Men's Leisure Lifestyles

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American leisure patterns have always been heavily gender-based, providing men with an opportunity to display their manliness, gain recognition, develop a measure of self-worth, and escape from the confinements of domesticity. Leisure opportunities varied in different eras when they were a product of social class, race, ethnicity, residency, prevailing social norms, changing definitions of manliness, and the impact of the processes of urbanization, industrialization, and immigration.

Local governments, especially Puritan Massachusetts, which banned immoral activities like gambling and all pastimes on the Sabbath, and carefully supervised taverns, regulated men's leisure options in colonial America. Puritan leisure had to be moral and recreational, such as teaching useful skills, promoting closer bonds with sons, and enhancing community security. Training Day on the Boston Common provided opportunities to participate in marksmanship, foot races, cricket, and beer drinking. Strong religious opposition to leisure also existed in early Pennsylvania, where the Quakers worried that amusements diverted men from work and God.

Eighteenth-century cities were more secularized and demographically diverse, and had rich elites. These conditions helped create a more cosmopolitan social life. Philadelphians enjoyed a much more entertaining social life centered in its taverns and coffeehouses. New York's elite attended clubs, theater, and sporting events like horse racing, yachting, hunting, and sleighing. Philadelphians played a big role in developing organized sport. They emulated the English gentry by establishing a wide-ranging club life to facilitate sociability and maintain ethnic and class distinctions, and by copying English country pleasures like hunting, riding, and fishing. Philadelphia's first sports club, likely the first in the English-speaking world, was the Schuylkill River Colony, founded in 1732. It promoted conviviality among men who enjoyed fishing, hunting, and good eating, and it became the city's most exclusive club. In 1766, local gentlemen established the Gloucester Foxhunting Club.

The colonial elite copied the English by promoting horse racing. Late-seventeenth-century Virginia planters raced their own mounts across short distances to demonstrate their courage, brawn, intelligence, materialism, and honor. Beginning in 1735 in Charles Town, elite jockey clubs built racetracks and organized meets. Semiannual race weeks became the center of the social season in Charles Town, Williamsburg, and Annapolis, accompanied by elite balls and plebeian social events. The more humble sort could hunt and fish in nearby woods and streams, and patronize taverns, where they enjoyed blood sports like cock fights, bull baiting, and gander pulling. Backcountry folk engaged in rough-and-tumble fighting to prove their courage and honor.

The Nineteenth Century

Most men in 1800 were farmers who worked long hours determined by the seasons. They had their occasional social events like parties celebrating New Year's, the Fourth of July, and Election Days, when they enjoyed socializing, drinking liquor, competing in marksmanship contests, wrestling, running and trotting races, attending orations, and listening to musical entertainment. Rich plantation owners sponsored lavish balls, and slave musicians, singers, or storytellers often entertained the guests. The plantation owners were avid sportsmen who hunted, bet on cock fights, and attended thoroughbred races. Their slaves had free time on Sundays and during Christmas week when they were unsupervised. They sang, danced, listened to folktales in the slave community, and visited other plantations to see women.

Men's leisure in the antebellum era was strongly influenced by the male bachelor subculture that thrived in antebellum cities, especially among workers unaccustomed to timework discipline, and postbellum mining camps. About 30 to 40 percent of nineteenth-century urban male workers were single and lived anonymously in boardinghouses and rooming houses in a convivial homosocial world. They mainly hung out at such nearby male bastions as firehouses, saloons, barbershops, cigar stores, and brothels. These men enjoyed drinking, chasing women, gambling, and participating in the sporting fraternity in such blood sports as pugilism and animal baiting, which demonstrated their manliness, prowess, and honor. They were customers for leisure entrepreneurs who operated saloons, billiard parlors, theaters, music halls, gambling halls, and brothels. The illegal entertainments were mainly located in vice districts like Chicago's Levee District and New Orleans's Storyville, which were broken up in the 1910s.

