Working-Class Leisure Lifestyles

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Wage earning Americans have developed distinct patterns of leisure, reflecting the character and conditions of their work and their income. Between 1870 and 1920, the urban population of the nation increased from less than 10 million to 54 million people. Male and female, immigrant and native laborers, often worked long, arduous hours at their factory jobs. It was not uncommon for skilled craftsmen, factory operatives, and common unskilled laborers to work six days a week for ten or more hours per day. Despite the heavy drudgery of industrial wage labor, workers' per capita income and free time gradually increased. In their demands for "eight hours for what we will" and a living wage, working men and women were not only seeking a reasonable work week and commensurate pay, they were demanding some measure of control over their lives, which had increasingly been dominated by their employer's needs and demands. In a world that defined their worth by hours labored, the working poor wished for a time and space that belonged solely to them, a realm separate and distinct from their role as wage earners. They found this space in their leisure time and in their recreational activities. Inevitably, however, their working lives, and the industrial social order that surrounded them, had a tremendous impact upon the kinds of recreations they chose.

In the nineteenth century, middle class notions of respectability were based on the separation of public and private spheres. While men were encouraged to participate in the public sphere, women were expected to protect the sanctity of the private sphere or the home. Both men and women viewed the home as a sanctuary, where the turbulent forces of industrial life were kept at a safe distance. Unlike their middle-class counterparts who stressed the importance of the private sphere, working-class men and women chose to spend almost all of their free time in public spaces. Escaping the cramped, uncomfortable quarters of the tenements and boarding houses, they flocked to street corners, saloons, ethnic churches, and public parks to seek solace and amusement. In the early decades of industrialization, the laboring poor engaged in largely non-commercial activities which were homosocial or segregated by gender (as opposed to heterosocial interaction where men and women mingle). While young boys loitered on street corners and stoops, most working class men congregated in local bars and saloons reserved for men of a certain neighborhood or ethnicity. According to one cultural historian, by 1884 there were more than 3,500 saloons in Chicago alone. By the turn of the twentieth century, many urban working class districts had at least one saloon for every fifty adult males.

The Saloon

Dubbed the "poor man's club," saloons were local institutions celebrating neighborhood ties and common ethnic backgrounds in an economy well on its way to the homogenizing effects of mass production and consumption. For the price of a drink, working men could use the public toilet, enjoy a free lunch, read the newspaper, pick up mail, and cash a check. In addition to meeting such practical needs, local saloons served as the keepers of working-class and ethnic culture. Rather than aid immigrant groups to conform to middle class values, saloons tended to cater to the communal aspirations of their clientele, thus conserving and reinforcing ethnic and class ties. Men often joined in song, treated each other to drinks, and pooled their money to buy a round of beer. Commenting on the social role of saloons, historian Roy Rosenzweig has suggested that treating others to a drink "implied resistance to individualism as well as acquisitiveness, because the ritual placed fraternal and communal needs over personal ones" (Kingsdale, p. 472, 489). In his study of Worcester, Massachusetts, Rosenzweig found that even in the absence of union activity, working-class men managed to create an alternative culture centered on their leisure time.

In contrast, middle class men and women often viewed leisure with measured suspicion for they were heavily influenced by notions of Protestant piety, Victorian respectability and the industrial work ethic. Reciprocal modes of social interaction, such as treating, may not have been oppositional, but they were certainly contrary to middle class values and to patterns of market exchange, which emphasized among other things, productivity, frugality, sobriety, and personal material gain.

With a little help from the saloonkeeper, workers created an all-male sub-culture separate from the demands of industry and the constraints of family. Yet, just outside the swinging double doors of the saloon, electric lamps lit the once dim city streets, inviting workingmen and women out of their homes, saloons, and workplaces and into a myriad of commercial recreations such as dance halls, theaters, and amusement parks. As their wages and free time increased, workers spent less time on their front stoops, at ethnic picnics and saloons, and more time in recreational pursuits independent from their local communities and ethnic groups.

Women, Heterosocial Spaces

Single working women were an early exception to homosocial patterns of leisure. (They are not predecessors: married women co-existed with single working women, but their experiences were dramatically different.) Unlike their mothers and married sisters, whose work hours seemed never-ending and who were by necessity confined to the tenements, urban women workers had a fixed workday. This meant that they could define the rest of the day, after work, as their own. Factory work may have been taxing, but it gave women access to a host of previously unattainable freedoms. As wage earners they had some discretionary income, as well as access to the city and its public spheres. Perhaps more importantly, factory work gave immigrant women access to a peer community outside the context of family and ethnicity. When the factory bell rang, single women would escape from work with entertainments such as dancing and theater. Increasingly, young women pooled their resources to create cooperative, mutually beneficial living arrangements in the city, away from parental supervision. Many American-born daughters still living with their immigrant parents bartered their wages for the freedom to come and go as they pleased. Historian Kathy Peiss asserts that "it was in leisure that women played with identity, trying on new images and roles, appropriating the cultural forms around them—clothing, music, language—to push at the boundaries of immigrant, working-class life"(p. 8). Dress, or "putting on style," was a favorite way to play with notions of respectability, independence, class, and identity. In places like New York City, clothing shops offered women inexpensive versions of high fashion designs. Young women often went without food to spend what little they had on a feathered hat or a chinchilla coat.

