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Regulation and Social Control of Leisure


All societies attempt some regulation of recreation and leisure, often through a combination of legislation and community pressure. In Western Europe, for example, attempts to limit popular participation in rough ball games—the forerunners of later football—go back to the Middle Ages, where royal decrees lamented frequent injury and even loss of life (without, however, much effect in restraining the pastime). Concerns about safety or morality frequently join with other motives. Regulating leisure may be a matter of social class, with one group attempting to discipline its inferiors; or a question of generation, with rules designed to keep youth in check. Gender factors, particularly in terms of restricting women's recreations, also exist. Larger anxieties about preserving public order, especially in those forms of leisure that involve crowds and high emotion, and about maintaining capacity for work frequently underlie the patterns of social control.

American history has gone through three main periods in terms of the regulation of recreation and leisure. During the two centuries of colonial settlement, when community controls predominated, moral concerns most obviously shaped efforts to restrain certain forms of leisure activity. But there was considerable regional variation because religious affiliations varied from Puritan New England to the more latitudinarian southern colonies; and disciplining slaves and Indians also created concerns. A high moralistic content did not disappear with the advent of a new nation and the stirrings of industrialization and urbanization. Indeed, many analysts would argue that a moralistic impulse defines a distinctive American approach to leisure even to the present day. But the leisure regulations of the nineteenth century, the period often called "Victorian," did move away from colonial patterns, attempting some important new limitations but also accepting certain new latitudes. The key leisure problems changed with the advent of industrial cities and growing immigrant populations. The Victorian period began to yield, in turn, during the decades between 1920 and the 1950s. The effort at Prohibition was at once a last gasp of extreme Victorianism and an opening to new approaches. A third pattern of social control emerged fairly clearly by the second half of the twentieth century.

The Colonial Period

The American colonists who attempted to set rules for recreation came from a Europe that was tightening its approaches to popular leisure. There are many indications, in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, of growing upper-class disapproval of many popular pastimes, which seemed to threaten the appropriate social hierarchy and good manners alike. European gentry, who had once participated actively in popular festivals, enjoying the coarseness of rough games and bawdy dances and even tolerating symbolic mockings of the powerful, began to pull away. Protestantism was in a sense part of this process, introducing a new note of seriousness, for example, into the keeping of the Sabbath and often attempting to curtail dancing and other frivolities. But there were similar attempts in Catholic regions, partly in response to the Protestant threat.

Many American colonial leaders participated, or sought to participate, in this broad early modern process of greater social control. But they also had to contend with weak governments, whose reach was frequently challenged by frontier communities, and with unusual racial diversity. The combination resulted in some distinctive American themes and in the unusual regional variation.

Puritan New England was particularly active in attempts to limit leisure through legal means along with strong community pressures. A variety of laws and religious sanctions sought to outlaw gambling, card playing, dancing, and other amusements deemed dangerous to morality. Enforcement of the Sabbath as a day of worship and rest was particularly strict. Puritan zeal should be not exaggerated. Puritans were quite tolerant of certain forms of enjoyment, such as drinking. Overall, however, the moral criteria were rigorous. Some would outlast the colonial period, picking up backing from other groups (including, in some regulatory areas, Irish American Catholics). Sabbath restrictions, for example, continued in many states into the mid-twentieth century.

Other regions in colonial America contrasted with the Puritan approach. The South, particularly, saw much greater tolerance of roughhousing and gambling, and a number of violent games persisted well into the nineteenth century. Moral concerns did emerge. By the later eighteenth century, many upper-class southerners were withdrawing their support from popular violence, setting up standards of respectability (though, on the whole, fewer outright laws) not dissimilar to those of New England. Groups in some of the middle colonies, such as Philadelphia Quakers, were also active in the moral regulation of leisure, again including constraints on Sabbath activities. Specific laws and a more general sense of the validity of moral controls over leisure activities constituted a colonial legacy to later periods in American history.

