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Changes in leisure activities, 1890-1940.

Interpretations of what makes twentieth-century American life "modern" occasionally treat changes in how Americans spend their leisure time. This paper addresses three common claims about the modernization of leisure, that: (1) organized pastimes replaced informal and spontaneous recreation; (2) commercial entertainment, especially spectacles such as movies and professional sports, replaced self-generated and active leisure; and (3) private diversions replaced collective recreation. These propositions are not necessarily consistent; the first and third are in tension. Also, depending on the author, the timing of these changes varies. But the three propositions summarize many assertions about how modernization changed Americans' use of free time. I examine recreational activities between 1890 and 1940, the period when (a) leisure time expanded,(1) and (b) major new technologies for leisure first emerged and won acceptance by the middle-class: bicycles, streetcars, automobiles, telephones, movies, radio, and so forth. (The major omission is, of course, the rise of television after mid-century.) I use evidence explicitly gathered to trace the evolution of leisure activities in three communities in northern California--Palo Alto, Antioch, and San Rafael. The study eventually turns to the broader assumption in many modernization arguments that the "traditional" has been displaced by the "modern."

The three propositions above are abstracted from various essays on American social change. As experts on leisure have noted, discussions of its historical transformations tend to be scattered and unsystematic.(2) Nevertheless, in general histories, as well as in specific essays on leisure, these three themes appear. The development of organization over spontaneity is asserted, to illustrate, when observers rue the institution of Little League baseball. Lewis Atherton, to take a concrete study, explicitly blames the rise of organized lodges and clubs for shredding small town cohesion in the late 19th century. Generally, applications of the sociological model of "mass society" imply an increasing regimentation and top-down direction to social activities.(3) Second, many analysts describe a "commodification" of leisure: the ascendancy of commercial recreation, such as vaudeville, movies, and professional sports over free pastimes, and indulgence in blatant consumerism, such as department-store shopping, over more "authentic" pursuits. Commodification was certainly a concern of Robert and Helen Lynd, in Middletown and elsewhere, of critics such as Eric Fromm and philosopher Albert Borgmann.(4) Gunther Barth depicts such commercial recreations as the defining institutions of the emerging modern city during the nineteenth century.(5) Alan Trachtenberg goes farther, writing that new forms of "vicarious experience," mass-spectator sports being a key example, "began to erode direct physical experience of the world."(6) Third, many have been concerned about "privatization." Although most commentators fix on the post-World War II era of suburban tract homes and television, the trends they describe as a retreat from public life to the private hearth supposedly began much earlier. In place of leisure spent in the streets, plazas, markets, and cafes, people turned inward, spending time with family and closed circles of friends.(7)

Other scholars have, however, described a more complex story than the ones abstracted here. Blake McKelvey, for example, suggests that commercial leisure expanded in the late nineteenth century but contracted during the twentieth in favor of private leisure.(8) Steven Reiss claims that urban growth deprived working-class people of opportunities for sports in the late nineteenth century, but that various reform movements expanded those opportunities in the twentieth.(9) Some critics have questioned or qualified the entire "consumerism" argument.(10) These analyses challenge the simpler modernization models forwarded by others and addressed in this paper. Unfortunately, the practical limitations of this particular study do not permit us to empirically explore the more subtle chronologies. I focus on the three basic arguments, examining them in light of the experience of three California towns.

Palo Alto, 35 miles south of San Francisco, was founded in 1891 to serve Stanford University as a totally "dry" commercial center. It then developed quickly as well into a railroad suburb of San Francisco. It continued to be an affluent enclave of Progressive Republicanism throughout the period, reaching a population of 16,000 in 1940. Antioch, 50 miles northeast of San Francisco, was a small, agriculturally-based town of about 600 people in 1890. It reached a population of 5,000 in 1940. In the intervening years, increasing numbers of Antioch's workers, many of them immigrants from Italy and the Dust Bowl, labored in heavy industry and agricultural processing. Throughout the period, Antiochians were poorer than the residents of the other two towns. San Rafael, 15 miles north of San Francisco, had a more complex socioeconomic profile. It was a railroad suburb of "The City," a commercial center for Marin County, and a small industrial center of its own. It grew from about 3,300 in 1890 to 8,600 fifty years later.(11)

