Consumer Leisure

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Charles Rearick

Until the beginning of the eighteenth century, Europeans did not conceive of a portion of their time as leisure; they had neither our modern concept nor the kind of experience it denotes. The word itself existed in English and French (loisir) in the medieval and the Renaissance eras, but it meant "opportunity" or "occasion." Monks and nobles might appear leisured to a modern eye—they abstained from common labors and business—but they did not view their lives that way. For monks the absence of work meant time for contemplation and prayer. For nobles daily life was filled with honorable activities—hunting, fencing, and jousting, for example. Common people's lives included some playful periods of festivity and rest scattered through the year, but their ordinary days lacked set times that were distinct from work. People routinely mixed singing, conversing, drinking, and rest into their workdays, varying the proportions of the mix according to their own inclinations at and the demands of their tasks.


For ordinary people especially, what we would call leisure was missing. When spring plowing and summer harvesting had to be done, peasants toiled to exhaustion with virtually no time left over. In other periods of the year, principally in winter, they experienced dead time, more than a hundred days of it; but still they worked, making tools and household goods. And they participated in fairs, festivals (mostly holy days) or saint's day celebrations, and occasional pilgrimages (the only socially sanctioned travel for ordinary women). On feast days, common people engaged in the same kinds of collective play that they enjoyed whenever they found time for respite: various ball games, card games, and dancing. Those times of revelry took place at irregular intervals closely tied to nature and weather—the pattern not only for the farming population but also for miners, sailors, shipping workers, and many others.

Although people did not pay admission to participate in customary festivals and recreations, often they did spend some money—the beginnings of consumer leisure are visible as early as the blossoming of market economies in Renaissance Europe. On almost every festive occasion, people paid small sums to see entertainments offered by traveling showmen: acrobats and jugglers, dancing bears and learned pigs, puppets, magicians, ventriloquists, fire-eaters, dwarfs and giants, singers, dancers, and actors. During religious feast days and pilgrimages, celebrants found occasions for pleasure and purchases of wine, sweets, and images, for example, from peddlers and local shopkeepers. From the sixteenth century on, ordinary Europeans increasingly consumed recreation and entertainment along with goods, and commercial recreation occupied a growing place in the early modern economies and in daily life—particularly of urban dwellers.

The possibilities for consumption proliferated in each successive century. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, more and more entrepreneurs ventured into business as theater and opera impresarios, booksellers, painting and print dealers, and proprietors of taverns and coffeehouses. Fundamentally, what the leisure merchants provided was pleasure, or at least the possibilities for fun, unburdened by moral or political ideals and purposes. Their establishments made powerful appeals to common desires and appetites—for drink, food, sex, sociability, dreams and illusions. In contrast to the traditional cycle of periodic festivities, the new establishments invited people to indulge and to enjoy themselves on a regular basis. They served up whatever the entrepreneurs thought pleased the audience—with little regard for discriminating dictates of good taste. The distinction between popular and high culture was not yet clear or firmly established. On the same London stage in the seventeenth century, spectators could find juggling and ballet, high tragedy and low comedy. Theatrical and fairground spectacles catered to all manner of dreams and fantasies; they merchandised the imaginary, giving customers a chance to see the marvelous and the magical, to experience life in distant times and places, and to share in the joys and sorrows of bigger-than-life characters.

The core public for the emergent leisure was an urban population that did not have access to court and noble entertainments yet did have some disposable income; these were principally middle-class people at first, especially men, who had more opportunity to spend time and money in public places than did women. The working people of towns and villages were a large potential clientele whose participation was held back by a relative lack of time and money. Some entertainers and businessmen even in the early modern era, however, began to tap that potential. Street and fairground performers, such as the Italian commedia dell'arte players, lived off small coins collected from assembled commoners. To partake of coffeehouse or café life, customers had to pay only the price of a drink. Entry to pleasure gardens was often free. For poor people who were minimally literate, publishers offered small, cheap booklets—almanacs, devotional tracts, and entertaining tales—of miracles, spectacular crimes, and great deeds.

As the country with the most advanced market economy and largest urban population, England was a leader in developing consumer leisure from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century. Many societies on the continent approached England's level of commercialization only much later. As late as the nineteenth century, such eastern European countries as Poland and Russia were still predominantly agrarian and attached to traditional patterns of leisure. By then in western Europe, entertainments and pastimes that were once the preserve of the patrician elite had opened up to a more diverse public. The royal courts still served as patrons to theater and opera companies, musicians, and painters, but a paying public was also supporting performances outside the palaces and noble mansions. Commercial entertainment halls and theaters were in the forefront of an expanding public sphere, open to all those who could pay.


As customers bought admission to new entertainments and pastimes, they made choices about their own self-images. In their leisure activities more than in work time, people found opportunities to adopt and assert social identities that they themselves chose. To participate in the emergent consumer culture was to engage in a social performance. The well-to-do middle classes, for example, displayed their status and wealth publicly by sitting prominently in the best seats in the theaters. They also enhanced their prestige by using their money to engage in leisure activities that were traditionally associated with established elites. And they did all that choosing and self-fashioning as individuals, now acting independently of community customs.

The pastimes and recreation preferences of Renaissance elites exercised a profound long-term influence on others in European society. Renaissance nobles in urban centers (Florence, Venice, and Mantua, for example) had conspicuously devoted much of their time to self-cultivation and the arts along with more basic enjoyments such as drinking and feasting. Their tastes marked certain recreations with the cachet of high status, which guided many marketers of leisure in subsequent centuries. Entrepreneurs grasping the dynamics of social emulation produced innumerable commercial imitations of the elite's pleasures. Merchants, for example, provided moneyed but common-born men and women with the opportunity to buy and collect art and expensive curiosities. Other businessmen created public pleasure gardens (Vauxhall in the mid-seventeenth century and Ranelagh in the eighteenth century) reminiscent of noble gardens. More fundamentally, the nobles served as models for middle-class people wanting to break away, at least part of the time, from the work ethic and the stigmas attached to pleasure seeking.