The Industrial Age

Developments in the nineteenth century did not totally unseat colonial forms of leisure regulation. The strong moralistic current continued to inform many American reactions, and this preserved some contact with earlier Puritan strictures. On the whole, however, both motives and forms of leisure regulation changed in the nineteenth century. For example, popular drinking came in for anguished comment, and a great deal of newfound moralism, in ways Puritans had not imagined. A battle between forces of order and respectability, and popular leisure interests, became more acute at this point than either before or after.

A number of innovations spurred new concerns, and they were intertwined. In the first place, the gradual surge of industrialization forced a reconsideration of various popular recreations that seemed to interfere with regular and intensified work. This new attitude was a standard part of the industrialization process wherever it occurred. It happened at roughly the same time in Britain and Western Europe, and would happen again later in Japan and Soviet Russia. Factory labor required punctuality and group coordination. It required assiduous attention to the operations and regularities of machines. Habits of wandering around, chatting, and even singing on the job were now seen as anathema, strenuously opposed by shop rules and fines. Of course, irregular leisure habits that encroached on regular starting times, or that threatened consistent operation of expensive commitment for the sake of occasional festivals, had to be combated. Factory owners set out to discipline the labor force in new ways, and many older leisure habits were among the first victims of the process.

In reaction to the forces of control, many early industrial workers quit their jobs; others went home to the countryside during harvest periods, in part to find a bit of respite from industrial discipline and to recover some personal leisure time. Precisely because some group leisure forms were regulated, many workers clung all the more vigorously to personal escape; drinking, for instance, loomed larger in popular leisure during the industrialization period in part because other options were scaled back.

Along with industrialization, urban growth spurred concerns about certain popular leisure traditions. Crowds that might seem innocuous in the countryside, because they were small and isolated, took on a different air in cities, where popular rioting might threaten. Newly formed urban police forces spent an immense amount of time seeking to regulate popular leisure and enforce restrictions, mainly in protection of real or imagined threats to public order.

Urban pressures were another standard feature of the industrialization process, but in the United States they received additional impetus from the patterns of immigration that, by the 1840s, were bringing new numbers of Irish, Germans, and French Canadians and that, later on, would involve massive numbers from Eastern and Southern Europe. Immigrant leisure habits easily seemed more menacing or vulgar than popular leisure habits in general.

Finally, partly in reaction to new aversions to urban crowds and immigrant masses, a growing American middle class held itself up as a beacon of respectability defined in part in terms of restrained leisure tastes. Even as political democracy spread, as least for free males, the democracy of manners was increasingly challenged. From the late eighteenth century onward, middle-class children were schooled in the importance of being able to avoid unseemly display, to discipline body movements, and to engage in worthy forms of leisure such as piano playing for girls and uplifting reading for both genders. Respectable leisure, in this image, should contribute to the family's social standing, to the cohesion of the family itself, and to the promotion of good work habits. Leisure that smacked of vulgarity or merely letting off steam was roundly condemned. Part of this respectability current merely reinforced broader efforts to encourage more diligent and regular work or to provide a more vigorous basis for criticizing immigrant groups.

But there were other components as well. Leisure that involved cruelty to animals, for example, was now reproved, for it seemed wrong on its face and also risked rousing animal passions in onlookers. New regulations sought to outlaw cock fighting and other traditional pastimes—though often the result was merely to drive these activities underground. There was new appreciation of European refinement as well, in an American middle class that was increasingly wealthy but unsure of its social graces. Here, particularly, was a reason to scorn rural and frontier leisure as uncouth.

Industrialization, urbanism, and the push for immigrant respectability provided powerful incentives for a variety of specific contests about leisure during the nineteenth century. The workplace itself was one. By the second generation of industrial workers, employers reported growing success in instilling a modern time sense and a reduction of older recreational combinations with work—like group singing. Attempts to prevent workers from drinking on the job were tougher. Certain work contexts—like office work—made attempts to limit chatting more difficult than others. On the whole, however, a clear separation between work and leisure was a key result of nineteenth-century regulatory efforts, and the distinction was new.

Attacks on gambling particularly illustrated the hold of middle-class beliefs on the social control effort. Most states and localities sought to bar gambling, on grounds that it offered dreams of rewards for no effort and drained the pockets of the poor. A good bit of police time was devoted to gambling prevention, often in poor and immigrant neighborhoods and with incomplete results.

