age, Charles II had little patience for complicated music, and, according to one of his contemporaries, "He was a lover of slight songs" (Ford, p. 212). Thus, the music of the Restoration emphasized both simple themes and a direct musical structure. As the king was inordinately fond of the theater, popular music began to intersect with court entertainments. The trend of incorporating popular song into performance reached its apotheosis in 1728 with the debut of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, a ballad-opera that interpolated sixty-nine well-known English songs (with some new lyrics) into the drama.

Though political controversy over The Beggar's Opera ultimately produced the Licensing Act of 1737 and effectively ended the genre in England, in its heyday authors produced almost fifty ballad operas that became standards in the English and colonial repertoires. Flora, or Hob in the Well, performed in Williamsburg in 1735, was the first ballad opera staged in America, and data collected from the Tuesday Club of Annapolis records the club's performance of at least 161 ballad opera songs in 1752 alone (Talley, p. 123). Theatrical advertisements in both England and the colonies featured notices of which favorite songs would be sung in the playhouse—a signal that the audience attended in part to hear music with which they were already familiar.

After the Licensing Act, pastiche opera moved into the forefront as another English musical form that combined music by well-known composers with new story lines. For example, Thomas Arne's score for Love in a Village (1762) borrowed tunes from Handel, Henry Carey, and William Boyce, among others. Again, these pastiche operas rapidly made their way across the Atlantic into the colonial playhouse, and, perhaps more important, into the hands of colonial printers, where they became the source for colonists looking for ways to entertain themselves at home. For example, Philip Fithian's diary records an informal evening concert in 1773 at Nomini Hall when his employer offered a selection on the harmonica from one of Arne's operas, Artaxerxes, a performance Fithian described as "charming" (Farish, p. 49).

Musical Teachers and Training

Fithian's praise of his employer's performance testifies to how highly many colonists prized musical training. Well-to-do young women often received instruction in the forte-piano, the harpsichord, or the spinet, while gentlemen were more likely to play the horn, flute, or violin. Again, Fithian's diary offers a glimpse into the musical education that his pupils received in the 1770s. The children on the Carter plantation were taught by an itinerant German music master named Mr. Stadley, who traveled up and down the East Coast from New York to Virginia, staying in the homes of his patrons while he instructed their children. In other cities, music teachers offered lessons in their homes or in assembly or tavern rooms.

Though many members of the colonial elite were passionate music lovers, there was simply not enough demand for ongoing instruction in America's urban centers to sustain permanent music schools. What evolved instead were concert groups of gifted amateurs, who, while they may have worked on an individual basis with a music instructor, for the most part learned their music out of the myriad books and guides available at their local printers. Newspapers ran advertisements for collections of "marches, duets, minuets, and country dances" (Byrnside, p. 26). There were special handbooks for playing a wide variety of instruments, from the bagpipe to the harmonica to the guitar. Both popular music and formal music were readily available from the score of The Beggar's Opera to Handel to a Collection of Scotch and English Songs.

Regional, Religious, and Gender Differences in Amateur Performance

The colonists brought a diverse musical heritage to the new nation, ranging from Scots-Irish to German to English to French to Spanish, and many of these regional differences appeared in the private, amateur performances that they enjoyed in the years before the Revolution. Yet changing tastes in musical styles and practices as well as shifting gender roles throughout the eighteenth century also colored colonists' musical experience.

In the early decades of the eighteenth century, composers like George Friedrich Handel had begun creating increasingly complex church music, much of it for the organ. By the 1730s, American churches from Boston to Williamsburg to Charleston had begun installing their own organs to keep pace with the trend in English ecclesiastical music; as historian Carl Bridenbaugh has noted, by the 1750s most American churches (not including the Quakers and Congregationalists) had incorporated organ music and even horns and strings into their services. This improvement of their church music encouraged citizens of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and other cities and towns throughout the colonies to undertake formal musical training. Peter Muhlenberg observed that New York Lutherans sang "very beautifully and acceptably" because "they have a very fine organ in their church and have been taught how to sing" (Bridenbaugh, p. 194).

As Bridenbaugh has also noted, this movement toward more formal choral training among church choirs spawned a spate of instruction books, each of which offered hints and tips for the amateur. Thus, by the 1750s, the "five hundred different tunes [that] roared out at the same time" (Daniels, p. 64) had become polished and unified.