The middle strata of society also kept an eye on the pastimes of people below, and most often they disapproved of what they saw. Opponents of common people's recreations were numerous and powerful long before commercial offerings expanded. They had barely tolerated the excesses of popular festivals, during which participants threw over the normal rules and constraints. What too often ensued, critics charged, was unbridled indecency, sexual license, and blasphemy. Critics had also long condemned the drunkenness and brawling associated with taverns and alehouses. The expanding commercial establishments of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries aroused the same alarms as those most pastimes had. Thus clergy and reforming middle-class leaders condemned new places of drink and recreation as dens of immorality and idleness and associated them with all manner of debauchery. In fact, they assailed everything popular in which they found coarseness and brutality—from blood sports to drunken unruliness. These moral spokesmen, enemies of popular culture, were champions of politeness, manners, refinement, and self-improvement. Some simply advocated work. The rising valuation of work, particularly among the middle classes, left leisure activities more suspect than ever. In the advanced commercial society of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, Puritan spokesmen took the lead in the campaigns against play, fighting especially hard against all Sunday recreations, judged to be violations of the sanctity of the Sabbath. In Poland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, where the Reformation had only a weak impact and where the middle class was small, some Roman Catholic preachers and writers took a similar stand. They decried the large number of holidays (altogether about a third of the year) as openings to sin, while also attacking lords who forced peasants to work on holidays. For them, as for the Puritans, leisure was to be devoted primarily to religious practices. Other objections to popular recreations came from educational advocates—especially those following classical and noble models of honorable or superior activities.

Despite such opposition, the supply of commercial recreations increased through the early modern era with only an occasional setback—like the one in Puritan England, for example, from 1642 to 1660. The theater became one of the most important entertainments for all levels of society. A flourishing commercial theater developed particularly early—in the sixteenth century—in Italy, Spain, and England. In Elizabethan England, for example, companies of actors that had long performed for noble patrons increasingly played in public venues for anyone willing to pay admission. Those early professionals, traveling from town to town, were men and boys, as women were not allowed to act in England (unlike Italy, Spain, and France); female roles were played by boys until the mid-seventeenth century. All across Europe the social status of the actor was low, as it was for vagabonds and others not fixed in the established social order. Actresses were placed on virtually the same level as prostitutes.

Playwrights and performers in England enjoyed greater political freedom than in France or Italy, but the London city fathers nonetheless maintained restrictions on the theater, allowing only a small number of plays to be performed and those only in certain places such as open-air inn yards. In the last decades of the sixteenth century, new theaters—notably, the Rose, the Swan, and the Globe—were built outside the city walls, thus escaping the control of the London councilors. Besides the relative freedom, other favorable conditions in England were the strong commercial economy and the large population of London (more than 160,000 inhabitants in 1600), many of whom were ready and willing to pay for professional drama. By 1600 the city boasted five theaters offering plays every day of the week and a dozen notable dramatists who were able to earn their living from playwriting. Professional playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson delved into distant history and literature for stories of political power struggles and family life, subjects untouched in the medieval mystery plays. The lines and plots they crafted were vigorous and rich yet entertaining to largely uneducated popular audiences. London's theater took on great importance for England's national identity and social life, and it exercised strong long-term influence abroad. In the late sixteenth century, for example, troupes of English actors traveled to Germany and introduced a new level of professional acting skill and stage effects, bringing new vitality to German theater.

Public performances took place on stages surrounded by audiences of socially diverse men and women—wealthy and poor, masters and servants, merchants, artisans, and apprentices. The show onstage was not the only one taking place. Spectators watched others in the audience and engaged in social performances, putting themselves on display and interacting with others—in prominent seats and in the foyers. The public space of the theater (as of other new leisure establishments) brought together a mix of people, strangers who responded to the actors on stage and to each other. And like commercial venues of all sorts, theaters served as a meeting ground for prostitutes and clients.

The plays themselves interest social historians not primarily as literary texts but as mirrors held up to society, reflecting not simply an author's views but also audience tastes and values as organized and filtered through a culture's systems of representation. The shows over time also registered changes in the social composition of audiences. In seventeenth-century France, for example, the classical theater of high tragedies and public formalities was tailored to aristocratic milieus. As the bourgeoisie grew and strengthened in the eighteenth century, domestic comedies became prominent, and critiques of the traditional order began to appear. The status of actors also changed. As theaters became a more accepted part of social life and organized on a more permanent and financially stable basis, actors, both men and women, gained better pay and respect—the beginnings of their ascent to the special prestigious status that some stars of the stage attained in the nineteenth century.

Church authorities attacked and opposed the theater for centuries, viewing it as a public source of immorality. Protestants, from English Puritans to German Pietists, were particularly hostile, and when they gained access to civil power, they were often effectively repressive. Civil authorities harbored their own fears of the stage with its enactments of deception and impersonation, satirical and subversive texts, and footloose performers, and governments restricted the theater in cities across Europe. In Old Regime Paris, only two companies of actors obtained the king's authorization to perform: the Comédiens-Français and the Comédiens-Italiens, forcing other theatrical companies to establish themselves outside the city limits. To be as close as possible to their urban patrons, numerous theaters were established outside the old city boundary on the boulevards extending west from the Bastille. At the same time, performers in fairground theaters were not allowed to speak, sing, or dance onstage, so they mimed, performed on tightropes, and presented marionettes and big visual spectacles—to the delight of large popular audiences.

In the summertime, city people often preferred the outdoor diversions offered by pleasure gardens, suburban parks chock-full of commercial amusements. At London's Vauxhall (1660–1859) and Ranelagh (1742–1803), for example, patrons dined and drank and attended performances of songs, overtures, and concertos; they also watched juggling, dancing, and fireworks. Renovations of Vauxhall Gardens in 1732 turned the simple park into an elegant resort filled with buildings ranging from Gothic to Chinese, fountains, waterfalls, domed pavilions, statuary, concert platforms, tea shops, and restaurants. Access to all those attractions cost a modest one shilling in the eighteenth century, allowing the lowly to enter and mingle with the upper classes—servants and soldiers relaxing alongside rich merchants and the nobility. Similar pleasure gardens sprang up around continental cities. In nineteenth-century Vienna, the Prater (formerly a hunting preserve for the emperor) developed into a lively amusement park and exhibition ground for people from all over the capital.


