A frolic is a planned party, usually in a rural setting. From the colonial period until the late nineteenth century, Americans of different races and ethnicities applied the term "frolic" to a wide array of festivities that fall into two basic categories: work frolics and holiday frolics. Both types functioned to strengthen community bonds through celebration and reciprocity.
Work frolics derived from similar European and African traditions of communal agricultural labor. An individual, family, or community confronted with a task too large to complete on its own invited neighbors to help them. In return, the host provided refreshments and revelry. Work frolics composed a vital segment of the rural economy in America until the late nineteenth century. For over 200 years, the relatively low cost of renting or owning land in America resulted in a shortage of rural wage laborers. Faced with scarce labor and high wages for the few laborers available, farmers relied on the work frolic as a means for exchanging labor. Attendance at a work frolic granted neighbors the right to call on the host when they needed help. Besides meeting economic realities, work frolics contributed to the formation of communities by tying people into local networks of obligation.
Farmers called work frolics to accomplish a range of tasks, including corn husking, house (or barn) raising, quilting, sewing, apple butter making, chopping wood, log rolling, sugar (or syrup) making, spinning, hunting, and nut cracking. These events required planning and preparation. Seasonal cycles of agriculture meant all farmers had to tap their maple trees, husk their corn, and boil their apples within the same few weeks.
To ensure farmers did not deplete their labor force by planning frolics on the same day, families collaborated to produce a frolic schedule. Hosts also finished preliminary tasks to allow visitors to focus on the large projects that the host family could not complete alone. For example, quilting bee hosts cut the pieces of cloth, carded the stuffing, and stretched the lining on the quilting frame before workers arrived. The "bee" involved only applying the stuffing and stitching the quilt's panels. Competition drove workers to accomplish their tasks quickly. Teams of participants vied to husk more ears of corn. Log-rolling teams strove to move the most wood. At sewing and spinning bees, contests measured either the quantity of work completed or the highest quality of work.
Obligatory reciprocity promised hosts that their neighbors would show up, but the party after the work served as a secondary lure. Hosts usually offered simple food such as bread and cheese, although barbecued meat and fancier cakes were not unknown. Standard fare included alcoholic beverages throughout the colonial era. Nineteenth-century temperance movements influenced some hosts to abstain from proffering alcohol. Typically, small turnouts plagued these dry work parties. Most workers felt short-changed when hosts did not meet traditional expectations of decent food and alcohol. Entertainment at the parties consisted of music and dancing.
Environment, farm size, race, and gender impacted the form and experience of work frolics. A farmer chopped enough logs for a log rolling only when he had to clear acreage, so chopping frolics and log rollings primarily took place on the frontier. On the other hand, the presence of corn on virtually every American farm made husking bees a frequent occurrence nationwide. Since the limited labor power of small family farms necessitated outside help more often than large commercial farms or southern plantations boasting sizable labor forces, families working on small farms participated in more work parties than wage laborers on commercial farms or slaves on plantations.
When southern planters did call for a work frolic, it was an event of enormous proportions. The corn harvest prompted the most common work frolic in the slave South. During the harvest season, slaves and their owners rotated around local plantations to help "shuck" the corn crop ("shucking" is the southern term for husking). Shucking frolics resembled white husking bees, replete with competition and a celebration provided at the master's expense. These frolics differed slightly from white work frolics, as the slaves' African heritage heavily influenced the party's music and dancing. Shucking frolics granted slaves from different plantations a rare opportunity to socialize. Many African American communities maintained the tradition of the corn shucking after emancipation, when African Americans began working small plots of land in family units and so continued to need help at harvest time.
Quilting bees, spinning bees, and sewing frolics involved "women's work." These events shared the long hours and competitive framework of male-oriented work frolics, but they took place indoors and only women attended. In the colonial era, urban town houses as well as rural homes hosted women's work frolics because basic linen and wool cloth produced by women at home remained cheaper than commercial cloth. In rural areas, women often scheduled their work frolics on the same day as men's frolics. After both groups finished their work, they joined together for the party. Whether or not the women had a frolic of their own, they cooked and prepared for the evening party.