Secular performance in the home and among amateur music clubs began to gain popularity during the mid-1740s and 1750s. Up until the early eighteenth century, amateur music training, especially among gentlemen of the upper classes, had been viewed as unmanly or effeminate. As John Brewer notes in his Pleasures of the Imagination, John Locke had criticized musical teaching because "it wastes so much of a young Man's time" (Brewer, p. 532). Others impugned it as a pastime fit only for professionals, since it involved manual labor (of a sort). A gentleman should have an appreciation of music, but not the skill to make it himself. The stigma attached to the "gentleman-fiddler" persisted in England through the middle of the eighteenth century (Brewer, p. 533). In the colonies, however, musical training became, if not an essential component of a young man's education, at least a desirable accomplishment that would allow him to sing duets with fashionable young ladies or to entertain guests in his home.

While the gentleman amateur in his home might play a selection from The American Mock-Bird: A Collection of the Most Familiar Songs Now in Vogue (Philadelphia, 1760), music clubs would be more likely to offer selections from Handel or Arne. Concerts held at taverns in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Annapolis, Williamsburg, and Charleston showcased the talents of colonists on organ, base violin, and flute. Women were seldom featured in these public performances (unless they were members of an acting company giving a concert benefit). Women's musical activities remained largely in the home, where their performances were imagined to have a gentling effect on their families and guests. As Cynthia Kierner has argued, in the last half of the eighteenth century, women played a significant role in establishing genteel cultural practices within the domestic sphere, while men's performance of gentility occupied a more prominent and public realm.

Regional Differences

Throughout the eighteenth century, the colonial gentry made every effort to keep pace with development in British musical taste, and, thus, similar patterns of development can be seen in American musical culture from Savannah to Boston. The greatest differences among the colonies appear both along the frontiers and in those areas of least wealth and privilege, regions less successfully assimilated into the consumer culture of the Atlantic world. While some folk songs appear to have been shared throughout the colonies, including "Barbara Allan," "Lord Thomas and Fair Lady Eleanor," "Lord Randall," and "The Outlandish Knight," according to music historian Ron Byrnside, these songs evolved differently in each colony over the course of the eighteenth century (p. 10). Thus, he argues, it is possible to distinguish a Georgia version of "Barbara Allan" from a New England version, both by subtle alterations in the lyrics and by changes in the instrumentation. For example, a Georgia version of "Barbara Allan" might call for banjo (or, as it was sometimes known, "banjar") accompaniment. The banjo was a slave adaptation of an African instrument, and consequently enjoyed much greater popularity in the South than the North (though it later became an important component of the nineteenth-century minstrel show).

The southern colonies were home to communities of transplanted Scots, like the ones who settled in New Inverness, Georgia, in 1735, and to the Moravians, who had fled their native Austria and gone first to Germany, then to Pennsylvania and North Carolina in 1736. The Scots brought both their folk songs and their bagpipe music to the New World where they quickly reestablished their transplanted cultural forms. The Moravians brought a tradition of complex choral music, which they disseminated through the churches and schools that they established in their new communities.

Florida, which did not become a British colony until 1763 at the end of the Seven Years' War, has one of the colonies' most complicated musical histories. In Florida, Spanish, French, and Indian influences fought for sway with more recent English additions. From the Choctaw tribes in the region came "doleful songs" accompanied by a "tambour and rattle," according to Quaker William Bartram who traveled to Florida in 1765 to chronicle his observations on the colony's culture and landscape (Housewright, p. 10). From the Spanish priests who had settled there in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came a heritage of liturgical music, which used the harp and the vihuela de arco —a plucked instrument that evolved into the modern-day guitar. From the French, who had established their first permanent settlement in Florida in 1562, came both French courtly music as well as French lullabies such as "Frère Jaques."

Eighteenth-century Pennsylvanians saw an influx of Ulster Irish, who occupied the frontier regions of the colony and brought with them a tradition of folk songs played on the fidel (fiddle) and bodhran (drum). As Patrick Griffin has noted, churches were few and far between in the frontier territories, but taverns clustered in abundance, and thus they became the focus for much of the Irish immigrant cultural life in eighteenth-century rural Pennsylvania.

Yet even though American folk music and songs may have developed differently according to regional tastes and influences, Rhys Isaac argues that one central theme tended to emerge no matter what the location. Isaac notes that the pre-Revolutionary folk song emphasized traditions of deference and "property-based patriarchal systems" (p. 206). Recurring stories of impetuous young lovers who defy parental authority with tragic consequences underscored the colonists' dependence on the guidance of the "mother" country. As Jay Fliegelman has suggested in Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority, it was not until the Revolution that the colonists severed the psychological bond of parent/child relationship that had held them to England, and it might be argued that it was not until after the Revolution that American folk music could emerge as a language of defiance, rather than submission (p. 160).