An important new place of leisure in the seventeenth century was the coffeehouse or café, a relatively sedate alternative (despite the caffeine) to the traditional alehouse and tavern. Shops offering the new beverage spread from the Middle East to Europe early in the century, appearing, first in Italy and after mid-century in France, Germany, and England. They quickly became important centers of conversation, politics, business, journalism, and literature in the cities. In the early decades their patrons were mostly of the middle classes, men who were prosperous enough to afford the relatively costly drink and just beginning to develop social institutions of their own. Over coffee customers exchanged the latest information about business and politics. In the early eighteenth century, they also read newspapers that enterprising writers created for the coffeehouses, weekly and then daily papers reflecting the interests, critical moral tone, and literary tastes of the gentlemanly clientele. By making periodicals available, coffeehouses served as a special kind of public reading room, one where the private act of individual reading was accompanied by ongoing discussion of literature and politics.

By the early 1700s London's coffeehouses, now numbering over two thousand, became more socially segregated, as patrons congregated according to their occupational, cultural, and political interests. Some regulars concentrated on business, bought and sold stock, and created new commercial ventures (Lloyd's of London insurance company was one). Other customers came together in pursuit of shared literary interests. Some of the social groups that coalesced there eventually moved away from the public premises to form private clubs—for men only. Also by the eighteenth century, coffeehouses and cafes were attracting consumers who were less well-off; some clients were drinking not coffee but alcoholic drinks that were sold on the same premises. Critics escalated their attacks, saying such places were the haunts of riffraff (rakes, robbers, and idlers) and dens of excessive smoking, arguing, and subversive politicking. Not long after the first café opened in Paris, Louis XIV ordered the police to monitor discussions there, and police reports confirmed the presence of malcontents discussing politics. In France and England of the eighteenth century, coffeehouses did become prime centers of political dissent. Parisian cafés in the last decades of the century were indeed places where revolutionaries gathered to discuss radical ideas and organize political action.

In England the heyday of coffeehouses stretched over more than a century—from 1652 to 1780. They then went into relative decline, while tea, imported by the British East India Company, became more plentiful and popular than coffee. Many coffeehouses converted or reconverted to taverns and alehouses.

In continental cities cafés served the middle classes and, increasingly, the working classes. They also became the haunts of the alienated and marginal—writers and artists, Bohemians of all sorts, and revolutionaries of many stripes. In the capitals they flourished as cultural and social havens for artists and intellectuals through the nineteenth century. In Berlin, where the first café opened in 1818, and in cities of the Habsburg Empire, critics of the conservative regimes met in coffeehouses to exchange ideas and give mutual support in the years leading to the revolutions of 1848. Through the rest of the century, the coffeehouses of Vienna, Berlin, and Paris were vital centers of sociability and discussion for the middle and upper classes who wanted to see and be seen in the most fashionable places of leisure.

But many cafés also drew the poor and working people whose lodgings lacked adequate heat and light. For workers the café was a precious semipublic space, outside the private space of the cramped, uncomfortable apartment but also away from the public openness of the street. Women and children were often habitués alongside men in Vienna, Paris, and other continental cities, and in the late nineteenth century the family café was commonplace. Parisian cafés, so famous as sites of sociability and conversation, also harbored the lonely and the isolated—silent, sad, detached spectators, as we can see in paintings by Edgar Degas and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. In the twentieth century that kind of customer was still in evidence, but many were no longer habitués. As housing for the working class improved, people tended to spend more of their free time at home, and the cafés steadily declined in number.

Consumer leisure grew most dramatically in Europe's biggest cities of the eighteenth century, London and Paris, where fashions were set for other places. There the ways of spending time and money proliferated. Many entertainments were now more formally organized than before and housed in facilities that required greater investment. Public billiard rooms, cafés, concert halls, assembly rooms, and theaters multiplied. The world's first permanent circus, installed in its own building, appeared in London in 1770, organizing in one big show an array of traditional acts—clowns, acrobats, and equestrian routines. Professional sporting events emerged as regular spectacles—boxing matches in London and horse races, for example. Gambling reached new heights of popularity—bets were placed on card games in men's clubs, on cockfights, boxers, and horses. Shopping for fashionable clothing, prints, and paintings occupied a growing place in the leisure of the well-off—shopping as entertainment, distinct from basic provisioning in neighborhood markets that even the poor frequented. Middle-class women in particular became shoppers in luxury boutiques, following a path blazed earlier by aristocratic males. Buying and reading novels, attending ballad operas, and viewing exhibitions of all sorts were new recreations for many. Crowds in search of curiosities paid to see collections of natural history specimens, paintings (public art museums did not yet exist), waxworks, menageries, various magic lanterns, peepshows, and shadow plays (Schattenspiel, Italian shows, and ombres chinoises), automaton figures, trained-flea circuses, and freak shows. The uneducated lower ranks and the most cultivated alike shared an insatiable curiosity and appetite for novelty—for wonder-inspiring displays of the unusual not yet cleanly categorized as magical or scientific, instructional or entertaining.

Spending on commercial amusements increased even though many free spectacles were still available—attending public hangings, for example, and looking at lunatics in insane asylums. Rising quantities of advertising raised consumer consciousness of all the entertainment choices. From the seventeenth century on, guidebooks to the available bounty found a steady market among city visitors and natives alike. In late-eighteenth-century Paris, for example, an inexpensive, regularly updated Almanach des Loisirs provided information about places of pleasure, including their hours and prices.


In the eighteenth century factory owners seeking higher productivity adopted the practice of imposing precisely measured work hours on their employees, leaving small periods of the day and week (principally Sunday) to be called "free time." That sense of leftover time is the core of the modern concept of leisure, defined in opposition to work and to the clocked hours spent working. English manufacturers took the lead in imposing steady work regulated by strict clock time—even before the invention of steam engines and the creation of steam-powered mills and factories. In the early stages of industrialization, the time that was free was scant indeed, but it was distinctly separate from work and workplace. Workers in the new industrial conditions were not members of long-established communities with time-honored celebrations. Hence they were open to new opportunities for ease and pleasure, but they had little disposable income or time.