Urban space was another contest area. Conflicts arose over the use of the new public parks, for example. Many working-class and immigrant groups, including German Americans, saw parks as a chance for group gatherings that might generate considerable noise, some roughhousing, and opportunities for beer consumption—in other words, they sought to transpose traditional recreational elements into new space. Middle-class opposition was fierce, on grounds that parks should provide opportunities for safe and sedate leisure and contacts with nature. Rules for park use usually represented the middle-class view. In another case, new ideas about juvenile delinquency typically criminalized minor acts of vandalism that had traditionally been seen as recreational expressions on the part of young men.

Control of urban leisure space was not just a matter of rules and laws. Respectability codes greatly influenced the kinds of public leisure in which "good" women could participate, keeping taverns but also many sports venues beyond their reach. Long, constraining dress styles also inhibited leisure activities for middle-class women.

The growing interest in sports provided opportunities for direct regulation and also outlets that might facilitate the wider interest in disciplining leisure. Many middle-class leaders, for example in schools and settlement houses, believed that sports could help distract urban youth from other, more destructive leisure habits, including vandalism. At the same time, sports themselves became more structured. Fixed rules and refereeing were applied to many sports that had previously been more casual and sporadically violent. Sports in this way came to resemble the features of modern work. Spontaneity and roughhousing were discouraged. Some whole sports hung on the edge of acceptability; boxing drew great interest, including from middle-class audiences, but it was also fiercely debated because of its violence, and stricter rules were recurrently introduced to limit the sport.

In the later nineteenth century, many middle-class leaders faced increased concerns because of new waves of immigrants and sheer urban growth. The interest that some middle-class people took in participating in working-class leisure, for its liveliness and earthiness, seemed to threaten the social control effort. A key response (and not only in the United States) was the creation of "red light" districts in cities, generally for workers and men. In these districts, bars, prostitution, and gambling were allowed fairly free expression, with minimal police interference. The hope was that other city neighborhoods could remain free of these activities. This was a major compromise, seeking control but now recognizing that some people—like certain immigrants—could not be prevented from recreational excess.

There were also new successes to record in the battle for leisure respectability. By the early twentieth century, middle-class rules of decorum increasingly prevailed in the new movie houses. Early movie audiences were often loud and raucous, but house rules increasingly disciplined spectators to passive silence—an achievement that has largely persisted to the present day.

The long war against working-class drinking also came to a head. Temperance campaigns had formed one of the recurrent battlegrounds in nineteenth-century social control efforts since the 1830s, pitting middle-class reformers (including, by the 1860s, many women eager to curb male recreational success) against many workers, immigrants, and brewery interests. Regulation of tavern hours and some statewide prohibitions had dotted the campaign, and, by 1916, nineteen states had passed prohibition laws, but the impact was modest. Amid growing fears of popular excess, Congress in 1917 passed a constitutional amendment requiring nationwide prohibition; the amendment was fully ratified two years later, taking effect in 1920. This triumph of social control has often been judged a failure, because widespread liquor smuggling combined with more open middle-class and women's drinking during the 1920s, until in 1933 Prohibition was repealed. In fact, however, Prohibition, along with the larger measures of industrial discipline, did significantly alter working-class leisure patterns. The ubiquity of neighborhood bars was never revived. Other aspects of tavern-based leisure, including frequent brawls, also declined dramatically. The industrial age ended with substantial success for the forces of respectability, clouded by the inability to sustain the explicit regulatory thrust.

The Twentieth Century

On the whole, the nineteenth-century approach to leisure regulation extended into the 1930s, and then for another two decades depression and war distracted from major new commitments to leisure pursuits. Gradually, however, and then decisively during the 1950s, a new climate developed, in which many previous efforts at social and legal control fell by the wayside. To many observers, the idea of social control over American leisure seemed a contradiction in terms. This was not, in fact, the case, but it was true that control efforts for the most part moved toward more subtle mechanisms.