To track leisure activities in these towns, I use evidence of three types: narrative accounts of the towns' histories drawn from published sources such as newspapers and memoirs, recollections of over 30 elderly residents whom we interviewed, and most fully, counts of leisure activities coded from the town newspapers.(12)

Recreation in America

Recreation changed dramatically between 1890 and 1940 as Americans embraced new leisure technologies. Nickelodeons appeared and then were replaced by movies. In 1920, theaters sold forty million tickets a week and ten years later over twice as many. Film-going grew at the expense, some have speculated, of vaudeville and the saloon.(13) Radio appeared in the 1920s. A San Francisco newspaper welcomed it by announcing: "There is radio music in the air, every night, everywhere. Any body can hear it at home. . . ." By 1930, 40 percent of American households could listen to one or more of hundreds of stations; a decade later, 80 percent could.(14) By 1938, movie-going and radio-listening had become among Americans' favorite pastimes.(15) In the 1890s, many Americans toured the countryside on bicycle. By the 1920s, far more were touring by automobile. The number of cars entering national parks, for example, increased from 15,000 in 1916 to nearly 900,000 in 1931.(16)

More Americans enjoyed sports, both as spectators and as participants. Major League Baseball's attendance expanded from 3.6 million to over nine million between 1900 and 1920. Estimates are that softball playing increased even more rapidly. Similarly, the number of registered bowlers grew from seven to 219 thousand between 1910 and 1930. Other pastimes waxed and waned. Dance halls, for example, flourished in the early part of the century and then declined in popularity.(17)

Beginning in the 1880s, membership in fraternal and civic clubs grew rapidly. In the early 1930s, Lloyd Warner found that over 40 percent of Newburyport, Massachusetts, residents belonged to one or more of 357 associations. Simultaneously, George Lundberg and his assistants reported that suburban homemakers spent an hour a day on club activities. The fraternal orders popular in the late 19th century, such as Masons and Odd Fellows, declined during the 1920s, but "luncheon" service clubs, such as Kiwanis and Rotary, grew. The Lynds reported that organized activities, such as card games, dances, and club meetings, increased in "Middletown" during the 1920s, at the expense of informal socializing. But in the 1930s, they detected a resurgence of informal get-togethers, particularly around backyard barbecues.(18)

New technologies may have been indirectly implicated in some of these changing social activities. People used telephones and automobiles to organize their leisure time more easily than before. Studying rural villages during the 1920s, Brunner and Kolb found growth in community centers, crafts classes, and hobby groups such as little theaters. They partly credited both radio--for widening listeners' horizons--and the automobile for the changes.(19)

As noted, a host of interpretations has been offered about how these organized pastimes replaced informal, spontaneous, active and collective recreation. The key phrase here is "replaced." Much of the modernization literature alludes to the displacement or substitution of "modern" forms for "traditional" ones, of Gesellschaft for Gemeinschaft. In the realm of leisure, it is common for writers to describe new forms, say, attendance at professional sports, as displacing "premodern" forms. John Clark refers to the "cultural pessimists," for whom "new popular culture involved the destruction of previously existing practices and relationships and confined 'cultural practice' to the domain of consumption." Others suggest that people, having lost something due to modernization, say access to nature, turn to new leisure forms as compensation for their loss, another model of replacement.(20) But as critics of such modernization theories, Thomas Bender for instance, have pointed out, modernization may entail the addition of Gesellschaft forms to Gemeinschaft ones.(21) Roy Rosenzweig makes a similar point when he argues that new commercial entertainments in Worcester, Massachusetts, did not replace older working-class haunts, but added to them. Similarly, Lizabeth Cohen claims that working-class immigrants in 1920s Chicago adapted new items of mass culture to their particular ethnic cultures.(22) The argument here will be closer to the latter positions. We shall examine how these changes played out in the three towns of Antioch, Palo Alto, and San Rafael.

