The Commercialization of Leisure

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The ongoing commercialization of leisure in American culture continues to inform the character and reach of American culture. Implying a change over time, the notion of commercialization indicates a process whereby market-oriented business interests, practices, and institutions come to direct, rather than respond to, the character, trajectory, and shape of leisure pursuits.

Historically speaking, commercial leisure not only has provided new content for recreation—i.e., objects, places, and activities. Commercialization has also been involved in the creation of new contexts through which emerging social relationships could be played out on the changing cultural-economic landscape during the early period of industrialization in and on the streets of the industrial city. These contexts and relationships have themselves become the basis for new markets and new forms of leisure into the twenty-first century. In contemporary, postindustrial, postmodern social relations, leisure and consumer culture now feed upon and inform each other in a progressive, reciprocal fashion.

The tight, practical relationship between leisure and commerce should not be mistaken for political, conceptual, or philosophical harmony, historically or presently. Lingering tensions and contradictory tendencies arise whenever the pursuit of fun and pleasure is coupled with the realization of profit and pecuniary interest. There remains a tension between the privatizing thrust of business interests, on the one hand, and a concern that leisure and recreation provide social benefits, on the other. As well, concerns about the "polluting" effects of money on the "purity" of leisure and recreation have taken many forms since the nineteenth century and continue to structure contemporary discourses about, for instance, how the market has affected professional and amateur athletics. These "effects" or consequences of the marriage of commerce and leisure have not been uniform, unidirectional, or inevitable. A gradual and uneven process, commercialization must be understood with regard to specific historical periods and in particular social contexts, rather than thought of as a single, overarching process.

Early Industrialization and the Loss of Traditional Rhythms

The Industrial Revolution began around 1790 in England and was at its height in the United States from about 1810 to 1850. Characterized by the substitution of mechanical power for human or animal power and the replacement of hand tools by machines, industrialization necessarily affected the nature and organization of work and, concomitantly, the larger social structure, including the nature and use of time in general, gender roles, and the family. These changes were felt most fundamentally in disruptions of everyday rhythms and, more generally, in the realm of ritual celebrations that were often religious in nature.

Changes in the nature and structure of work went hand in hand with industrialized production. Increased mechanization made for ever-finer divisions of labor requiring workers to engage in smaller and smaller tasks, making work tedious and repetitive for the laborer and profitable for the owner. In addition to requiring anywhere from ten- to fourteen-hour workdays six, sometimes seven, days a week, the new mode of industrial organization allowed business owners to bring all or most of production under one roof in the form of the factory. In this setting, worker time use could be measured and managed in the service of extending the reach of capital.

The new industrial order set in motion fundamental changes in relationship between time and work. Traditional rhythms based on "task orientation"—whereby the nature of the task would determine the time involved—were gradually, but not completely, coming to be dominated by a "time discipline" orientation. Farmwork necessarily followed the dictates of the seasons and of the weather, which made for alternating periods of busyness and idleness. Under conditions of wage labor, tasks conformed to the needs of capital expansion, and sometimes to the whims of supervisors and foremen. Henry Ford's use of the assembly line and Frederick Taylor's time-motion studies of worker productivity in the early twentieth century represent something of a culmination of industrialists' penchant for time orientation and time discipline.

Time, in a sense, came to serve money, the ramifications of which crescendoed well beyond the workplace to radically transform many elements of social structure and many aspects of daily life. Religious feast days, festivals, and traditional absenteeism from work, in preindustrial Europe as well as those practices brought to the New World, were gradually whittled down to fit the emerging patterns of work and rest. Except for the Sabbath, as a traditional day of nonlabor, and a few other important holidays, the industrial workweek and work year became the standard template for the distinction between work and free time.