In the process of imposing, a steadier rhythm on labor time, employers fought against leisure traditions that workers still practiced—taking off Monday ("Saint Monday") after a Sunday of hard drinking, for example, and skipping work during parish holidays. Factory owners in the textile trades worked their employees—children as well as adults, at least until factory reform acts of the 1830s and 1840s—unremittingly twelve or more hours a day, Monday through Saturday. By 1834 the English manufacturers had succeeded in reducing the year's legal holidays to four—down from eighteen in 1830 and forty-seven in the mid-eighteenth century. With the spread of industrialization across Europe through the rest of the century, the English pattern of long intense labor and little free time became an international model for factory workers. In late-nineteenth-century Russia, for example, the work schedule in factories was twelve hours or more, 308 days a year.

The new labor intensity and loss of autonomy seem to have had an impact that carried over even into the realm of leisure. Workers subject to the new industrial conditions showed preferences for recreations that allowed for a large measure of passivity and a lack of solidarity. Industrial-era leisure became merely time for the most minimal and functional physical and psychological renewal so as again to meet the demands of work.

Workers and their unions agitated for shorter working hours—or more free time—and made gains in the second half of the nineteenth century. As workers gained that time, middle-class reformers—first in England—worked to establish "rational recreation," meaning self-improving kinds of leisure, mostly noncommercial—brass bands and choral societies, for example, and especially the singing of religious music. Employers, whom some would characterize as philanthropic and others as paternalistic, often served as sponsors. From about 1830 to 1900 the reform forces succeeded in suppressing most animal blood sports (inexpensive commercial entertainment such as cockfighting, bear-baiting, and ratting), and municipal authorities in London (as in Paris and other cities) suppressed many urban fairs, now deemed too noisy and rowdy.


While some favorite amusements of long standing were being, eliminated, entertainment overall mushroomed and became almost omnipresent in the fastgrowing cities of the second half of the nineteenth century. A multitude of new cafés and restaurants, theaters, concert and music halls, opera houses, cabarets, wax museums, panoramas, skating rinks, and dance halls sprang up and flourished. Leisure-time shopping was raised to a new level by innovative emporia now known as department stores, which featured abundant displays of merchandise, cafés and tearooms, concerts and other entertainment (early movies, for example). In the last years of the century, a technologically new spectacle of moving pictures appeared in the crowded marketplace of amusements and drew a fast-growing clientele. Outside the capitals, traveling theaters and circuses periodically added to the usual local offerings.

Demand for entertainment was strong from all classes, but the greatest rise in leisure consumption is traceable to workers and a new lower-middle class—people in clerical and other service-sector jobs who led lives outside work-based and religious organizations and customary community recreations. These customers eager for leisure businesses were city dwellers who now enjoyed greater disposable income and more free time than before. In the decades after 1848, commercial forms of leisure became the dominant ones in many people's lives, eclipsing recreations under noble, church, and municipal patronage.

The most common place of popular leisure was still the café, pub, cabaret, or tavern. Nowhere were they more numerous than in Paris. Drinking establishments there increased from some three thousand in 1789 to about twenty-two thousand in 1870. Then in the following decades under the Third Republic, especially after restrictions on café commerce were eased in 1885, the number of cafés soared to thirty thousand. In 1909, when London had 5,860 drinking places, Paris still had thirty thousand. No other city had more cafés than the French capital, or more in relation to its population—11.5 per thousand inhabitants in Paris compared with one per thousand in London.

Some drinking, places provided space for dancing and drew customers primarily for that activity; these evolved into dance halls. Some charged admission at the door; others charged each time a customer danced. Now a form of play that had been a part of almost every popular festivity was merchandised in a specialized place of business on a nightly basis. Usually a particular dance hall was associated with certain strata of society—high, middling, or low—but some crossover and mixing occurred. Upper-class people in nineteenth-century Paris, for example, enjoyed going to the bals of poor and working people, slumming or mixing with the rabble for frissons of adventure, sexual excitement, and even dancer. All across Europe the upper layers of society regularly picked up dances from the people below. The waltz, for example, began as a German peasant dance. Nobles and the middle classes adopted it at the end of the eighteenth century. Other dances of the lower classes became spectacles for the rest of society. A prime example is the cancan, which brazen lowborn Parisian women danced in popular bals for decades before it became a stage act for elite spectators at expensive night spots like the Moulin Rouge.

Participation in public dancing is difficult for historians to measure, but contemporary testimony and the number of dance halls in business from period to period give some indication of its extent. In general the number of dance halls and size of the clientele appear to have been greater in the nineteenth century than in the twentieth, with some notable exceptions. One exception is the period between the two world wars; another is the flourishing; of night spots catering to youth in the second half of the twentieth century.

Theater in the nineteenth century continued to be a major entertainment for all classes and developed some new forms that had special appeal for the fastest-growing parts of the urban population. Some of those forms were particularly suited to patrons from the middle classes, who composed the majority of the audiences in large commercial theaters (the boulevard theaters of Paris, for example). Such spectators favored amusing plays featuring vaguely middle-class characters and conventional values. The same prospering classes also patronized and enjoyed a new kind of light musical play, the operetta, a cheery entertainment with catchy melodies, dance, and a comic or sentimental plot. Meanwhile the aristocratic elite maintained a conspicuous presence at traditional grand operas.

In the late nineteenth century, writers such as Émile Zola, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Henrik Ibsen broke with the century's theatrical conventions, challenged bourgeois values, and put the spotlight on workers, the poor, and social rebels. Their naturalist dramas disturbed the satisfied or insecure middle classes with such provocative subjects as class conflict, urban squalor, and the oppression of women. Depictions of strong, norm-defying women were particularly provocative, coming at the end of a century marked by strict gender divisions and an ethos directing; women to remain subordinate and quiet in the domestic and private sphere. It was also an era in which almost all public entertainment was fashioned with men in mind as the primary spectators.