Working-class men read male-oriented publications. During the antebellum era, there were penny-press publications of lurid adventure accounts and cheap paperbacks and weeklies that focused on sex and crime. There was a lot of interest in the sporting press, like The Spirit of the Times, (1831–1902), which covered turf, cricket, rowing, foot racing, yachting, and baseball. The National Police Gazette (1845–1916) originally published crime stories, but it became a popular sporting weekly with many illustrations of sexy women once Richard K. Fox took over in 1877. He sold reduced subscriptions to saloonkeepers, barbers, and hotel managers, which helped the periodical become readily available to American men.

Middle-class Victorians gained their sense of manliness through work, not leisure, made the family the centerpiece of life, and were threatened by the bachelor subculture's anti-Victorian lifestyle. They were more likely to join literary societies, music clubs, evangelical church groups, and fraternal organizations. Reformers created the rational recreation movement that advocated uplifting and moral pleasures, like the new game of baseball as a substitute for vile amusements. The new man would be a muscular Christian, strong in body, soul, and spirit.

Immigrants' low incomes and their cultural baggage, which included a continental Sabbath that permitted Sunday entertainment after church, influenced their leisure. The Irish arrived with their own bachelor sub-culture, which they re-created at their modestly appointed neighborhood taverns with traditions of treating and drunkenness, while Germans brought their family-oriented bier gartens. They organized men's choral societies, German theater companies, and the turnverein for gymnastics and a community center. New immigrants from eastern and southern Europe who also maintained their traditional gender-based leisure patterns of saloons (coffeehouses among Greeks and Jews) and social clubs, but not athletics, followed the Irish and German groups.

Working-class leisure was hindered by the expansion of industrial capitalism and the rise of the factory system, which displaced small workshops with their casual pace of work. Poorly paid employees averaged sixty-hour workweeks, allowing little free time. They relied heavily on saloons or "poor man's clubs," where they met friends, made new acquaintances, played billiards and other games, gambled, and drank. Their attendance at spectator sports was curtailed by inaccessibility, ticket costs, and Sunday blue laws.

A bureaucratized and less independent middle class emerged after the Civil War. They worked a five-and-a-half-day week and looked to leisure for self-improvement, reinvigoration, and a sense of accomplishment they were not getting from work. They attended the theater, light opera, lectures, museums, and professional baseball, and avidly joined fraternal organizations to socialize with similar men. They also spent considerable time with their families, playing music and singing at home, attending vaudeville shows, or taking outings like picnics.

Upper-class men in the late nineteenth century employed their leisure time to demonstrate their social status by sponsoring and participating in expensive and exclusive entertainment. They organized downtown clubs that focused on politics, culture, and sports like track and field. These clubs provided an escape from work and family, where elite men dined lavishly, smoked expensive cigars, and drank fine wines. The elite also founded suburban country clubs for golf, tennis, and field sports. Their participation in sports and vacation time spent at western dude ranches enabled them to demonstrate their manliness at a period when WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) virility was widely questioned.

The Twentieth Century

A 1910 survey of over 1,000 workingmen found that their entertainment included attending movies, art galleries, and libraries, and reading magazines, playing cards, and shooting pool. Married men tended mainly to spend over half their leisure time with family, followed by at social clubs, movies, theater, dance saloons, and pool halls, and with friends. Single men spent most of their time with friends and at commercial amusements. They spent an average of 15 cents a week at the neighborhood nickelodeons. These nickelodeons had cheap, simply furnished rooms with just a few tables; they were often adjuncts of saloons or clubs that were popular social centers. They were considered dangerous hangouts where young men were initiated into a working-class culture of smoking, drinking, and gambling. On the other hand, downtown poolrooms that attracted businessmen and politicians were spacious and elegant, with dozens of tables.

YMCAs, which were racially segregated, began catering to the working class in the early 1900s, though a full membership was a substantial $15. These men also spent time at bathhouses that cities were operating to promote better public health. Chicago had fifty-one public bath-houses by 1917. There were also higher-class private Turkish, Roman, or Electric bathhouses that charged up to 25 cents. Chicago, New York, and San Francisco had facilities that tolerated gays or served only gays. Sexual connections occurred inside dressing rooms (private cubicles) and steam rooms. Gays found bathhouses and YMCA hotels convenient and safe places to organize their own subculture.