Industrialization also ushered in and made possible other changes in social structure, in particular in relation to the household and the domestic division of labor. The home or farm, in agricultural society, often employed the integration of men's, women's, and children's work. Under preindustrial conditions, most work was house- or farmwork; it was accomplished by a division of labor based on gender and age, which interlaced various tasks into an interdependent, usually localized, system of women's, men's, and children's work. As new technologies (e.g., steam power, the spinning jenny) both centralized and increased production in the form of the factory, an expanding cash-based market drew increasing numbers of men, women, and children out of the home to labor for wages. Those women who did not seek employment were faced with an ever-larger share of household work once performed by men.

The split of home from work entailed a number of consequences. It often increased women's work in the home, where new labor-saving devices did not offset the new burdens of taking on what had once been men's and children's chores. Men's daily experiences outside the home involved participating in market economy and contrasted with the experiences of married women who remained in the relatively circumscribed domestic sphere. The nineteenth-century doctrine of separate spheres—i.e., that women's "natural" place was in the home—helped solidify an emergent sentiment that the home should serve as "haven" from what was often thought of as the moral pollution of the workaday world. Part of a woman's "duty" was to serve as the caretaker of this haven. By the mid-1800s, the heartless world, represented by the money economy and market values generally, was seen as threatening to an emergent white, American middle-class sense of sentimental domesticity. In this context, many religious celebrations such as Christmas and Easter, which had been public events involving the surrounding community and church, increasingly turned inward toward private celebration and toward the celebration of the family itself. The task of creating and re-creating "the family" as a buttress against the incursion of the market and market values became definitive of the emotional labor expected of women.

Even as family sentiment turned inward toward itself, the institution of the family and the larger economy became increasingly enmeshed with each other. Less able to make goods for themselves or to barter for needed goods, the family could not avoid contact with the new industrial order in the form of a money economy. Money that flowed into the household in the form of wages flowed out in the form of purchases. The household, rather than serving as a site for the material production of goods as it did on the preindustrial farm and cottage industries, came to function primarily as a unit of consumption. In this context, commercialized leisure and recreation found fertile ground on which to flourish—the industrial city.

Democratization, Commercialized Leisure, and the Industrial City

Large, crowded, and vibrant cities grew from towns at exponential rates throughout the 1800s. Propelled by the social changes wrought by industrialization and fed with surging immigrant populations from first Western then Eastern and Southern Europe over the period from 1880 to 1924, a historically unique public culture arose on the streets of the new industrial cities. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century and extending into the early part of the twentieth, cheap, public amusements became increasingly available to a growing number of city dwellers. Spurred on by technological advances in lighting and electricity, evening performances on the Vaudeville circuit, nickel movie houses known as nickelodeons, amusement parks like those found at Coney Island in New York City, sports arenas, dance halls, and large, extravagant department stores became some of the most popular and visible of entertainments.

The new public culture increasingly was experienced as a consumer culture of shopping places, entertainment, and amusements outside the home. Often understood as having had a "democratizing" influence on social arrangements, the urban cultures of consumption and amusement offered places and activities whereby different people and different kinds of people could come into contact with one another. In these contexts, different ways of life brought from different national traditions could be on display for and mix with one another. On the other hand, the new forms of public, urban leisure gave expression to the many social cleavages and social distinctions—such as race, ethnicity, class, and gender—already existing in American life.

The public world of fun and amusement represented a different "culture" than what could be found in the immigrant neighborhoods of working people. In the neighborhoods, old-world sensibilities dominated, particularly regarding the proper arrangement between the sexes. For unmarried women of European descent, the home was often the site of traditional authority, where restrictive social and sexual mores were enforced by immigrant parents. The public world was heterosocial—mixing males and females —and, by its nature, most often took place outside the surveillance of family and community. Moralists publicly decried the mixing of sexes in the dark movie theaters. The numerous dance halls, spurred by liquor industry interests, were places where "unescorted" women were welcome and where meeting an unknown man would not automatically call the women's "virtue" into question.

