Hobbies and Crafts

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Hobbies constitute one of three basic types of serious leisure. A hobby is a systematic, enduring pursuit of a reasonably evolved and specialized free-time activity having no professional counterpart. Such leisure leads to acquisition of substantial skill, knowledge, or experience, or a combination of these. Although hobbyists differ from amateurs (another type of serious leisure) in that they lack a professional reference point, they sometimes have commercial equivalents and often have small publics who take an interest in what they do.

Hobbies and hobbyists can be classified as follows: 1) collectors; 2) makers and tinkerers; 3) activity participants; 4) competitors in sports, games, and contests; and 5) enthusiasts in liberal arts fields. Collectors abound; some are well known, like stamp and coin collectors, some more obscure like collectors of leaves and juke-boxes. Next are the making (building, raising) and tinkering hobbies, which result in such craft products as quilts and furniture, in mature flora and fauna (such as plants, dogs, fish), or in completed do-it-yourself projects when done for fun, for example, tinkering with a car or repairing a household gadget. Activity participants find leisure in noncompetitive, rule-based pursuits, including fishing, kayaking, and barbershop singing. By contrast, competitors in games, sports, and contests thrive on competition in, for instance, orienteering, long-distance running, and competitive swimming. The rules guiding rule-based pursuits are, for the most part, either subcultural (informal) or regulatory (formal). Thus, seasoned hikers in the Rocky Mountains know they should stay on established trails, pack out all garbage, be prepared for changes in weather, and make noise to scare off bears and cougars.

Liberal arts hobbyists are enamored of acquiring knowledge for its own sake. Many accomplish this feat by reading voraciously in an art, sport, cuisine, or language. Others develop a passion for a culture (for example, ancient Greek, Native American) or a history (military, European); or they study a science, philosophy, or literature (for instance, French poetry, nineteenth-century Russian novels). Some go beyond reading to expand their knowledge further through cultural travel or documentary videos.

Hobbies sometimes evolve into professions, in the process transforming the hobbyists into amateurs. This transition was made at different points in history by all contemporary amateur-professional fields in art, science, sport, and entertainment. Nevertheless, commercial equivalents of hobbies, like making and selling furniture or trout flies, dealing in antiques or paintings, and offering fishing or ballooning trips, are, at bottom, businesses, not professions.

Research on hobbies has been uneven. Jeff Bishop and Paul Hoggett conducted the classic study centered on a variety of amateur and hobbyist groups in two communities in England. Apart from attractiveness of the hobby itself, they identified three further reasons for widespread participation in these groups: the presence of an appealing leisure subculture, the possibility for individual members to make their own contributions, and the effectiveness with which member diversity is handled. Research on collectors and liberal arts hobbyists is rare, while research on making and tinkering is more common. Activity participation (the leisure of activity participants defined earlier) and competitive sports and games have drawn the greatest scholarly attention.

Hobbyism: Past and Present

With Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America, Steven Gelber has written the definitive history of hobbies. The broad trends he observed, based on examination of British and American sources, apply more generally to industrialized capitalist Europe and North America from mid-nineteenth century to the end of the 1950s, the point at which he terminated his analysis.

Gelber holds that "industrialism quarantined work from leisure in a way that made employment more work-like and nonwork more problematic. Isolated from each other's moderating influences, work and leisure became increasingly oppositional as they competed for finite hours" (p. 1). Americans, he says, responded in two ways to the threat posed by leisure as potential mischief caused by idle hands. Reformers tried to eliminate or at least restrict access to inappropriate activity, while encouraging people to seek socially approved free-time outlets. Hobbies and other serious leisure pursuits were high on the list of such outlets. In short, "the ideology of the workplace infiltrated the home in the form of productive leisure" (p. 2).

Hobbies were particularly valued because they bridged especially well the worlds of work and home and both sexes found hobbies appealing, albeit mostly not the same ones. Some hobbies allowed homebound women to practice, and therefore understand, worklike activities, whereas other hobbies allowed men to create, in the female-dominated house, their own businesslike space—the shop in the basement or the garage. Among the various hobbies, two stood out as almost universally approved in these terms: collecting and handicrafts. Still, before approximately 1880, when hobbies came to be seen as productive use of free time, these two types of hobbies, as well as others, were considered "dangerous obsessions."

Gelber notes that, although the forms of collecting and craftwork have changed somewhat during the past 150 years, their meaning has remained the same. Hobbies have, all along, been "a way to confirm the verities of work and the free market inside the home so long as remunerative employment has remained elsewhere" (pp. 3–4).

As for social class both craftwork and collecting appear to be more inclusive of white-collar workers and blue-collar producers than they are exclusive of them. Nonetheless, socioeconomic data for these hobbies are presently thin and even thinner back in time, so definitive statements on this question must wait. Meanwhile, Gelber is convinced that hobbies have always transcended class much more readily than they have transcended gender, which squares with Robert Stebbins's observations on this question for all serious leisure.