Plebeian theatergoers, meanwhile, flocked to see melodrama—sentimental, tear-provoking tales of good ultimately triumphing over evil (popular ideals and hopes realized, at least onstage). Commoners also enjoyed seeing big spectacles featuring thundering horses, elephants, and a large cast of human performers—forerunners of blockbuster action movies. Also popular were sensationalist, gory tales—theatrical versions of eighteenth-century Gothic novels and even older broadsides depicting bloody crimes. Murder and mayhem were the specialties of the house at Le Grand Guignol in Paris, which opened in 1897. There spectators watched realistic blood-drenched scenes of slashing stabbing, torture, rape, and killing. Audiences for such dramas not only played out their fears and fantasies but also took pleasure in seeing taboos shattered and good taste flouted—all under the controlled conditions of the stage. This theatrical genre did not spread widely across Europe, but it did endure in popular literature and prospered in film a few decades later.

Drinking-cum-entertainment places featuring singers and variety acts emerged before the middle of the nineteenth century as music halls in England and cafés-concerts in France. They grew in the decades after 1850 to be a leading form of commercial popular entertainment in London, Paris, and other cities great and small. Some leading music halls, like the Folies-Bergère, charged a steep admission price and catered to customers wanting to be part of a social elite. Others appealed to large, socially diverse audiences by charging little or no admission and making money simply from selling drinks and food.

The music hall played important roles in the social life of its public and in the cultural formation of class—roles that social historians are still working to clarify. The leisure experience there fell somewhere between that of the theater and that of the coffee-house—between spectatorship and performance on the one hand and participatory socializing on the other. Music hall customers often chatted during the show while smoking and drinking, and they shouted out to the performers and joined in singing favorite songs. The acts onstage did not require the audience's full attention nor did they proceed according to any narrative or logical sequence; spectators came and went informally.

Music hall song and humor, it seems clear, played mostly to males and particularly those of the working classes—or rather, to workers as conceived by performers playing to socially mixed audiences. A favorite genre of the usual crowds was comic songs about everyday life—especially about drinking and romantic pursuits. Sung by singers who seemingly personified the little guy, those songs expressed clichéd views of common life that nourished a sense of shared identity and experience in the audience. That is, spectators and performers assumed the perspective of modest working-class people or, more vaguely, a populist spirit. Audience members who were not workers joined in as good-natured sympathizers. Enjoying a convivial social atmosphere, they played along with the pretense that everyone present constituted a popular collectivity or class. Many of the most applauded performers, for their part, projected a plebeian identity through their lyrics, jokes, and accents.

In the early decades of their existence, music hall songs and stories often expressed working people's grievances. A playful show of social antagonism, the mocking of authority figures, and the flouting of social norms had long been a part of customary revels—Guy Fawkes' Night in England, charivari, and carnival—and the commedia dell'arte as well. Such practices served as safety valves for traditional society. The music hall carried on some of that same function through ritualized joking and songs, venting, common people's resentments of landlords, tax collectors, the rich and haughty, and meddlesome mothers-in-law. Turn-of-the-century cabaret performances in Paris, Vienna. and Berlin offered even more political and social satire and mocking than did the music halls, but the audiences there were small by comparison, limited to artistic circles and the well-off.

By the late nineteenth century, the edgy political and social material was toned down or eliminated from the large popular halls. Censorship was not the main reason. As the music hall evolved and spread, it was not simply an amusement attuned to its popular audience; it was also a commercial enterprise increasingly under the control of big businessmen who were conservative, socially and politically. Music hall entertainment became less critical of established society and less "vulgar" as the owners of the halls and performers alike aspired to respectability and reached out to larger audiences, including whole families. Performers under that new regime passed over social antagonisms lightly and cleansed away vulgar language and gestures. These changes were particularly marked in England, an influential leader in variety entertainment. By the turn of the century control of most major English music halls had passed into the hands of large syndicates. Among, them was the largest syndicate in the world, Moss Empires, whose centralized management oversaw nearly forty "theatres of variety," dictating their programming and performers and even the time allotted to each act.

After 1895 the music halls had to compete with a new entertainment—moving pictures, shown on a new kind of projector invented by the Lumière brothers of Lyon. Their invention was the latest in a string of magic lanterns reproducing sights and movement for viewers who enjoyed seeing the illusion of real-life scenes and stories. The Lumières' new device enjoyed several advantages over its predecessors. It used images that were not laboriously crafted by hand but were mechanically reproduced by a photographic process. And unlike Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope (a kind of peep box), the Lumières' machine was a projector that allowed not just one viewer but many, assembled as an audience, to watch the moving images and to share the storytelling.

Movies immediately attracted audiences who relished the novel visual sensations that the early short comic films and news clips provided. The new spectacle moved into city music halls, wax museums, and department stores. For about the first decade after its invention, cinema was a cheap amusement largely for working-class spectators in city centers and on fair-grounds. Then over the next decade, with the construction of new halls built for the cinema and the production of longer, high-toned films, spectators from the middle classes embraced the new entertainment. Cinema became so popular with urban audiences that it drove numerous older competitors out of business in the years before World War I; notable casualties included music halls and cafés-concerts, wax museums, and panoramas.

Even with all the new kinds of entertainment available, the city was a crowded, dirty, and noisy place for the many. Getting away from it was a pleasure, and in the second half of the nineteenth century, new public transport systems gave the masses the opportunity to do so. Working people toward the end of the century enjoyed day trips by railroad to seaside resorts, versions of New York's Coney Island such as Blackpool in England. On Sundays city people took tramways and railways for an outing to the country. Parisians, for example, made excursions to riverside cafés and restaurants along the Marne and the Seine. From the 1880s on, growing numbers of city dwellers (even of modest circumstances) bought bicycles and pedaled out to explore the countryside, to fish, and to picnic alongside streams and rivers.


In the late nineteenth century, cinema joined a series of new inventions—the phonograph and the cheap illustrated newspaper and magazine—that made possible the mechanical mass reproduction of sights, voice, and music for the entertainment of the masses. These centrally produced, one-way means of communication afforded to a relatively few business and entertainment leaders the power to influence or manipulate masses of ordinary people by selected messages about life at that time and about commodities for sale. The new media also extended a democratization of culture already under way. The new technology of cinema, for example, brought reproductions of performances to many places simultaneously at low cost to the consumer. People of modest means, scattered rural inhabitants, and residents of small towns were now able to see the same stars and productions that moneyed spectators in big city venues did.