"Going out" meant to leave, physically and socially, one world behind and to enter a new one that was characterized by a sense of freedom. For the heterosexual woman, conflicts with her parents were often over how much of her pay she could keep, and thus over her independence and privacy. Women's dress was also often an issue. Evidence from diaries and subsequent testimonials indicate that some women would hide their "American" clothes somewhere outside their residence to be put on in secret for an evening out. The "freedom" women experienced in the anonymity of the city and the public nature of amusements also allowed a gay, male world to exist in the interstices of straight culture. In New York in the 1920s and 1930s, for instance, commercialized leisure spaces such as ballrooms, saloons, and cafeterias existed where forms of dress, code words, and other coded signals marked out a discontinuous, half-secret, and half-known geography of homosexual association.

Married or unmarried, men or women, gay or straight, those of the working classes spent what meager money they had outside their small, often crowded rooms mixing with others on city streets. Weekend excursions to amusement places like New York's Coney Island in the early twentieth century gave single women another opportunity to be away from parents and to go on "dates." Coney Island was also a family destination, accessible by inexpensive streetcars. Its several parks, most notably Luna Park and Dreamland, respectively accommodated working-class and middle-class consumers. Sunday, the Christian Sabbath and the only day off work for many, often became less a day of worship and more a day of nonwork and active leisure.

The new leisure landscape also divided genders, classes, sexualities, and races even as it appeared to have united them. African Americans remained virtually absent from urban public culture, particularly in the industrial cities of the North. Saloons, the haven of workingmen, were not welcoming to women. People brought their ethnicities with them into movie houses and dancing halls, and those establishments located adjacent to or within particular ethnic enclaves surely imprinted their character and culture on those spaces. The well-to-do created their own exclusive sport clubs in the suburban areas of cities so as to ensure and promote race and class solidarity. These forms of commercialized leisure are inseparable from the industrial American city, giving cities and neighborhoods a character related to yet distinct from that associated with the labor performed by its inhabitants.

In many quarters, commercialism was seen as having deleterious effects on social life. For moralists, the sense of freedom and choice fostered in the dance halls and amusement parks was itself the problem. The mixing of different ethnicities, the licentious behavior exhibited in the dance halls and at the gay pageants and saloons, the "low," base content of dime novels and films all signaled a debasing of "culture." Concerns about the lowering of culture have been voiced since the nineteenth century, but they became acute when the "masses" (a code work often for ethnic, working-class people) rose in prominence on the streets of the industrial city. Reformers felt responsible to provide moral "uplift" to audiences by exposing the working classes to high culture in the form of ballets, opera, and literary plays. The Chicago social reformer Jane Addams made literary education part of her program to assist delinquent juveniles at her Hull House. As well, many of those in the advertising industry, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, took it as their mission and duty to depict scenes of "good living" as morally worthy of emulation.

The Rise of Consumer Culture

In this same context, a new institution took root—the department store—that similarly bespoke a democratic ethos of goods and that was a morally palatable activity for the rising middle classes. With the increased efficiency and high productivity of mechanized factory production, large varieties and quantities of goods were made available at low prices. When Henry Ford, automobile manufacturer, uniformly raised the wages of his workers to $5 a day and limited them to eight-hour workdays in 1914, he was giving concrete recognition that his workers were also consumers who were in need of time and money to participate in the new world of commercial goods and leisure activities. Concomitantly, in the early twentieth century, professional occupations emerged that were needed to service and coordinate the new economy —secretaries, accountants, lawyers, copywriters, editors, among others—thereby giving rise to a new middle class with a growing disposable income. As increasing numbers of working people found more and more goods within their reach, new goods, styles, and fashions arose to meet the demands of those better off who sought to maintain their social distinction.

The lavish display of varieties of goods in department stores, such as Marshall Field's store in Chicago or John Wanamaker's in Philadelphia, recalled that of great palaces or cathedrals. They welcomed women to indulge in shopping as a personal pleasure rather than as the mere exercise of domestic labor. Many of the goods on display—silks, perfumes, jewelry—were, in previous times, available only to royalty and the well-to-do. Now they were within the physical, monetary, and social research of the middle-class woman shopper. Shopping in these stores and among the goods, being able to touch and handle them, evoked images and feelings of abundance and luxury and encouraged fantasy. Many working-class and immigrant women were relegated to another kind of fantasy—window shopping—by viewing the goods separated by the new, large windows that faced the street.