Gary Cross observes that, during much of the nineteenth century, employers and upwardly mobile employees looked on "idleness" as threatening industrial development and social stability. The reformers in their midst sought to eliminate this "menace" by, among other approaches, attempting to build bridges to the "dangerous classes" in the new cities and, by this means, to transform them in the image of the middle class (p. 130). This plan led to efforts to impose (largely rural) middle-class values on this group, while trying to instill a desire to engage in rational recreation—in modern terms, serious leisure—and consequently to undertake less casual leisure.

Popularity of Hobbies

The amateur activities are the most restrictive of the three types of serious leisure. Executing them at a satisfying level requires routine training and practice in art, sport, or entertainment, while science requires extensive development of knowledge and, in some instances, technique. This restrictiveness is one of the reasons why Stebbins estimates that no more than 20 percent of North Americans pursue an amateur career of some sort (p. 49). His experience in serious leisure research suggests, however, that the proportion of hobbyists is significantly larger.

Still, no one can say with precision how much larger the proportion is, for no one has studied the distribution of serious leisure participants in a Western society, the type of society where, as of 2004, it appeared to have reached its richest expression. Stebbins's hunch that there are proportionately more hobbyists than amateurs follows from his observation that many hobbies are reasonably accessible. Notwithstanding certain exceptions, most of them are learned informally, commonly by reading books or articles, listening to or watching tapes, and talking with other hobbyists. Acquiring knowledge in this manner is relatively inexpensive, and easily molded around the enthusiast's work, leisure, and family schedules. Furthermore, many hobbies can be pursued within the participant's own timetable; the participant need not wait for a scheduled meeting, practice, rehearsal, or public match or performance.

Although it may be relatively inexpensive to launch a hobby, it may be costly to continue with it. Some items make expensive collectibles; some equipment used for constructing or repairing things is costly. Some hobbyist fly fishers, cross-country skiers, and animal breeders sink large sums of money into their pastimes, not unlike the amateurs who run up sizable family debts buying a good violin, telescope, or set of golf clubs. In this sense, then, certain hobbies are no more accessible than many amateur activities.

Two additional points remain to be made about hobbies. First, when compared with the other durable benefits of a hobby, its monetary return is secondary. Studies of hobbyists support this claim, in that remuneration is rarely mentioned as a reason for engaging in this kind of serious leisure. In other words, neither hobbies nor amateur pursuits are viewed primarily as supplements to the practitioner's main income; they are not "second jobs." In fact, a certain devotion animates pursuit of these forms of serious leisure, leading many hobbyists to take them up despite possible, if not real, financial loss. Indeed, even if they did earn a substantial amount of money in the pursuit, this would be but one reward of many and, according to evidence at hand, one of the least significant. Thus "sideline" businesses, including some so-called "hobby farms," are logically excluded from consideration as true hobbies.

Second, some hobbyists fit more than one category, as do builders of motorized model airplanes who, as competitors, fly their constructions in local contests. Classification of individual hobbyists also depends partly on the circumstances in which they undertake their activities. For example, swimmer number one is termed a player because he competes in swimming meets. Swimmer number two is termed an activity participant because she swims for the satisfaction gained from developing and maintaining her skill, as well as for the exercise it provides.


Collecting and craftwork number among the most popular types of hobbies. Russell Belk offers the following definition of collecting: "Collecting is the process of actively, selectively, and passionately acquiring and possessing things removed from ordinary use and perceived as part of a set of non-identical objects or experiences" (p. 67). Accumulation of possessions differs from collecting in that it lacks selectivity, may be simply a refusal to dispose of things, and is no cause for pride. Hoarding is selective and active, but focuses on utilitarian items that may be needed in the future. Moreover, the items hoarded are identical. The distinction drawn here between collecting, accumulating, and hoarding is widely accepted among scholars in this field. Robert Overs, Sharon Taylor, and Catherine Adkins classified collecting into nine categories: autographs, photographs, and posters; coin, currency, and medals; stamps; natural objects (including fossils and butterflies); models (such as airplanes, trains); dolls; art objects (such as violins, paintings); antiques; and miscellaneous crafts (for example, comics, sports cards).

Allan Olmsted, in a literature review, observed that most children collect things long before adolescence. Later, especially among females, collecting decreases noticeably as they enter adulthood. Men, who dominate the world of serious collectors, renew their interest in collecting during middle age. Adult collectors of both sexes quickly become involved in complex social worlds centered on their objects of interest, as found in shows, auctions, catalogs, dealers' shops, flea markets, and garage sales. Some research in the area, says Olmsted, supports the proposition that collecting is leisure (a hobby), whereas other research gives weight to the idea that it is obsessive consumer behavior.