Three major developments, again intertwined, changed the regulatory climate. First, the pursuit of leisure and pleasure became increasingly open and approved. In 1951, sociologist Martha Wolfenstein wrote a perceptive article on the leisure ethic, arguing that from early childhood onward, Americans were being pushed toward a search for enjoyment. Employment and school applications began to include sections on leisure interests, with the clear implication that a person lacking some defendable recreational interests was deficient. In this climate, blatant efforts to control leisure on grounds, for example, that it might interfere with work became less plausible. Gender-specific leisure rules also declined in this context.

Commercial interests supporting a variety of leisure activities also became increasingly powerful, easily surpassing the powers of saloon and brewery interests that had attempted to block Prohibition. Giant media, music, and movie companies, in particular, steadily pressed against regulations of public taste that might inhibit the commercial appeal of radio shows, films, and later television. They were not always successful, but their impact was undeniably vigorous.

Finally, landmark court rulings in the 1950s made it clear that constitutional freedom of speech provisions applied to consumer leisure, blocking most attempts at censorship except to an extent where child audiences were involved. One historian has aptly termed the new legal climate the "repeal of reticence." More generally, the widespread (if, in fact, overlysimple) belief that Prohibition had not only failed but proved counterproductive in encouraging new drinking habits made legislators wary of attempting to regulate public morality in many of the ways that had been standard during the nineteenth century. With leisure, many Americans came to believe—whether in praise or in blame—that they had entered a period in which anything goes. From the 1950s onward, each new decade seemed to bring new latitudes in the lyrics permitted in popular music, the amount of flesh that could be exposed in movies or on television, and the language that could be used in the same media. By the century's end, the advent of violent computer games and pornographic uses of the Internet added new technological venues to what had become an established trend.

Yet the theme of social control did not disappear. In fact, by the end of the twentieth century, Americans had considerably more restricted leisure lives than did Western Europeans or Japanese, their colleagues in advanced industrial societies. Topless beaches for women, standard in Europe, were severely limited in the United States. Sexually explicit television and the use of nudity in advertising were similarly less restrained in Europe. The availability of leisure time, expanding in Europe and even work-oriented Japan, may actually have been diminishing for many Americans. Whatever the common impression, and despite undeniably significant relaxations in standards, various social controls persisted or were newly introduced.

Some staple regulations, introduced in the nineteenth century, simply remained, often with some intensification. Prohibitions against mistreatment of animals for entertainment purposes were extended, with growing protests, for example, against some standard circus routines. Some of the same thinking now applied to humans with particular misfortunes. A combination of legislation and changes in public taste gradually wiped out the freak shows that had bedecked circuses and county fairs into the early twentieth century, for people with disabilities or deformities were no longer appropriate game for the entertainment industry.

Effors to Regulate Children's Leisure

In a climate of growing leisure permissiveness, efforts to regulate children's leisure gained increasing salience in the twentieth century. Here was a clear new response to the changing leisure trends. The most ambitious efforts characteristically failed, but they revealed a strong social control impulse that did restrain commercial vendors and that did feed a more successful attempt to instill internal controls in many children as they were socialized for adulthood.

The early twentieth century saw a growing interest in controlling children's access to city streets at night, to protect them against overstimulation and irregular leisure habits. The idea of applying curfews specifically to children was new, and it spread from the 1880s onward. Cities like Chicago joined the parade in the 1920s. By 2001, 80 percent of all American cities with populations over 30,000 had juvenile curfew restrictions.

In the same period, from 1900 onward, a seemingly endless sequence of efforts to regulate the media available to children took shape. Middle-class magazines and various experts took up a crusade against comic strips, on grounds they promoted violence and hostility to authority. By the 1920s, radio and the movies drew anguished attention from parent and school groups. Attempts to boycott sponsors of radio shows that presumably played on children's emotions made little headway, as did outright regulatory proposals, though radio networks periodically promised to clean up their shows. Movies seemed still more dangerous to children's character, and a host of scientific studies by the 1920s purported to demonstrate their contribution to juvenile delinquency and excessive nervousness. The 1950s saw a renewed crusade against comic books, because of their appeals to violence and sensuality, again with claims of direct links to juvenile crime. Television violence drew attacks by the 1950s also, with parents urged to regulate children's viewing habits. Rock music was the menace of choice in the 1980s, with appeals for industry self-regulation or possible legislation. Video games were another 1980s target, while the spread of the Internet drew concern in the 1990s.