Working or not, a woman's first "duty" remained that of domestic caretaker and, in the 1910s and beyond, a wife or mother increasingly fulfilled this duty by physically and socially leaving the domestic sphere of the home and entering the public world of ready-made goods to purchase needed and wanted goods for the family. Catered to by managers and deferred to by sales clerks, the middle-class woman shopper often experienced the department store as a place more fully hers in some ways than her own home, where she was often seen as a servant.

Shopping for pleasure would not remain limited to middle-class women or to department stores. An emergent ethos of consumption, which connected the expression of personal identity with the ownership and display of consumer goods, extended beyond the confines of the department store to inform virtually every aspect of life.

The Pressures of Standardization

The push and pull of commercialized leisure on social relations witnessed in the early twentieth century combined an egalitarian ideology with the pursuit of profit. Public amusements in the industrial city revealed that the impact of commercialization was not uniform across social life. On the one hand, it made a wide variety of goods and activities available to increasing numbers of people, and yet, on the other hand, these goods and activities also provided the basis for maintaining social divisions.

The "democratization" of leisure through commercial means had a noticeable but limited range of impact because successful capital enterprise requires continual expansion of existing markets as well as the creation of new ones. Commercial capital in this way puts a premium on what distinguishes people and groups from one another and less emphasis on what unites them. Commercialized leisure took forms other than those encountered in public amusements and, as well, embodied other tendencies that continue to inform and shape leisure and recreation into the twenty-first century.

In a gradual, uneven manner, commercialization has often meant a consolidation of ownership within industries producing leisure goods and services. Concentrated ownership often had direct effects upon the activities, often standardizing rules and practices to fit the needs of mass production. The Spalding Company and others in the late 1800s, for instance, worked to standardize rules for baseball equipment across disparate localities by distributing rule books, forming leagues and clubs, and seeking celebrity endorsements, all in an effort to secure a market for their goods. The Theatre Syndicate and the United Booking Office eventually wrested control of theater and vaudeville circuits, thereby putting themselves in a position to determine which acts would play and in which localities. Boxing, bicycling, and building model airplanes are among those leisure activities, once specific to locality and social class, that came under the auspices of business influence resulting in a change in the locus of control from the group or locality to the business operation. Government action furthermore often assisted the movement toward concentration of ownership through patent and copyright laws, curfews, and selective enforcement of vice crimes.

Changes in the rules of sports and games were not the exclusive product of business concentration. Players and practitioners in various localities around the county continue to exhibit their own particular styles of play. In many cases, a degree of standardization is needed to have competition and communication across space and time. Nevertheless, the rise of industries devoted to delivering leisure goods and services inevitably changed the nature of the equation from local origins and practices to standards suitable for market distribution, for instance, in the concentration of ownership of goods and services.

Tourism and Authenticity

Perhaps the most pernicious social tension to accompany commercialization is that surrounding the idea of authenticity. The ever-present influence of the interests of profit-maximizing enterprises on the pursuit of pleasure and recreation continually calls into question the motives of the owners or promoters of the leisure and the experiences of the users or patrons. Questions of and concerns about authenticity tend to arise in reaction to a felt loss of something deemed to be "real." Since industrialization, many social theorists have lamented the ways in which modern, capitalist society has put asunder traditional practices, places, and experiences. Under the leveling power of the money economy, so this thinking goes, that which is local, specific, and unique dissipates into a bland similarity—e.g., food becomes standardized, experiences become mass-produced, sport stadiums begin to look and feel identical to one another. Counter to this view is the charge that the pureness implied in the idea of "authenticity" never existed and that worries about its loss reflect a romanticized version of history, community, and nature.