In many ways, working women were actively challenging middle class definitions of femininity or "true womanhood," which emphasized domesticity, moral guardianship and sexual purity. Although by the late nineteenth century some bourgeois women ventured into the public sphere through their reform work and philanthropy, most middle class women were still guided by Victorian values, emphasizing the virtues of chastity and the primacy of motherhood and domesticity. For working women and those who paid attention to them, putting on style, promenading in the streets, and dancing in dance halls all seemed to fly in the face of middle-class notions of femininity and domesticity.


Middle-class reformers bemoaned what they saw as the physical and moral depravity in dance halls, amusement parks, and penny arcades. They worked hard to mitigate the social impact of these new urban forms of recreation. Nothing could prepare them, however, for perhaps the most influential form of working-class leisure: the nickelodeon. A descendant of penny arcades and vaudeville, the nickelodeon, also known as "the workingman's college," was a cheap form of entertainment accessible to those who spoke little or no English. For a nickel, working-class men, women, and children could attend a moving picture show, trade local gossip, hiss at villains on the screen, and accompany the piano player in a song or two. Nickelodeons represented what one historian has described as "an exhilarating, slightly scandalous break from routine. . .an act of almost pure hedonism—in the middle of the workday, where [they] certainly did not belong" (Nasaw, p. 164).

By 1910 there were more than 200 nickelodeons in Manhattan alone. A study of recreation found that approximately 75 percent of movie-goers in that period were working-class. Small store-front theaters could be found in most tenement districts. Their presence in local neighborhoods soon turned dime theaters into community gathering places. Many nickelodeons rented their rooms to local ethnic lodges, youth groups, and churches for meetings and dances. Like the saloons before them, nickelodeons were commercial spaces that often doubled as community resources. These new, inclusive spaces broadened the very definition of community. Unlike most saloons and vaudeville theaters, which actively catered to the ethnic make-up of the audience, movie theaters and nickelodeons welcomed immigrant men and women from all ethnic backgrounds.

Democratization of Leisure

Nickelodeons, dance halls, and other urban amusements were democratic arenas that unified white pleasure seekers regardless of gender, class, and national origin. These increasingly public commercial amusements began to draw "respectable" crowds. White-collar workers joined the audience as movie palaces with lobbies and balconies replaced the poorly-ventilated store-front nickelodeons. Theater owners and amusement entrepreneurs carefully created public spaces that were exciting enough to appeal to the masses, but respectable enough to draw in white-collar and middle-class crowds. Movie theaters began to occupy a cultural space just above the nickelodeon, yet more affordable than the live theater frequented by the upper class. The new films featured theatrical narratives that simultaneously appealed to the middle-class need for respectable entertainment and the working-class need for sensuousness and emotional release.

African Americans were a significant exception to this new "democratization of leisure." Blacks were often ridiculed and demonized in the amusement itself and were segregated or excluded from the general audience. Relegating African Americans to the category of "other" allowed European immigrants from all sorts of ethnic and class backgrounds to consider themselves "white." Exaggerating racial distinctions on stage and in the audience distracted attention from social distinctions between "white" pleasure seekers. The exclusion and segregation of African Americans, however, certainly did not prevent them from having an impact on the landscape of American leisure.

In the years after emancipation, southern, agrarian, working- and lower-class African Americans from the Mississippi Delta region began developing a musical style called the blues. Rural music that captured the suffering and hopes of former slaves, tenant farmers, and workers, the blues originated from the field holler whose "call and response" style developed into work songs. As large numbers of African Americans migrated to northern cities like New York and Chicago, blues music gradually became an urban phenomenon. The impact of blues and jazz was especially apparent in the streets and dance halls of Harlem, New York, where the African American community was experiencing a cultural renaissance. Between the end of World War I and the Great Depression, New York City's Harlem district became the center of black cultural expression. Blues and jazz clubs popped up all over the city. Talented African American writers produced a sizable body of literature in the four prominent literary genres of poetry, fiction, drama, and essay. Americans grew familiar with the poetry of Langston Hughes and the novels of Zora Neale Hurston, but it was the music that was most infectious. In 1920, a New York vaudeville singer named Mamie Smith released "Crazy Blues," which quickly sold more than 1 million copies and launched the "race recording" industry; an industry that directly targeted African American audiences. The blues proved popular among a larger public as well, and blues recordings by Bessie Smith, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and others became important parts of the musical landscape. Thus, despite their exclusion from the city's commercial amusements, African American writers, poets, artists, and musicians from Harlem and elsewhere contributed to the emerging urban landscape of leisure.