Not all work frolics centered on gendered tasks. At apple bees, men and women pared and sliced side by side, then took turns stirring the kettles and churning the butter. Men and women both husked corn at husking bees. Daylong mixed-gender work parties acquired a reputation as sites for courtship. The woods and orchards that hosted maple sugar frolics and apple bees allowed couples ample private space. Both whites and blacks adhered to a ritual that permitted a husker unveiling a red ear of corn to demand a kiss from someone of the opposite sex. Even when gender lines divided work at a frolic, the party and dancing afterward presented young men and women with the opportunity to mingle.
Like work frolics, holiday frolics were planned events that brought together a broad segment of the community. But holiday frolics were purely celebratory. Tasks limited the number of participants at a work frolic and restricted the started earlier in the day and drew more participants. Of course, smaller-scale holiday parties existed. Traditional nineteenth-century New England Thanksgiving frolics generally included only close kin or members of the household. Food, drink, music, and competitive games were characteristic components of both holiday and work frolics.
In colonial America, holiday frolics sometimes celebrated traditional ethnic or religious holidays such as Pinkster (the Dutch celebration of Pentecost). They also marked informal civic holidays like muster day (when local militia gathered to drill), court days, and trade fairs. Urban populations took to the streets on such days, but in rural areas the barbecue emerged as the most common form of holiday frolic. Barbecues were a kind of gigantic potluck. Individuals and families brought their own foods to accompany the spit-roasted pig and alcohol donated by a local gentleman. Dancing, horse racing, and games lent a competitive and festive atmosphere to the party.
The plurality and diffusion of religious and ethnic groups in America, as well as the rise of more ascetic evangelical denominations, reduced the number and frequency of large-scale religious holiday frolics in the nineteenth century. After the Revolution, the Fourth of July and Election Day emerged as the dates of the biggest holiday frolics. Political parties organized the bulk of the fetes on both these days, hoping to construct among their partisans a community loyal to the party. The traditional assortment of games, food, and liquor remained central to these patriotic events, and the rise of urban parks bequeathed a rural aesthetic to holiday frolics taking place within city limits. Eighteenth-century gentlemen had sponsored barbecues to maintain ties of patronage and deference, which kept them in power. Parades and speeches at nineteenth-century holiday frolics simply communicated the frolics' political agenda more overtly.
Other types of holiday frolics had no affiliation with any specific holiday. Starting in the 1840s, a "pic-nic" referred to a meal eaten by city dwellers on a day trip into the countryside. The small size of the excursion party rendered picnics a scaled-down version of the barbecue. Games, drinking, and a glutinous amount of food typified the experience. In the North, snow combined with the wintertime reduction of farmwork to inspire widespread "sleighing frolics" among young adults. On a planned day, they crammed into a sleigh with all their friends and rendezvoused with other sleighs full of people at a local tavern. Sleighs often raced on the way to the tavern and before returning home, by which time many drivers were fairly intoxicated. Like maple sugar frolics and apple bees, sleighing presented young adults with unsupervised time conducive to courting.
Work frolics and holiday frolics dotted the calendars of Early Americans from the seventeenth century until the late nineteenth century. Already by the 1850s, the term frolic was shedding its meaning as a reference to planned parties. Today, work frolics have virtually disappeared from the American social landscape. Rising land prices throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries increased the number of agricultural wage laborers while the mechanization of farmwork reduced the need for more voluntary forms of help. Yet work frolics have not entirely disappeared. No longer meeting at house raisings or quilting bees, farm families meet at the county fair, an event of extended duration that mixes the fruits of labor with eating, drinking, socializing, and entertainment.
As work frolics have declined, holiday frolics have proliferated. Sponsored by towns or public institutions, the planned barbecue or patriotic celebration survives as the community picnic or summer concert series. The Fourth of July has become less political over the course of the twentieth century as a result of election reform and the decline of partisanship among the general population, but depoliticization has not altered the Fourth of July's place as a preeminent day for community holiday parties. As events intended to galvanize community bonds, frolics have undergone several transformations and yet continue to offer Americans a counterbalance to the heavy cultural weight of individualism.
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