Tourism is the exemplary site where issues of authenticity and commercialization have played out at least since the 1920s and continue to do so into the twenty-first century. Prior to the nineteenth century, few people traveled to have experiences or to see objects for reasons other than business purposes. With the growth of industry, the rise of cities, and, eventually, the increase in time away from work and rising incomes, Americans increasingly sought to spend time away from their home communities. Train travel and, later, automobile travel made day, weekend, and extended stays increasingly within the reach of many. Roadside attractions, motels, and diners grew to service a growing tourist culture of travelers who sought to see and often photograph "sights." The sights and destinations were often designated as such in brochures and booklets often published by various local chambers of commerce seeking to draw the tourist business to or through their particular locales.

Natural phenomena, like Niagara Falls and Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks, offer one kind of destination. As early as 1913, the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service sought to connect park visitation and services with commercial interests in an effort to "popularize" the natural areas. Making the parks automobile-accessible, with the inspiration and consultation from the Ford Motor Company, became a priority. In the ensuing decades, particularly after World War II, such developments as lodges and ski slopes, concessions within parks, along with marketing and media campaigns, have become routine elements of the "park experience." In a paradox of contemporary wilderness tourism, it takes a great amount of human effort in wildlife and forest management to make it appear as if humans are not involved.

Tourism also turned the cultures and life ways of people into "sights" and "experiences" for the traveling market, often with the effect of reducing complex, multilayered cultures into a type or a single set of images. The ethnic postcard of the 1900–1970 period, for instance, made use of stereotyped poses and situations—some of which were erroneous—to depict Native Americans and Mexicans/Mexican Americans as part of the "natural" scenery of the American West and Southwest. Inhabitants of many of these destinations made use of the tourist expectation and stereotypes of ethnic authenticity and began to produce trinkets, hold performances, give tours, and dress specifically for the tourists. Their authenticity, often a purposely staged performance, was a reaction to having been put on stage themselves. The idea of "staging authenticity" captures well the paradox of tourism, whereby people, things, places, and sights are pursued for their "real," or untouched quality, and yet the very act of engaging in the pursuit guarantees that they will be "touched" or transformed, often by commercial means. Historical villages like Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia take their relationship to authenticity seriously with actors who, playing people of the historical period replicated, give demonstrations of lost arts like house building and smithing.

Postmodern Leisure in Postindustrial Society

There is no widespread agreement as to what exactly constitutes the postmodern era, but postmodern society often refers to social changes that occurred with the decline of industrial mass production in the 1970s. In the place of mass production, flexible forms of production that respond to increasingly specific markets and market fragments have arisen. Part-time labor, the rise of the service sector and loss of manufacturing jobs, the growth of cable and satellite television, and the availability of the Internet and World Wide Web are among the key developments that have made for the transition to a postindustrial economy. Generally, the term "postindustrial" refers to the time period after the mid-1970s when the dominant form of production began to change, while "postmodern" describes the cultural changes often thought to accompany the change in production.

Television, although becoming popular in the 1950s, both makes possible and embodies a kind of postmodern, commercialized leisure. Until the late 1970s, there were only about three to six stations in any given market. Viewers nationwide watched the same shows and commercials. Since that time, "narrowcasting"—as opposed to broadcasting—has been made possible by the spread of cable and satellite delivery systems, which leave hundreds of television channels at one's disposal. The programs and commercials on these numerous channels together offer a glimpse at the lifestyle landscape that is populated with narrowly targeted groupings specific to interest and leisure activity as well as age, race, and gender. Not only does television serve as a medium for the depiction of leisure lifestyles and identities, but watching television is a leisure activity unto itself. In the United States, it is the most common and most time-consuming form of leisure.

In postmodern society, personal identity and social processes become increasingly fragmented due, in part, to a loss in the faith that a stable, identifiable "reality" can be unambiguously identified underneath the advertising imagery and media representations that saturate daily life. As a result, simulated realities abound to such an extent that the line separating simulation and the "reality" to which it supposedly refers is ambiguous and often irrelevant to the participation in, or enjoyment of, the activity. The relation between historical authenticity and its staged performance no longer matters. It is performance for entertainment's sake—to escape from one's everyday experience.