Americanization and Commercialization

By the 1930s, in urban centers around the country, there arose a new expressive urban culture steeped with working-class values and tastes. The needs and desires of working men and women played an important part in shaping the emerging mass culture. Yet the influence was not one directional: mass culture increasingly affected change among the working classes. As more and more workers participated in commercialized culture, they were less inclined to define themselves strictly in terms of class or ethnicity. Commercial leisure allowed immigrant workers to learn about American society outside of the context of work, resulting in the increased homogenization of the United States' working class. Yet the same cultural factors that produced homogenization also removed opportunities for communal thinking, promoting an individualistic existence through the mass culture of consumption. American workers increasingly defined themselves and others through consumer goods. Consumer culture offered a dominant ideology of individualism, privatism, and materialism that was at odds with the kinds of collective, communal ethics that had once characterized working-class leisure and recreation.

Post-World War II Privatization of Leisure

In the years during and after World War II, consumer culture began to permeate almost every aspect of leisure and recreation. During post-war reconversion, government agencies, big businesses, and unions embraced the idea that mass consumption would give all Americans a higher standard of living. Consumerism, it was believed, would result in a more prosperous and equitable nation. Despite inequalities in wealth, democracy could be ensured through equal access to the market. Like their union officials, many American workers became less interested in reducing work time and more interested in increasing their purchasing power. They were encouraged by manufacturers and businessmen who developed new strategies for fueling consumer demand through advertising, the extension of credit, and a cornucopia of mass-produced inexpensive products. The increase in consumer credit and the proliferation of installment plans (paying for a product in regular installments, where previously people had to pay for a product in full at the time of purchase) only fueled the fires of consumption. Historian Liz Cohen estimates that "the value of total consumer credit grew almost eleven-fold between 1945 and 1960, and installment credit—the major component of the total by the post war era—jumped a stunning nineteen-fold" (p. 125).

By the late 1950s, many Americans were actively participating in the buying frenzy of consumer culture and much of the spending centered around the home. Historian Elaine Tyler May observes that "in the five years after WWII, consumer spending increased 60 percent, but the amount spent on household furnishings and appliances rose 240 percent"(p. 165). More and more, Americans were living in the suburbs, driving automobiles, and watching a great deal of television. Although these cultural trends are often described as middle-class, a great number of working-class families were engaging in similar consumer behaviors. Increasing numbers of working-class families were moving to low-income suburban homes. In 1961, 45 percent of all residents in the suburb of Levittown were blue-collar workers. By 1970, 82 percent of American families owned at least one car. By 1960, almost 90 percent of American households had at least one television set, with the average person watching approximately five hours each day.

Whether they were buying or renting homes, listening to the radio or watching television, American workers were spending more time at home and less time in public places. Attendance at movie theaters, sports stadiums, and downtown markets dramatically decreased. Ultimately, suburbanization, the decline of public transit due to automobiles, and the convenience and popularity of television made it more difficult for working-class audiences to reach downtown areas and theaters. The focal point of popular culture shifted away from public spaces and toward the privacy of single family homes. Home-centered entertainment such as video recordings, television,and radio discouraged collective communal forms of recreation and contributed to the privatization of working-class leisure.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, elements of working-class tastes and experiences could be found in everything from national television shows to the lyrics of popular music. Yet, many distinctive working-class leisure habits and sites which had once reinforced class identity were appropriated by mass culture, stripped of their dissention, and sold for a profit. Undeniably, working-class culture acquired a certain amount of cultural desirability. To be familiar with working class slang, music, and style was (and is) to have a certain amount of cultural capital. Yet this rarely translated into any kind of real political power and was hardly a strong foundation for working-class consciousness.

The privatization of leisure and the dominance of commercial recreation has continued well into the first part of the twenty-first century. In 2003, the Harris Poll asked a nationwide survey of 1,017 adults about their favorite leisure time activities. The poll found that "as in previous years, the largest numbers of people mention reading (24 percent), watching TV (17 percent) and spending time with the family and kids (17 percent) as their favorite leisure time activities" (Taylor, The Harris Poll #72). They also found that the median number of available leisure hours ("to relax, watch TV, take part in sports or hobbies, go swimming or skiing, go to the movies, theater, concerts, or other forms of entertainment, get together with friends") was estimated at nineteen hours. People participating in a similar poll in 1973 reported having significantly more leisure time (twenty-six hours). Although controversial, economist Juliet Schor's study of the "overworked American" found that people spent increasing number of hours at work in the last twenty years of the twentieth century, thereby reducing leisure time and reversing a hundred-year downward trend of hours spent on the job. Schor found that profit was the primary motive for the American worker's long hours. These studies, and others, show that the quality and quantity of working-class leisure has changed significantly over the past 100 years. Whether or not the trend of privatization will continue remains to be seen. One thing is certain, however: leisure and recreation continue to be an essential part of the American worker's identity.

See also: Bars; Civic Clubs, Men; Civic Clubs, Women; Expansion of Leisure; Leisure Class; Slave Singing/Music; Television's Impact on Youth and Children's Leisure


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Taylor, Humphrey, The Harris Poll #72, December 1, 2003. Available from

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Aline Ohanesian