Leisure Activities in Three Towns

How did leisure change for the residents of Antioch, Palo Alto, and San Rafael? Newspaper stories, memoirs, and oral histories help describe leisure patterns between 1890 and 1940. I devote special attention to club life, which was vibrant. For the oral histories, we interviewed 14 elderly people in Palo Alto, 10 in San Rafael, and 11 in Antioch about community life and technological change which they could recall from their childhoods and young adulthoods growing up in or near those towns.(23) Almost all were native-born Anglos and most were of middle-class origin. Their birth dates ranged from 1888 to 1917 and their recollections largely focussed on the years after 1910. Thus, the interviews mainly covered the recreational life of middle-class teenagers and young adults in the interwar era. As a major part of the interviews, we asked the respondents to tell us about social life in the town, what there was to do, and to describe what they and their families did in their spare time. We did not go through a check-list of leisure activities, so there were probably many pursuits individual respondents engaged in which they did not tell us about; we assume that the ones they mentioned were the most important to them. Silence about an activity--say, dinners with friends--does not imply that it did not occur.(24)

Palo Alto. Leisure activities were best documented in Palo Alto.(25) Informal and unscheduled activities dominated free time there, as elsewhere. Our oldest interviewees, a few of whom grew up on nearby farms, largely recalled solitary and family activities in their childhoods. What is more visible to the researcher are those structured leisure activities recorded in writing. From the 1900s on these included many dances, "socials," balls, and card-parties. Palo Alto lacked a commercial dance hall, but Stanford fraternities and many clubs in town sponsored dances; a few clubs were organized solely for that purpose. The Cardinal Hotel provided music and a dance floor starting in 1924. Dances continued to be popular throughout the era, although their number appeared to taper off in the 1930s. Evenings of card-playing were common from the 1910s through the 1930s. Many clubs held them as fund-raisers. And, of course, people played cards at home. One woman whom we interviewed recalled playing cards so often in the 1920s that she hated them ever after. Although Palo Alto barred saloons, there were male "hangouts" in town, in particular, the billiard parlors. Three were respectable enough to have the standings in their pool competitions reported in the Palo Alto Times.

Organized sports appeared early in Palo Alto. Twenty-four people belonged to the cycling club in 1895. By 1909, fratemal groups and church clubs each had a softball league. In 1936, night softball began in Palo Alto, and by 1939, there were a few city leagues.

Performances also expanded greatly. From the 1890s on, both amateur and professional groups performed in Palo Alto. As late as the 1930s, organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Business and Professional Women's Club put on plays as fund-raisers. After World War I, a new community center sponsored and housed many activities, including lectures, amateur musicales, and crafts courses. The Palo Alto Community Players theater group grew from 100 to 600 members during the 1930s. The volume of projects declined during the Depression, our interviewees suggested, but this followed a long period of growth.

Commercial performances also increased much over the years. Spectator sports started early, centered on Stanford's teams. By 1917 Palo Alto's semi-pro Outlaws played in the regional baseball league. Although a variety of live shows had always come through town, the major change was the rise of the movies. By 1908, three places showed films. Two women not only recalled attending movies in the 1910s and 1920s but also the risk it entailed: Stanford boys often got rowdy at the Bijou, to the point of throwing vegetables at the screen.

Palo Alto's clubs conducted many programs, including cultural education and community good works, but almost all of them were at least partly places for entertainment and sociability. Before World War I, the classic fraternal clubs and church auxiliaries dominated association life. Membership was robust. The major churches had affiliated men's and women's clubs, such as the Ladies' Circle of the Presbyterian Church. (A 1936 survey counted 43 such church-linked groups.) These clubs sponsored lectures, dances, amateur shows, card parties, athletic teams, and parades; they arranged outings and held many banquets. Many club activities, such as the dances, were open to the public. After World War I, the fraternal organizations declined, while veterans' organizations and service clubs emerged. The Rotarians, Lions, and their kindred attended more to civic causes and focussed their activities on luncheon and dinner speeches.