After World War I, companies that had developed the "wireless" for military and maritime uses extended it into broadcasting for everyday civilian audiences. Radio stations sprang; up in major cities in the early 1920s, transmitting news, music, and some advertising (though nowhere as much as in the United States). State-run, university, and religious stations (for example, Radio catholique belge) came into being in the same decade. One leader in noncommercial radio was the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), which was funded by the sale of radio licenses. The BBC provided entertainment—including popular music and plays—but above all it made itself a force bespeaking social distinction with its serious, high-culture offerings as well as the elite accent of its announcers. Although it was state controlled and enjoyed a monopoly from its origins in 1922, it maintained independent self-governance in programming and news reporting. Meanwhile, radio in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany served as a prime medium of political propaganda.

In the 1930s radio became a common household fixture, delivering mass-produced entertainment and news in the home. Radio was a watershed in the shift of leisure from public space to the private domain. By early 1936 there were 27.5 million receivers in Europe (56.7 million in the entire world; 22.9 million in the United States). Men, women, and children separately followed programs addressing their distinct interests, but at times entire families came together to hear entertainment with broad appeal. Neighbors and friends who did not own a set joined the audience by paying social visits to someone who did. Silent listening usually prevailed during the programs, in contrast to the lively talk that marked pub and church gatherings. But this new leisure practice, unlike movie-going, was often not wholly free from work—women, for example, sewed, knitted, or cooked while giving some attention to the wireless.

Through the new medium, distant celebrities became intimates of the audience at home, or so it seemed, as the relationship was decidedly one-sided. The disembodied voices often conveyed the sense of being family members reaching out to include the unseen listener. For many the radio served as a connection to a larger world of information and entertainment, a function perhaps particularly important to women who were homemakers. Radio was also a new instrument of political persuasion and propaganda, and it was a powerful advertising tool and promoter of consumption.

Governments in Europe limited the number of stations, the kind of programming, and advertising for many decades. The state monopoly on radio broadcasting lasted in France until reforms permitting the licensing of private radio were carried out under the Fifth Republic's first Socialist president, François Mitterrand, in the early 1980s. Hundreds of new stations then emerged, giving listeners an unprecedented range of political opinion and advertising along with heavy doses of American and English popular music.

Radios became smaller and more portable after World War II with the development of transistors, and listeners stayed tuned to their favorite programs in their cars and on beaches. In 1979 Sony introduced the Walkman, and in the 1980s this new type of small radio and cassette player became extremely popular. Listeners could now take their favorite music almost everywhere—on subways, buses, and trains and in streets and parks. Youth especially took to the new earphones, entertaining themselves in solitude even amid crowds. Here was one more step taken in the long historical shift toward private, individualistic, more technologically mediated leisure.

Despite the entertainment available at home, masses of Europeans still went out to the movies regularly—once a week or even more frequently—in the 1920s and 1930s. In fact the practice of moviegoing grew steadily, while attendance at plays and musical performances declined except among a classically cultivated minority. Factory workers and clerical employees commonly went to cinemas more frequently than other social groups. In the 1930s children also went weekly to see productions specially designed for them. Increasing numbers from the middle classes, too, joined movie audiences over the decade. Husbands and wives usually attended together, a leisure practice in contrast to the customary one of males going out alone to pubs and taverns.

Movie theaters were commonplace in urban working-class neighborhoods and were particularly numerous in industrial workers' quarters of cities like Birmingham, England. Many of the cinemas were converted former theaters and music halls, but in city centers between the world wars, lavish new movie halls were built in the style of vast dream palaces with Egyptian, Assyrian, and Moorish decors. Yet even these showy places provided cheap seats that permitted the lowly of society to enjoy access alongside the better-off.

Some people were willing to pay to see only newsreels and documentary films; for them there were city-center halls specializing in such programs. But the biggest draws were films of fiction—the mainstay of most movie theaters. Throughout Europe, Hollywood movies became audience favorites from World War I on. So many American exports moved onto European screens and won such favor that many French, British, and other film companies found it difficult to survive. Appealing to nationalist sentiments, European filmmakers turned to their governments for legislative protection and financial aid, measures that were almost always inadequate.

The images and stories shown by the movies not only entertained but also conveyed new styles, attitudes, and ways of living. Ordinary women across Europe styled their hair as Greta Garbo did, for example, and tried to smoke cigarettes and kiss as the stars did on the big screen. Many screenplays conveyed a franker acceptance of sex than the norms in most European (and American) societies authorized. Hollywood productions after World War I established the vamp as a familiar feminine type and generalized what even the French quickly came to call sex appeal (using the English phrase). Reinforcing these anti-Victorian models were movie magazines, with their accounts of the glamorous off-screen lives of the stars—lives of romance, luxurious ease, and seaside vacations. Movies also depicted class differences: they especially showed to the masses the lifestyles of the rich and the social elite. Yet story lines in mainstream films almost always ended with social reconciliation. Socialist and communist militants perceived the cinema as an opiate, while censors and conservatives worried about its power of moral subversion. Cinema has had a strong impact on cultural values and morals; the nature and extent of it have been the subjects of unending debate.


In the 1950s television took root in European everyday life. Although television broadcasting had begun with the BBC in 1936, TV did not become a part of most households until after 1945. For several decades as television spread across Europe, one or two government-run channels provided limited programming with little or no advertising; plays, concerts, variety shows, and news filled out the schedule. These were produced and controlled by the public service companies, which pursued a mission of safeguarding cultural standards from pressures of low, popular tastes. National systems beamed programs to all citizens simultaneously. Small countries went further, moving into the airwaves well beyond their national boundaries. Luxembourg's television station, like Radio-Luxembourg from its outset in 1933, reached out to large audiences in neighboring states with programs that catered more to popular tastes than government-controlled channels generally did. Luxembourg radio and television also mixed in profitable commercial advertising before the national stations of large countries did. In Britain it was not until 1955 that a commercial TV channel began to operate, ending the BBC monopoly. Responding to the appeal of commercial programming, the BBC's directors introduced some more popular, more current music and comedy—including the widely watched satirical program That Was the Week That Was in the 1960s.