By 1775, "camp songs" had become fashionable among American troops and patriots. Although they were often sung to familiar British folk or drinking tunes (much like the "Star Spangled Banner"), the rebellious spirit of these songs reinvented them as something uniquely American. Of course the most famous camp song to emerge from the American Revolution was the 1776 "Yankee Doodle," a name that came to symbolize both the American cause and character. As Kenneth Silverman has noted, "At the same time the enduring text of the song appeared [1776], the tune received a new genealogy. Americans began to think of it . . . as an American tune originally"—rather than the British song it actually was (p. 290). In the wake of the Revolution, Americans would continue their quest for a music that reflected their new national identity.

Other Entertainments

While dancing, horse racing, cock fighting, and music were among the most popular entertainments that the colonists enjoyed, and ones that could be found throughout the New World, from the meanest tavern on the Pennsylvania frontier to the wealthiest homes in Boston, a host of other diversions sustained early American life. Chief among them were the physical sports featured at fairs, weddings, and court days throughout the eighteenth century. A fair or court day that ended in a ball or assembly would most likely have begun with footraces, wrestling, jumping contests, bowling, and even foot-ball (a version of modern soccer). These contests were not for the wealthy, though the elite often served as spectators, perhaps watching from the tents set up on the town green, where they took their leisure during the day's events. Physical sports were generally the province of the poorer citizens of the colonies, with prizes ranging from a purse of money to a bottle of liquor awarded to the winner.

Country weddings often featured similar physical competitions, including one Virginia and Pennsylvania horse racing tradition known as "running for the bottle." On the morning of a wedding, the groom's friends would ride toward his house, waiting to hear an "Indian yell" from the woods. At that signal, they would begin racing to the bride's house, where the winner received a bottle of liquor.

In colonies with strict religious laws like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, these kinds of diversions were among the only lawful ones permitted. Manly and productive pastimes, in which citizens could engage without fear of being led astray by the corrupting influences of secular music, dancing, or theatricals, included swimming, boating, skating, fishing, and hunting. Women's quilting bees and sewing circles likewise provided innocent and productive amusement.

In the evenings or during the colder months, many colonists moved indoors for entertainment, both to their own homes and to public taverns, which, as Bridenbaugh notes, had become the center for middle- and lower-class activities by the mid-eighteenth century. In taverns, colonists could enjoy a range of games, including whist, backgammon, chess, checkers (one of Samuel Sewall's favorites), dice, dominoes, cribbage, lotto, billiards, and piquet. Some critics condemned these games for their tendency to encourage gaming (gambling), and indeed, by the 1750s, gambling had become such an epidemic among the middle and upper classes in both England and America that many British plays, including Edward Moore's popular 1756 tragedy, The Gamester, addressed the addictive nature of the pastime. Women's gambling was seen as especially destructive, since it rendered them unfit wives and mothers. Again, many British plays took up the problem of women's gaming, urging women to submit to their husbands' better judgment and relinquish their spend-thrift and unwomanly habit. These plays were widely enjoyed in the colonies, though whether their audiences appreciated their moral lesson is less certain. Certainly by the time of the Continental Congress's 1774 resolution against gaming, many Americans had recognized the need to separate these diversions from their publicly competitive context and return them to entertainments enjoyed within the private sphere of the home.

By the coming of the Revolution, Republican virtue had become the byword for gauging the suitability of all of the colonists' entertainments and leisure activities. Those pastimes with obvious connections to British traditions of luxury and extravagance, such as horse racing and cock fighting, were suspended for the duration of the war. Those entertainments with more tenuous, but still visible connections, such as singing and dancing, were reinvented as "American." Words to songs could be altered, formal dance steps transformed into something more egalitarian. In short, the citizens of the new nation discovered that their inherited cultural traditions could be modified to reflect the colonists' rejection of British political tyranny, while still sustaining links to the cultural tradition from which they had evolved.

See also: Blood Sports, Early National Leisure and Recreation, Frolics, Mumming, Parades, Plantation Entertaining, Puritan Leisure


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Heather S. Nathans

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Colonial-Era Leisure and Recreation

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