Many Palo Alto women also joined specifically women's organizations. The Women's Club of Palo Alto exerted considerable political influence in the years before suffrage. Like similar clubs elsewhere, however, the Club's political fire seemed spent after the mid-1910s.(26) Lecture topics shifted from civic to literary issues and programs increasingly focussed on flower arranging, musicals, book discussions, and the like.(27) The Palo Alto Business and Professional Women's Club, formed in the early '20s, provided the same sort of social activities largely for single women.

Antioch.(28) A few of our Antioch interviewees who grew up on nearby farms reported childhoods of solitary activities and "visiting." Those raised in town recalled general mischief but few structured activities. Antioch was a robust saloon town in the earlier years, and, although that male culture survived Prohibition, the saloon and brothel scene waned. In 1900 and 1920, Dun & Bradstreet reported at least seven "saloons" in Antioch, but in 1940, it listed only one "beverage and billiards" and one "cigarettes and beverages" establishment.

Antiochians shared in the dance interest of the 1910s and '20s. Our interviewees recalled barn and open-air dances in the 1920s and driving to attend hotel dances in the region. They also reported that card-playing and softball were popular. Antioch's first theater opened in 1905, its first devoted movie house in 1911, and a vaudeville theater in 1928. Our interviewees described Antiochians as sports-minded; groups would follow the local football team to its matches around the region.

As elsewhere, much of Antioch's social life revolved around the clubs and that life expanded over time. The January 16, 1915, issue of the Ledger listed the following events for the week:

installations for the Eagles, O.E.S. (Order of the Eastern Star), and Red Men;

a Native Sons fund-raiser for homeless children; conferring of degrees by the Odd Fellows; initiation of new members by the Rebekahs; a Women's Club whist tournament; and the Methodist church's "English Style Social."

The Depression-era January 16, 1935, issue listed (for a town of under 5,000 people):

an American Legion banquet; Young Men's and Young Women's Institutes meetings; American Legion winter sports carnival; installations for the Rebekahs, Odd Fellows, and Encampment; a dance sponsored by Job's Daughters; a musical program at the Women's Club; meetings of the American Legion auxiliary and of its sewing club; a Methodist church potluck; a city league football game; a meeting of the concert band; a "Saturday Niter's" dance; and an F.D.R. birthday ball.

The fraternal groups expanded quickly between 1890 and World War I; they shrank after the war. About half our informants reported that they or their parents had been active in or enjoyed the hospitality of clubs such as the Masons, Rebekahs, Kiwanis, and church groups during the 1920s. The Native Sons of the Golden West's annual talent show and annual masquerade ball was considered a highlight for many years. Some of Antioch's fraternal groups eventually merged with the branches in the neighboring town of Pittsburg.

Church groups also sponsored social events, such as the "Old-Fashioned Ball" at the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1910 ("Come and see if your parents in the 'good old days,' really did have more fun than we do nowadays").(29) After World War I, the Lions appeared in Antioch, but service clubs did not seem to become very prominent in Antioch between the Wars. The active American Legion sponsored sports, dances, and the Armistice Ball. Wives of Antioch's eminent men formed the Women's Club in 1902. They did good works, such as providing benches at the railway station. They spent most of their time, however, on social activities. After the War, Women's Club meetings declined from weekly to biweekly, as attendance waned.(30) The general level of civic activity was lower in Antioch than in the other two towns. It was a smaller town, a poorer town, and, over the years, a town increasingly populated by immigrant laborers.

San Rafael.(31) Leisure in early San Rafael conspicuously included saloons, beer gardens, and poolhalls. In 1910, the Dun and Bradstreet Credit Reports named 29 "saloons" respectable enough to be listed in a town of 6,000 people. By 1940 there were only 14 similar businesses. Prohibition and reform had shut down the less reputable saloons, and the saloon culture had shrunk.