The social rebellions that peaked in 1968 led to new openings for independent TV producers and filmmakers, who chafed at the old elite conceptions of culture. Private, for-profit stations took off in the 1980s in France, Germany, Norway, and elsewhere. Their hallmark was programming that derived from many old forms of entertainment—variety shows rooted in music hall traditions, drama and comedy adapted from theater, and soap operas and newscasts carried over from radio. In the communist-bloc countries, government-run television served as an important vehicle of political propaganda, as radio had been for fascist states of the 1930s. The result, however, was far from a brainwashing of the society. Many viewers found the ideological programming heavy-handed and sought news and entertainment from nonofficial sources, mostly from Western Europe.

When the small screen entered the home, it commonly altered family life, first by becoming a new center of attention and the main source of entertainment. TV viewing quickly took over many of the hours hitherto spent listening to radio, moviegoing, and reading, although it did not supplant those older practices. Viewers spending the highest number of hours in front of the tube were the very young, the old, and the unemployed. Surveys in Britain revealed that lower-income people watched more hours than did those with higher incomes. Children have been among the most assiduous and regular of viewers, choosing programs designed for them as well as general programming.

What effects has TV watching had on society? From a historical point of view, it seems clear that the medium itself has been a prime instrument for the promotion of consumption—not just through commercial spots but also through the images of attractive automobiles and kitchens shown in program after program. Further, as critics have emphasized, the medium seems to foster passivity (even addiction) in its viewers. Observers also worry that children who spend many hours watching TV come to accept the programmers' version of what the world is and should be. The possible influence of violent scenes on viewers' behavior has been of particular concern. Some studies suggest that the effects depend on whether the young viewers watch alone or watch and interact with their parents and others. While research on these matters has been inconclusive, public opinion about violence, sex, and foul language on TV has long been strong and polarized.

For historians the question of how media representations of life relate to real life in society has been particularly important. Some TV fare seems at first glance to be purely escapist or divorced from everyday life—game shows, for example, though many of them play on consumer desires. Much on the small screen, however, clearly reflects social questions and anxieties and is an articulation of them. Comedy is especially attuned to such issues. Situation comedies and satire have often mocked and questioned dominant values and authority figures, from fathers to politicians. Yet often they have also reinforced stereotypes and well-entrenched views about class, gender, and nationalist identity, for example. Serialized shows portraying families, which have always been among the most popular programs, have presented media versions of ideals and social realities marking a period of history. They have served up what producers thought would please large audiences—often idealizing and seldom departing from well-established systems of social representation, including dominant constructions of gender. Most domestic sitcoms in the early decades of TV depicted middle-class, nuclear, patriarchal families in a sentimental and humorous way; in the 1960s and 1970s they began to depict less conventionally mainstream households, breaking with some taboos—showing prejudice, for example, in working-class British males. Viewers following the TV family's problems and resolutions derive a sense of sharing in the familial life unfolding in the programs, as fans of soap operas vicariously live the enacted moments of passion and disappointment. Compared with the sociability known to theater and music hall audiences in previous eras, television viewing seems to resemble isolated voyeurism, though it provides some compensatory experience for the lonely.

Live reporting worldwide also results in a kind of shared experience for far-flung individuals—viewers everywhere receive instant information and vicariously participate in events or happenings as they are still occurring. Viewers in every comer of Europe also share a familiarity with images of one highly developed consumerist culture—that is, images of American society, its consumer goods, and its leisure. Since the end of World War II, American programs have not only been staples on European TV, they have also been viewers' favorites. In the 1960s and 1970s, the shows drawing the biggest audiences in Europe were the same ones that were hits with Americans of the time: Bonanza, Hawaii Five-O, and Kojak. In the 1980s it was Dallas, in the 1990s Baywatch (which beat the record set by Dallas).

By the 1990s television sets were in about 98 percent of homes in the industrialized world. At the end of the twentieth century, the introduction of satellite and cable transmission greatly expanded the programming to dozens or even hundreds of channels. Audiences became more segmented into discrete groups formed around shared interests, tastes, and age. The specter of state control was drastically reduced, and the threat of the media's homogenizing effects diminished, even though commercial advertisers still enjoyed plenty of opportunity to influence sensibilities and minds. Entertainment and shopping possibilities in the home continue to expand with the integration of television and computer and the development of more interactive media.


For much of the later nineteenth century and the twentieth, social theorists and labor leaders anticipated an increase of free time, continuing a pattern known after the early stages of industrialization. Yet a sense of ease taking and plentiful free time seems to have eluded many people in the late twentieth century. With all their labor-saving devices and officially limited work hours, they were left with a nagging question: where did all the leisure go? Even in their hours away from work, people felt harried, in need of renewal and too infrequently finding it. One reason for this trend is that much so-called free time went into buying and maintaining leisure goods. The farreaching leisure industry of the late-twentieth-century world both stimulated as well as catered to consumer desires. Increased free time was accompanied by increased consumption of such leisure products as sports equipment, televisions, VCRs, computers, and the services of tourism and travel personnel. Those with higher incomes spent a greater part of their household budget and greater sums of money on such items, but they did not necessarily have more leisure. In the second half of the twentieth century, high-salary earners (business executives and professionals, for example) typically worked longer hours than did service and manufacturing workers, whose workdays tended to be more strictly set by clock time.