None of the various crusades rolled back the clock on explicit images available to child audiences, at least more than temporarily. Concerns about movies did generate a new Hollywood code in which the industry did pull back on sexual imagery while regulating scenes of violence such that, for example, a shooter or a victim could be shown, but never both in the same scene and never with blood. The code was progressively abandoned after the mid-1950s. Other campaigns generated the movie ratings system, in which children were presumably barred from some films outright and allowed into some others only with adult accompaniment. Sexually explicit magazines were pulled from grocery and convenience store shelves, thanks to a 1980s campaign, and available only in concealing wrappers elsewhere. By the 1990s, Internet and cable TV access could be regulated by parents through use of control devices on the equipment that would block certain forms of access. These regulations, however, were modest at best and were not always enforced.

The more important impact of the regulatory efforts involved the many parents who followed up the warnings with efforts at their own regulations in the home. They involved the children who, as a result, learned at least some distinctions between "good" and "bad" leisure, distinctions that could carry over into adult self-control in the leisure field. They involved some constraints on the leisure industry, both to limit certain kinds of fare that might draw more pronounced regulation, and to provide leisure alternatives that would avoid the regulatory brickbats altogether. Leisure companies like Walt Disney made much of their fortune by providing entertainments that parents could count on as healthy and uplifting.

For the availability of dubious leisure outlets, and the many hortatory campaigns against them, produced a growing effort by experts, adults, and many vendors to produce recreational activities for children that would help them in school, later work, and general character development while, of course, keeping them away from excessive exposure to the lures of violence and sex. The idea of training children for leisure gained ground rapidly after World War I. A new interest in hobbies followed from this impulse in the 1920s and 1930s. Children or adults who collected stamps or built model radios were using leisure to good effect, honing skills that might look good on applications or that could carry directly onto constructive adult leisure.

Sponsorship of music or sports lessons was another outlet, and many parents and schools joined in the wider effort to provide guided leisure experiences for children. A host of camps arose to teach children these skills and at the same time keep them away from the dreaded alternatives that might lead to delinquency during potentially idle summers. Parents whose children did not show healthy leisure interests or talents were easily made to feel deficient. From the 1920s onward, reports of overprogrammed middle-class children surfaced recurrently. These were children for whom leisure was a task (though possibly also enjoyable) and for whom spontaneity was largely excluded, as well as children who were simply too busy for TV or other less-regulated outlets. By the 1990s, parental efforts, including that new breed called soccer moms, had actually succeeded in reducing TV watching by middle-class children. Correspondingly, American educators and government authorities placed great reliance on character-building campaigns to get children to "just say no" to leisure activities that might cause trouble, including drink, drugs, and sexual activity.

Beyond childhood, leisure regulation in the later twentieth century was more limited or subtle, partly, of course, because of the hope that children properly raised would carry self-control into adult choices. There were, however, several areas in which explicit regulation continued or even expanded. Safety was one. It was perfectly legitimate, in twentieth-century culture, to regulate leisure on safety grounds. Compared to counterparts in other countries, American parks were filled with railings and other restraints, as well as warning signs. Aided by increasingly expensive equipment, but also more stringent rules and referees, sports activities were regulated with safety in mind. Some of this applied particularly to children. After an exaggerated scare in 1981, spontaneous trick or treating was largely eliminated from Halloween, in favor of careful adult chaperonage lest children receive poisoned candy. Dodge ball, once a rough playground sport, was increasingly regulated to prevent bruising. But adult leisure habits could be regulated on grounds of safety concerns as well. The most noteworthy instance was the active campaign against drinking and driving organized from the 1980s onward, which did play a role in reducing adult alcohol consumption.

Health was another legitimate target. After great debate, complicated by huge pressures from tobacco companies, smoking became a recreational habit that could be heavily regulated, from the 1980s onward. In this and other areas, the concept of addiction, which had gained attention and range of application from the 1930s onward, promoted both educational campaigns and outright regulation. The idea was that a minority of adults might fixate so intensely on some substance or pastime that they would lose the capacity for rational control and therefore they needed some combination of warning and regulation. Addiction concepts were applied to substances like nicotine and alcohol, but also to recreations like gambling. The result was great debate about restricting certain kinds of access and a series of warnings about symptoms of addiction that could serve social control purposes directly for some worried adults.