Dancing was popular and many nearby places--hotels, clubhouses, and later dance halls--provided music and space. Several interviewees recalled driving to dance pavilions near San Rafael during the 1920s. Cardplaying developed with the clubs. A couple of our interviewees reported that both dancing and cardplaying slowed in the 1930s. Sports participation grew: while a newspaper reader in the 1890s could follow one or two local amateur athletic leagues, by 1938 there were many: a fraternal groups' baseball league, a merchants' baseball league, church-affiliated basketball leagues, and so on. Between 1911 and 1929, local merchants subscribed to a semi-professional baseball team to lure tourists from San Francisco. The few theaters in town provided stages to both touring professionals and local amateurs. Live performances seemed to decline, however, as movies took over the old theaters and stimulated the opening of new ones.(32)

Our interviewees recalled that social life in San Rafael revolved around clubs in the interwar period. With their dances and cardgames, recalled one, there was "probably somewhere to go every night."

Fraternal organizations grew from eight in 1900 to 25 in 1935 and membership apparently grew as well, even while members from suburban villages split to form their own branches. Clubs' social activities seemingly shifted from sponsoring performances in the earlier years to active recreation such as balls, dances, and outings in the later years. At the same time, cultural clubs developed for people interested in activities such as musical performance.

The San Rafael Improvement Club, formed in 1902, was the major women's civic organization, although it also provided social activities. After World War I, other women's groups emerged, such as the PTA and the Mothers' Club. Among their projects, these groups furnished sociability for their members and organized fund-raising recreations that welcomed outsiders.

Summary. In brief, the press and personal accounts point to an increasing volume of club-based leisure, although different clubs were robust at different times. Clubs' active recreation--e.g., sports, dances, crafts--seemed to increase more than did the traditional performances and lectures they sponsored. Saloon-based leisure in Antioch and San Rafael declined, perhaps displaced by new commercial entertainments or perhaps simply sinking along with America's "bachelor" subculture.(33) Movies increasingly occupied much leisure, displacing vaudeville and far more. People used the automobile for major outings--many of our interviewees fondly reminisced about adventurous automobile trips to Lake Tahoe or Yosemite Park during the late '10s and the '20s--and to attend nearer social activities, such as the hotel dances.

These accounts underline the increasing role of associations in community leisure, although we have no written evidence and no testimony that informal recreation declined. Indeed, informal activities, by their nature, are hard to track, except perhaps in the occasional entries of compulsive diarists. The evidence in hand points to the rise of commercial entertainment, specifically movies, but not to any loss of noncommercial entertainment.(34) The written and spoken evidence describes an expansion of private trips by automobile, but also a continuing public whirl, sometimes the two combined as when groups of friends drove to public dances.

In sum, these three case studies describe a growth in organized activities and a growth in commercial leisure. Being confident about what happened to informal activities--walks in the neighborhood, piano-playing, picnics, etc.--is much more difficult. Yet, one reads and hears of so much clearly new informal activity--card-playing, dances, Sunday drives, camping trips to the mountains, and so on--suggesting that there was, at the least, probably no reduction in informal sociability.

Statistical Analysis of Recreation Reports

For a more systematic view of changes in leisure, we coded and counted stories and notices of leisure activities that appeared in the three towns' newspapers.(35) Several problems arise in using newspapers as a source, perhaps the most critical being the possibility that editorial changes mislead us about historical change (see discussion below). Another difficulty is that newspapers are less likely to report everyday, private leisure, concentrating instead on uncommon and public events. Newspapers did, to some extent, report on private activities, noting, for example, when a family received visitors or held a birthday party. But newspapers surely did not chronicle the vast bulk of private leisure, and the chances of such an activity being reported probably declined over time.(36) Nevertheless, these accounts allow us to track how reports of newsworthy events changed. And, other than the kinds of oral histories used earlier, they provide almost the only systematic accounts we could have.(37)

Sampling and Coding. We sampled four issues each of the Antioch Ledger, Palo Alto Times, and Marin (San Rafael) Journal for every even-numbered year from 1890 through 1940, where available: the first Monday after January 20, first Friday after February 1, the first Monday after May 1, and the first Friday after May 15--or the nearest following days.(38) Each issue was examined for stories about past leisure activities (e.g., "Debutante Ball a Big Smash"; "Roberts Family Tours Yosemite"), announcements of coming events (e.g., "Roxie to Show Pickford Film"), social columns, personal notes, lodge and club reports, and the like.(39) We ignored "hard news" stories, syndicated features, duplications, and obvious advertisements. (We did, however, code ads announcing shows.) We coded each qualifying item on various dimensions: types of activity--primary and secondary (e.g., if the Women's Club held a meeting followed by card games, we coded the event both as "meeting" and as "games"), the primary and secondary sponsors of the event (e.g., a church group and an ethnic association), its location, who was invited to it, and so forth. The double-coding means that the same event may appear in two different tabulations.