Young blue-collar men sought female companionship, although they did not spend a lot on dates. A date with a respectable girl might entail skating, sleigh riding, going on a picnic, or taking a trip to an amusement park or the beach, places where inhibitions were left behind. By the 1910s, men looking for fun with less-reputable girls might pick up unescorted women at amusement parks, dance halls, and cabarets, hoping these "charity girls" might provide them with sexual favors. Dancing became a popular entertainment in the 1910s. Working-class men and women went separately to public dance halls or ethnic dances, while middle-class cabarets and dance resorts regulated relations between the sexes by banning unescorted women, suggestive dancing, and sexual contact off the dance floor. Taxi-dance halls, where men paid women to dance with them for a fee (per ticket), opened in the late 1910s, often following the closure of vice districts. Women at these halls sold tickets to men for the privilege of dancing with them. They mainly attracted unmarried immigrants seeking female companionship.

In the 1920s, leisure boomed, thanks to improved wages, shorter working hours, and the decline of Puritanism, including liberalized Sunday blue laws. All men in the 1920s emulated heroes of consumption such as movie stars, athletes, and even gangsters. The hyper male figure was the playboy, a hedonistic, narcissistic fashion plate who dated fast women, socialized at illegal speakeasies, and gambled at the racetracks. Even middle-class courtship became more informal as couples went to movies, restaurants, and nightclubs, where they enjoyed exuberant dances like the Charleston and drove home in enclosed automobiles. While times became tight during the Great Depression, men relied a lot on government-sponsored leisure programs to replace industrial recreation programs. Men who wanted to be urbane and sophisticated emulated role models like Fred Astaire and Clark Gable, and read Esquire (1933), the arbiter of good taste, stylish elegance, and refinement. Zoot suiters were the African American and Mexican American sophisticates.

After World War II, social class was losing its significance in demarking manly leisure because of rising standards of living for unionized blue-collar workers. Men who grew up in the depression and fought in World War II devoted more attention to domesticity than ever before, especially other directed and consumer-driven middle-class suburbanites. Men in the 1950s became avid viewers of television—particularly boxing and other spectator sports, and westerns, like the Rifleman, a vivid depiction of frontier manhood—and fans of Elvis and rock music. They aspired to the lifestyle of the hyper male, epitomized by the Rat Pack, Las Vegas, and Playboy, which idealized the consumptionist bachelor who was obsessed by cars, stereos, wine, and women. The periodical stressed a new hedonism that challenged domesticity and Puritan values.

In the 1950s, gay men focused their social life on the bar scene. In Boston alone, there were over twenty-four gay bars. Homosexuals also congregated at street corners, certain parks, bus stations, and bathhouses. The gay sub-culture became more open and assertive following the 1969 Stonewall Inn riot in New York City. The Stonewall Inn was a gay bar in Greenwich Village. The riot broke out between patrons and police who raided the bar. The rioting lasted until late into the night. Graffiti calling for "Gay Power" appeared all along Christopher St. where the bar was located. This event marked a critical divide in the politics and consciousness of gay folk. Gay liberation became a large movement. By the late 1970s, a thriving and openly gay culture revolved around social activism, bars, health clubs, travel, and periodicals.

The counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s continued to challenge middle-class mores, encouraging men to "let it all hang out." Manliness was less concerned with grooming and expensive clothing than with personal fulfillment. Sport remained a cornerstone of a manly culture, though there was greater interest in participatory athletics, especially jogging, as men embraced physical fitness. The athlete was the hyper masculine male, especially football players with their padded uniforms, as well as lightly clad basketball players. African American ballplayers excelled at a jazzed-up, individualistic style of the game. Basketball became a contest of male "peacocks" in short shorts, who dribbled between their legs, stuffed baskets, and put up shots "in your face."

At the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, male leisure continued to focus on the traditional themes of sports and sex. Younger men employed extreme sports that required participants to exhibit creative and risky athletic maneuvers to display their manliness. In regards to sexuality, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases made men more cautious, but not abstinent. Instead of visiting pick-up bars, men met potential sexual partners at health clubs, through friends, via advertisements in magazines, through dating services, and over the Internet.

See also: Civic Clubs, Men; Gay Men's Leisure Lifestyles; Hunting; "Muscular Christianity" and the YM(W)CA Movements; Teenage Leisure Trends


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Steven A. Riess

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