The market extended into the leisure of virtually every social group, developing forms appealing to just about every desire and interest. After 1945 a commercialized leisure identified with youth emerged as an important part of society and the economy. One distinctive part of that youth culture took shape around 1960 when European teenagers discovered rock music imported from the United States. By the late 1950s and 1960s, young people were not only more numerous than ever, they were also wielders of unprecedented consumer power in large part stemming from their parents' prosperity. Embracing rock with relish, many young Europeans bought records, listened to the new tunes on the radio and television, and paid admission to rock concerts, participating in sometimes frenzied celebrations led by new young stars radiating youthful energy, rebellious high spirits, and sexuality. This vigorous subculture was also a counterculture, reacting against norms and conventions set by adult authorities and the respectable. Youthful protesters in the late 1960s denounced the mind-numbing conformist entertainment and government-controlled news of mainstream media, and they disparaged the soulless consumerism of the modernizing and prosperous Western European societies. Yet much of that very same counterculture was soon harnessed by commercial forces and transformed into commodities—records, big-ticket concerts, clothing—marketed to the young.

Leisure-business giants consolidated their economic power on a world scale in the late twentieth century. In the 1980s and 1990s international media corporations bought up entertainment conglomerates and built vast empires dominating the diversified communications industry—newspapers and magazines, film companies, television channels, and recording companies. Rupert Murdoch's British Sky Broadcasting, Luxembourg CLT, and Silvio Berlusconi's Fin-invest, to name a few, spread their operations across Europe. Their products and the marketing, of them pervaded contemporary European societies. Giants of the industry fashioned extensive webs of related products and commercial tie-ins, linking the marketing of a movie, for example, to the selling of the same as a video, book, and soundtrack music CD. Cartoon characters on television or in movies reappeared in stores as toys, games, books, and clothing. Large amusement parks, where customers would spend an entire day or more, recreated the characters and stories already popularized in the entertainment media.

Walt Disney's theme parks led the way. The hugely successful Disneyland in California (1955) and Disney World in Florida (1971) and in Tokyo (1983) offered pop-culture themes that most people knew to be preeminently American, but the models and predecessors included European attractions that had developed in nineteenth-century world's fairs (the Paris Universal Expositions of 1889 and 1900, for example) and Copenhagen's Tivoli Garden, which pioneered the genteel, whole-family atmosphere that Disney was after. A Disneyland in Europe opened in 1992 twenty miles outside Paris, offering a mix of American and European fantasy—Mickey Mouse and the German Snow White, Star Wars and the British Peter Pan. Initially Europeans did not flock to the place as expected, and the first three years were financially disastrous, with losses of $1.5 billion. After making accommodations to European culture (allowing the sale of wine and beer, adding more European-themed attractions, and reducing admission prices), Disneyland Paris began to flourish. In fact, it has become France's top tourist attraction with 11.8 million visitors in 1997 (compared with 5.6 million for the Eiffel Tower). Before Euro Disney (later renamed Disneyland Paris), European competitors had already entered the market, most of them with success. The Danish manufacturers of toy building blocks opened a Legoland theme park (featuring toy building blocks) in 1968, and in 1989 Parc Asterix in Senlis near Paris began offering customers a visit to the illusory world of the French historical hero of comic-strip fame. Other parks in Europe feature still other European cartoon characters, visits to the future, an entire country in miniature, or the Wild West, along with roller coasters and other rides and strolling performers.

A lament heard at the end of the twentieth century was that free time had been colonized by powerful commercial forces inimical to true leisure, the essence of which is playfulness. Social manipulation—even control—by mass media supplants fantasy and individual freedom. Consuming overrides creativity. Media entertainment, overwhelmingly popular and pervasive, relentlessly sells commodities and promotes consuming as the key to a good life. In a consumer culture built on commodities and exchange values, free time becomes something that is spent shopping in malls or on the Internet. The culturewide promotion of consumption blights the potential of leisure as a time for rest, personal renewal, and self-development.

Many critics lambasted the entertainment industry, too, for pumping out formulaic, standardized, and often sensationalist fare that catered to the lowest common denominator. To attract audiences and promote consumption, TV producers tended to make everything entertainment—including real-life conflicts among intimates ("reality" TV) and news reports. Media representations themselves became real life for many, particularly the young, who spent a substantial part of the evening or day tuned in. Corporate power in the realm of leisure was all the more worrisome to those who saw it as one piece in a growing system of conditioning, surveillance, and control made possible by omnipresent computerized record keeping, surveys, polls, reportage, and advertising.

Ownership of the media by international corporations and cartels only heightened concern about the effects of such power. Among Europeans, that concern centered on the powerful appeal of American mass culture. American productions occupied such a large place in late-twentieth-century European leisure that they seemed to threaten the vitality of Europeans' own popular music, movies, and television programs. In the view of alarmed critics, a global homogenization of popular culture and leisure threatened the very survival of national and regional cultures.

Other observers took the brighter view that the media's role has been to carry forward a long-running process of democratization of—or increasing access to—the means of communication and sources of information. In this view community television and local radio provide some expression from below, and local and regional identities and media coexist with media voices from the national and international level. In addition, the Internet made possible the free exchange of news and information from the many to the many. Cultural studies scholars noted that not all mass-media viewers necessarily take in the same message from a given program; the spectators' readings or decodings can be quite varied and multiple, though they can generally be correlated with such social parameters as occupational or class status, gender, and ethnicity. The receiver of media messages is not just passive or manipulated; each person selects and molds meanings (each has some agency).

Going beyond aesthetic judgments, social historians of the end of the century looked especially into consumer leisure's effects on social life and individual potential. Was the merchandised leisure stultifying and repressive or emancipatory and fulfilling? How did the impact differ for different social groups? Employing a historical perspective, observers debated whether contemporary practices were more or less liberating than what went before. Understanding the historical richness of possibilities might itself have a liberating effect on notions of free time.

While observers and historians carried on their debates, ordinary people voted with their money and time. Demand for commercially produced leisure was strong and growing almost everywhere in western Europe. Historically, the market for consumer leisure has expanded as disposable income has increased and work hours have decreased. Technology, too, played a part, yielding ever more novel diversions and spectacular simulations. Entrepreneurs pressed forward almost everywhere, expanding operations that proved profitable and taking them to less-developed areas. Continuing long-term patterns, millions in formerly communist eastern Europe have become consumers of the commercialized forms of leisure already flourishing in the West.

See alsoAmerica, Americanization, and Anti-Americanism (volume 1);Consumerism ; Festivals ; Popular Culture ; The Reformation of Popular Culture (in this volume); and other articles in this section.


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