Analysis. In all, we coded over 9,700 such items in 272 newspaper issues. We aggregated them into the largest and most meaningful categories and intersections of categories, such as "organized sports sponsored by schools," "socials open to the public," and "lectures presented by voluntary associations."(40) For economy's sake, I focus on only a handful of these measures. The figures presented below display the average number of events per newspaper edition in each decade. For most decades, each town's estimate is the average over 20 issues--four issues times five years--of the town press. (I also conducted but do not present here regression analyses for the same measures. In those analyses, each year for each town was treated as a separate case. Tables are available from the author on request.)

These are "noisy" and erratic data, in part, because many event categories had low frequencies.(41) Not much weight should be put on small variations. More importantly, the reports were subject to substantive distortions based on editorial policy. Establishing a sports or women's section, adding pages, expanding wire service use, printing a "lodge" column--these and other changes in the newspapers no doubt altered the coverage of leisure events. It may be that an editorial decision, say, to embellish the town's reputation as an active community, would produce an expansion of organizational reports in the subsequent years. Given the complexity of these distortions, there is no simple way to correct for them.(42) Instead, we must try to discern the broader patterns in the data and reason about their likely causes, taking into account our substantive knowledge of the newspapers' histories.(43) For example, the Palo Alto Times established a society page after World War I, which may explain a resurgence in reported social events. The Times also established a sports page, which may explain part of the increase in organized sports events reported there.

What we are looking for are the basic, secular trends in the number of leisure events of various types. In particular, we wish to track changes in organizational, commercial versus noncommercial, and public versus private leisure activities. I categorized the events for which there were sufficient instances according to:

(1) content of activity--club meetings (i.e., meetings of voluntary associations), commercially-sponsored performances (movies, vaudeville, etc.), amateur performances (shows, pageants, etc., exclusive of school or university productions), organized sports (exclusive of school sports), and "socials" (mixers, teas, sewing parties, and so forth); dances and games, notably, club-sponsored card games, are not displayed but show similar patterns;

(2) sponsor (private, organizational, or commercial); and

(3) who was invited (private associates only, club members only, the wider public).

Two further methodological issues arise: (1) Should population growth be controlled in the analysis? That is, should these numbers be calculated as per capita rates? (2) Should the volume of press reports be controlled? That is, should these counts be calculated as per-newspaper page rates? Consideration of these issues suggests that on both substantive and technical grounds, these adjustments need and ought not be done, that absolute counts are the best measures.(44)

Findings. Clubs and other voluntary associations became much more visible over the years. Figure 1 displays the estimated average number of organization meetings reported in the town presses per issue per decade. Note that the Antioch data commence with 1908. Between-town comparisons are misleading; the reader should focus on the time trends for each town. The average number of voluntary association meetings reported generally increased over time and jumped after 1920, especially in Palo Alto. (While editorial changes may explain the radical jump in Palo Alto, the expansion is clear for all three towns.) We will see the role of clubs again later.

Figure 2 displays the patterns of change for four specific types of leisure events, categorized mainly by content: commercially-sponsored performances, largely composed of movies; amateur performances, such as theatrical fund-raisers; organized participatory sports, such as league softball games; and "socials." (The patterns for "socials" also fairly suggest those for dances

and for "game" evenings, such as whist parties.)