Finally, there are collectors who acquire objects for extrinsic speculation and profit, even though they, like pure collectors, also genuinely appreciate various intrinsic qualities of those objects. But these motives clash, causing personal tension when such collectors face the opportunity to sell at significant profit items integral to their collections. It follows that full-time dealers in collectables are businesspeople, not hobbyist collectors.


In the field of leisure and recreation, "craft" refers to a pursuit requiring manual dexterity or application of artistic skill and sometimes both. Howard Becker holds that craft products are designed as useful objects, though they may also be beautiful (artistic). Overs, Taylor, and Adkins list eight types of crafts along with a miscellaneous category: cooking, baking, and candy making; beverage crafts; decorating activities; interlacing, interlocking, and knot making; toy, model, and kit assembly; paper crafts; leather and textile crafts; and wood- and metalworking. Among the miscellaneous crafts are making candles, creating mosaics, and cutting and polishing stones. Not found in this list are the ceramic crafts, an unfortunate omission since they were among the most popular in the early twenty-first century. Do-it-yourself activities, which may combine several crafts, constitute a hobby only if approached as leisure. Moreover, some do-it-yourself activities involve not so much creating something new—not a craft—as repairing or tinkering with something old, as in fixing a car or washing machine.

Many crafts, for fullest satisfaction, depend on developing substantial, specialized skills, as seen in using a knife to whittle, a needle to sew, or a plane to make furniture. Other crafts, when pursued at the most rewarding levels, require considerable background knowledge. Cooking, do-it-yourself repairs, and the beverage crafts exemplify well this prerequisite. Furthermore, hobbyists who assemble toys, models, and other objects from kits, like those who sew from patterns and cook from recipes, must have a propensity for following often complicated instructions and paying attention to detail. Those in woodworking and metalworking, along with some do-ityourselfers, must also develop a capacity for creating their own plans and designs. Lastly, some of these activities can be highly artistic, as evident in working with rocks, making mosaics, and decorating various objects.

Stebbins observed that hobbies with developmental requirements usually offer leisure careers, which unfold along lines of improvement in skill, knowledge, artistry, attention to detail, or a combination of these. In this sense, careers in the making and tinkering hobbies resemble those in the amateur fields. Still, certain construction hobbies have comparatively light developmental requirements; they revolve primarily around amassing completed projects. This often happens in the paper crafts, miscellaneous crafts, and interlacing and interlocking activities.

Notwithstanding these occasional specialized requirements, the making and tinkering activities, on the whole, have always been a highly democratic form of serious leisure, open to a vast range of humankind in many different societies. Culturally learned preferences aside, none of these hobbies is limited to one sex, while all can appeal to the entire age range of adults possessing the physical and mental capacities to carry them out with significant satisfaction. It is quite possible that a properly conducted international survey would find more people engaging in these hobbies than in any of the other four types.

Professionalizing Hobbies

Some hobbies appeaed, in the early 2000s, to be in the process of professionalizing in that, for more and more participants, they offered possible full-time employment. This tendency was evident in chess, darts, shuffleboard, and bicycle racing where, if the trend continued, it would dramatically transform the performance standards guiding all participants, including the hobbyists. Moreover, as a parallel development, the professionals would expand and enrich the social worlds of those activities in proportion to their presence and influence. In consequence, leisure participants in those fields would be transformed into amateurs.

See also: Coin Collecting, Collecting, Rational Recreation and Self-Improvement, Stamp Collecting


Becker, Howard S. Art Worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Belk, R. W. Collecting in a Consumer Society. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Belk, R. W., M. Wallendorf, J. F. Sherry, and M. B. Holbrook. "Collecting in a Consumer Culture." In Highways and Buyways: Naturalistic Research from the Consumer Odyssey. Edited by R. W. Belk and M. Wallendorf. Provo, Utah: Association for Consumer Research, 1991.

Bishop, Jeff, and Paul Hoggett. Organizing Around Enthusiasms: Mutual Aid in Leisure. London: Comedia Publishing Group, 1986.

Cross, Gary. A Social History of Leisure Since 1600. State College, Pa.: Venture Publishing, 1990.

Gelber, Steven M. Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Olmsted, Allan D. "Collecting: Leisure Investment or Obsession?" Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 6 (1991): 287–306.

Overs, Robert P., Sharon Taylor, and Catherine Adkins. Avocational Counseling Manual: A Complete Guide to Leisure Guidance. Washington, D.C.: Hawkins and Associates, 1977.

Stebbins, Robert A. After Work: The Search for an Optimal Leisure Lifestyle. Calgary, Alberta: Detselig, 1998.

——. New Directions in the Theory and Research of Serious Leisure. Mellen Studies in Sociology, vol. 28. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.

Robert A. Stebbins