|Title||Historical Background on Leisure in Early 19th-Century New England|
|Type||Papers and Articles: Historical Notes|
A brief summary of leisure activities, entertainment and celebrations in early nineteenth-century New England.
People in the early nineteenth century, like people today or in any age, liked to have fun. Likewise, most also had to provide for the necessities of life. From the perspective of today’s entertainment-rich world, perhaps the simple pleasures of the past may even escape our notice as leisure activities. Farming, the primary occupation of most nineteenth century families, was more of a way of life than a regimented job with fixed hours. Most early Americans lived their lives with less compartmentalization of time and space, and thus less distinction between work and play. An active people, their amusements usually required a greater measure of active social involvement than many of today’s more passive or solitary entertainments.
Spending time with family and friends has always been an enjoyable diversion from everyday routines. Without telephones, email, or pagers, it was common to “call on” a neighbor for a visit. Since most cooking and heavy chores were done in the morning, women usually spent their afternoons sewing, which was readily portable. Conversation made such mundane tasks as mending clothes much more pleasant! Writing letters to distant friends or family, and reading theirs, also filled many an hour in the 1800s. Transportation too was slower and more arduous than it is today, and so visits with relatives frequently lasted for weeks or even months. These visits were often just for pleasure, but were also frequently occasioned by a household need for help with a new baby or sick family member.
Much other work also commonly included recreation, and vice versa. People coming together to raise a barn, repair a road, make maple sugar, sew a quilt, or husk corn saw such labors as social occasions more than as monotonous drudgery. Contests such as haying matches and cattle shows often focused on practical matters of everyday life. Such much-anticipated occasions frequently included food, drink, and good-natured joking, blending pragmatic concerns with diversion. Often music, dancing, and flirting followed the work. When many tradesmen worked together, they passed their workday in conversation, or even sometimes paid a boy to read aloud to them, as modern workers might listen to a radio or CD.
Recreational activities also could be in the guise of good works, from an evening prayer or anti-slavery meeting to a benevolent society fund-raising fair. Self-improvement often filled early New Englanders’ free hours in enjoyable ways. Educational clubs called Lyceums organized lecture series or public debates on topics of the day. Others paid for dancing or singing lessons, (which sometimes led to romance!) While many read novels, newspapers, or magazines for pure diversion, many read the Bible, studied languages, or pondered over quite serious books. Some read a growing body of advice literature that prescribed, among other things, how people should spent their free time! (Such books sometimes allow historians to see what people frequently did by observing what the writer told people not to do .)
Sometimes transportation itself was diversion, from sleigh rides and horse races in the countryside to taking the new railroad or a steamboat to see the sights of a city. Theaters were but one popular attraction of urban destinations.
Holidays and celebrations were less frequent in the 1800s than they are today, so they were savored all the more. Some focused on the family, such as Thanksgiving. Others, like Independence Day, were community events. Sometimes occasions, such as the annual militia training day, became de facto public holidays. Many used events such as New Year’s Day or George Washington’s birthday as an excuse for a public dinner or ball.