Town newspapers reported more commercial performances over time, especially in Palo Alto. Amateur performances increased systematically in all three towns, except for a decline in Antioch in the 1930s. These counts cannot tell us about the size of the audiences. The movies, for example, probably drew far more people than did the Community Players' Spring drama. But amateur shows appear to have thrived alongside commercial ones. Reports of organized sports grew almost exponentially in Antioch and Palo Alto from the 1910s on and grew less dramatically in San Rafael.(45) Finally, reports of socials increased in Palo Alto and San Rafael, although the trend was erratic in San Rafael's Marin Journal. In Antioch, accounts of socials peaked in the 1920s.

Regression analyses of the raw data also show that participatory recreation--amateur performances, sports, socials, dances, and games--generally increased as or more uniformly and rapidly than did commercial performances. If these news items are any indication, therefore, residents of these towns, excepting perhaps Antioch, engaged in both more and more varied active recreation as the years passed, the growth of commercial entertainment notwithstanding.(46)

Another way to sort these activities is by sponsor, that is, whether the event was under the auspices of an organization, a commercial business, or a private party. The "private" category typically included social notes, such as the Joneses having entertained out-of-town guests, or the Smiths' wedding. One might have expected that population growth would have discouraged such personal tidbits in the press, from the crush of sheer volume alone. For Antioch, reports of private events peaked in the early 1920s and dropped off rapidly afterwards. But in Palo Alto and San Rafael, there were cycles, with no clear trend in privately-sponsored events. Club-sponsored events, not including simple meetings,(47) grew several-fold in Palo Alto and San Rafael and more moderately in Antioch. The number of commercial events reported, which would include activities such as hotel-sponsored dances and vaudeville shows as well as movies, grew sharply in Palo Alto but only modestly in the other two towns. Figure 3 reinforces the impression that the major change during these decades was toward more club-based activities.(48)

Figure 4 divides the events in a different way, according to who was invited to them. Activities could be private to family and friends, or meant solely for members of a club, or open to the public. While these categories overlap considerably with the sponsorship distinctions just reported, they are different. In particular, many clubs held events, such as charity balls, intended for the entire community. Figure 4 shows that stories about events open to intimates only had no consistent trend. Events meant only for club members increased, especially after 1920. The largest expansion was in events open to the public, which also includes, of course, most commercial events.(49)


What do these findings say about the questions raised earlier? First, did organized recreation displace informal leisure? The number of reported organized events grew substantially and in all three towns (which undercuts the suspicion that it was an artifact of editorial decisions). But we cannot make any strong claims about the volume of informal recreation. The numerical data for Antioch most closely suggests displacement of informal recreation, in the same vein as the Lynds' account in Middletown; that is, newspaper reports of private events declined in the 1930s. But it is the only case to do so and may be explained by the changing population of Antioch, increasingly immigrant laborers, or the strains of the Depression. Also, reports of private events seem most vulnerable to editorial changes. (We can assume that as the volume of population and of news grew, editors were quicker to drop items like "The Joneses drove to Tahoe this week" than to drop other leisure news, such as a church charity event.) Other sources, such as the oral histories, do not suggest that informal sociability declined. A few of our interviewees did talk about the loss of things like "old-fashioned" neighborly visits, but at least as many recounted an increasing whirl of dates and outings with friends and family. Perhaps the best conclusion is that organized leisure events grew, despite the Depression, but that informal events stayed constant at the least.

Second, did commercial activities displace noncommercial ones? Apparently they did not, at least in terms of frequency. Commercial recreation increased, especially if we add regular radio-listening to the activities noted in the newspapers, but other recreation did not seem to suffer.

Third, did private leisure displace public events? Not by these data. Whether measured by sponsorship or attendance, group and public activities increased the most.

Perhaps the best way to make sense of these findings is to abandon the language of displacement. Specific activities were replaced, to be sure. As noted earlier, the lively saloon cultures of Antioch and San Rafael diminished, fraternal groups lost ground to service clubs, and so on. But, it is not evident that this replacement follows the logic of the arguments outlined earlier. For example, club-based and commercial activities swelled, especially in Palo Alto and San Rafael. But they probably augmented informal and private activities, rather than displaced them.