The Disney theme parks in California and Florida, though opened in 1955 and 1971 respectively, represent prototypes for hypersimulated, postmodern entertainment. The various "worlds" and "lands" one can visit, the reproductions of streets and buildings of France, China, and Mexico, the animatronic robots of presidents of the United States at the EPCOT Center in Florida, the live, costumed Disney cartoon characters (who are never out of character in public) do not gesture toward a reality they supposedly represent as much as invite the consumer to engage in fantasy. The California Adventure, which is an amalgam of California tourist "sights" miniaturized at the Anaheim park, renders seeing the rest of the "real California" somewhat superfluous. Film studios, such as Universal and MGM, have made their own theme parks, where much of the entertainment centers on either thrilling the visitors with rides that scare or shock, or demonstrating how film works its "magic" by showing backstage tricks of the trade. The city of Las Vegas has rebuilt itself since the 1980s into a metropolis of simulations, whereby hotel-casinos replicate the pyramids at Giza, an Italian piazza, and the sights of New York City, and erupting volcanoes line the strip.

Theming has taken root in numerous contexts beyond the theme park and Las Vegas. Many restaurants offer themed decors, often combining historical periods or cultures in ways that could not have been encountered without commercial intervention and organization. In some, the waitstaff becomes part of the theme, dressing and acting out the corporate-designed motifs; in others, live performances draw the patrons into participating in the staging of the scene. Beyond "eatertainment," as it is known, contemporary cities have developed and marketed entire areas as themed, commercial shopping spaces. As the cities generally have moved from being sites of industrial production to postindustrial places of entertainment and consumption, developers have sought to turn historically working areas into themed, consumer environments, like the former fish market of South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan, which is now restored and sanitized into shops and restaurants for tourists.

Marketing and simulation are part of leisure and recreational activities and part of the access to those activities. Leisure in contemporary, postmodern times—from Internet-based games and memberships to the nearly complete sponsorship of sports events and venues, to children's television shows that serve as program-length commercials for action figures and other products—can no longer be separated from commercial enterprise. The enjoyment and experience of leisure, moreover, are not strictly tied to their authenticity or the extent to which they are felt to have commercial origins. Tie-ins and cross promotions between children's products and fast-food restaurants, the blurring of sports figure, celebrity and product endorser and the complicated relationship between music stars, music videos, and clothing styles for various segments of youth all point to the impossibility of making convincing distinctions between leisure, lifestyle, and the consumption.

Not everything has changed in postindustrial society. The leveling effects of the money economy continue to exert pressure on every new activity or sport that arises, such as the new "gravity games" like snowboarding and skate-boarding, both of which originated in a culture that positioned itself in opposition to the commercialization of sport but that now relies upon corporate sponsorship for its widespread exposure and success. For women, although in the workforce in greater numbers than ever, the responsibilities of mothering and being caretaker of the household have diminished little. A woman's leisure time often remains restricted to the spaces in between working a "double shift" of laboring for wages outside the home and caring for the family when she returns. African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities remain virtually absent from large sports venues and national parks due in part to lack of financial resources but also to a felt sense that these places still belong culturally to the diminishing white majority of the country. Yet, the democratization of leisure first encountered in the industrial city of the late 1800s remains an ideal and sometimes is found in practice as social relations continue to transform and, in the process, remold the social landscape of leisure.

Commerce has emerged as the key context for the creation and exercise of leisure. More than offering only new content, marketing and the money economy have increasingly forged the very arenas where entertainment, recreation, and leisure take place. In the movement from traditional to modern and then to postmodern social arrangements, the interplay between the interests and thrust of capital and the desires of people to find fun and enjoyment away from the world of work and obligations have also allowed for the testing and performing of new identities. The issues facing those of the present center around determining what, if anything, has been lost with the transformation of leisure into consumption, what to keep that is new, and how to take control of the processes informing the production of leisure now and in the future.

See also: Commercialization of Children's Play; Impresarios of Leisure, Rise of; Media, Technology, and Leisure; Urbanization and Leisure


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The Commercialization of Leisure

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