In a climate of increasing political conservatism, concerns about children, health, and safety led to growing regulation of leisure by colleges in the 1980s and 1990s. Fraternity hazing was widely controlled, and a variety of festival days that had traditionally involved drinking were curbed or eliminated. Pennsylvania State University, for example, in the 1990s outlawed a Phi Psi race (jogging from bar to bar in bizarre costumes) and "gentle Thursday" (a spring event with free beer).

The wide-ranging regulatory campaign against drug taking, a twentieth-century innovation, drew together many of the social-control themes in an even more extensive fashion: the concern about vulnerable children, the commitment to health and safety, and the commitment to maintaining rational control over recreational activities. Medical regulation of drug access was introduced in the early twentieth century (the Harrison Anti-Narcotic Act of 1914 was fundamental, regulating the distribution of opiates), in marked contrast to nineteenth-century permissiveness; but it was in the 1930s that legal attacks on recreational drugs began to gain ground. While many of the attacks sought to protect children and guard against addiction, the attacks on drugs also expressed concerns about other recreations associated with drug use (such as jazz and later rock music) and—in ways that recalled the nineteenth-century—fears about the recreational habits of certain groups, such as inner-city African Americans.

Legal attacks on recreational drug use began under Harry Anslinger, who served as commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962. Anslinger particularly attacked the legality of marijuana and hashish, through the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Penalties for recreational drug use were stiffened during the 1950s, and most states did the same during the 1960s, producing mandatory minimum jail sentences for drug possession. Prison populations swelled as a result, amid accusations that sentences for drugs widely used by African Americans were stiffer than those for drugs popular with whites. In the 1970s, new federal legislation attacked drug use, in what was now termed the "war" on drugs under the newly created Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). By this point, American regulatory zeal was becoming unusual among industrial countries, producing a genuine battleground where leisure was concerned.

The focus on guiding children, and hopefully instilling permanently sound character, plus wider regulations over health and safety, defined the most explicit twentieth-century investments in social control over recreation. Two more diffuse facets deserve mention as well. The interest in providing all-embracing leisure experiences that limited spontaneity, choice, and exposure to objectionable fare was an innovation of the 1950s, launched by the first Disney theme park near Los Angeles. Such experiences became the most popular leisure destinations in the United States. Vigorous appeals to the work ethic constituted the second general constraint in twentieth-century leisure culture, limiting the commitment to recreational time and warning against leisure indulgences that might harm the work capacity. Emphasis on the virtues of work was revived in the 1920s and then, after some debate over excessive work devotion in the 1960s, again in the 1980s and 1990s, when the time committed to work actually began to rise.

By the end of the twentieth century, even as the United States generated leisure styles and media offerings spread around the world, the cumulative effect of several successive approaches to monitoring recreation had distinctive impact. An unusually strong moral component, in evaluating leisure, maintained clear traces of Puritan concern; the taming of popular recreation on grounds of respectability and the work ethic maintained some of the flavor of the industrial age; and the twentieth century, while loosening some specific regulatory approaches of the past, added important ingredients as well, particularly in the area of child training. The American leisure ethic was real, but it was shadowed by a variety of constraints.

See also: Boxing, City Parks, Crowds at Leisure, Drinking, Prohibition and Temperance, Rational Recreation and Self-Improvement, Sabbatarianism


Burnham, John C. Bad Habits: Drinking, Smoking, Taking Drugs, Gambling, Sexual Misbehavior, and Swearing in American History. New York: New York University Press, 1993.

Rodgers, Daniel T. The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850–1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Rosenzweig, Roy. Eight Hours For What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870 –1920. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Starker, Steven. Evil Influences: Crusades Against the Mass Media. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1989.

Stearns, Peter N. Battleground of Desire: The Struggle for Self-Control in Modern America. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Peter N. Stearns

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