These findings are, the reader appreciates, far from definitive and need more exploration. The trends may have varied by class: perhaps middle-class people gained by the changes and working-class people lost. (And, certainly, these newspapers recorded the recreation of the lower orders less often than that of the higher ones.) The findings may be particular also by region and type of community. The conclusions here are consistent, however, with Brunner and Kolb's concerning rural life in the 1920s and Rosenzweig's concerning workers in Worcester.(50) Still, finer explorations are called for.

Future research could broaden the scope of this study geographically and temporally. The three modestly-sized towns of this study, although common for turn-of-the-century Americans, do not represent the large urban centers, nor the ethnic neighborhoods of those cities. It would also be valuable to move further back in time, before the emergence of leisure institutions such as professional sports and amusement parks in the major urban centers, and forward in time to capture the diffusion of television. Such expansions might allow us to track more complex or subtle changes, such as those suggested by McKelvey and Reiss and noted near the top of this article. Future research could also deepen the empirical base. Collections of diaries might be surveyed for changing reports of leisure activities. More complete and systematic samples of newspaper stories could be developed. Other archival materials, such as organizational logs (activity records of fraternal groups, for example), commercial records (receipts of theaters, for instance), and official registers (traffic counts, perhaps) might be used to develop time series on leisure activity. The most difficult to trace is, of course, private and informal recreation. We now have time-budget surveys, but the best ones carry us back only to about World War II.(51) Considerable creativity will be needed to measure such leisure in earlier eras.

Finally, I turn to the implications of this study for the displacement thesis. That thesis assumes, in part, that leisure time was constant; but those hours surely grew much between 1890 and 1940. Displacement also assumes that people do one thing at a time, when they often combine activities--for example, going for a spin in the country with friends, as many of our informants did, or out to a show with the family. (In one 1930s survey, 72% of those who took pleasure rides in their automobiles did so with their families.(52)) These assumptions in the displacement argument may be wrong. What probably happened between 1890 and 1940 was an increase in the total volume of recreation Americans engaged in. Americans' leisure time included organized and informal activities, commercial and self-generated ones, private and collective ones. Although the mix may well have changed, and many specific recreations--vaudeville shows, hayrides, etc.--declined, the different types of leisure persisted.

These conclusions should not be taken as dismissal of claims that different sorts of leisure changes occurred at other times. It may be, for example, that the 19th century saw the "fall of public man,"(53) the decline of male pub and cafe life in favor of Victorian, private domesticity. It seems persuasive, also, that after World War II mass suburbanization and television encouraged private familism, even displacing public activities such as movie attendance. But in the period examined here, one of great social change, and the places studied here, typical of where Americans lived, such displacement did not occur. In any event, the more complex the sequence of changes in leisure activities, such as the rise and fall of dance halls and of movie attendance, the less we should be willing to accept simple modernization models.

Department of Sociology Berkeley, CA 94720


An earlier version of this paper was presented to the American Sociological Association, Washington, DC, August 1990. Financial support for the larger work came from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation via the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California. Assistants who contributed include Melanie Archer, William Barnett, John Chan, Steve Derne, Barry Goetz, Kinuthia Macharia, Barbara Loomis, Lisa Rhode, and Laura Weide. The paper was improved by the comments of Journal reviewers.

1. Between 1890 and 1940, Americans' average work hours per week dropped from about 54 to about 44. In addition, the extension of life and the reduction of family size probably added to free time, as well (Geoffrey H. Moore, and Janice N. Hedges, "Trends in Labor and Leisure," Monthly Labor Review 9 |February, 1971~: 3-11). Free time may have shrunk thereafter (John P. Robinson, and Philip E. Converse, "Social Changes Reflected in the Use of Time," in The Human Meaning of Social Change, edited by Angus Campbell and Philip E. Converse, |New York, 1972~, pp. 17-86).

2. See, e.g., Rolf Meyersohn, "Leisure," in The Human Meaning of Social Change, edited by Angus Campbell and Philip E. Converse (New York, 1972), pp. 205-28.

3. Atherton, Main Street on the Middle Border (Bloomington, 1954), pp. 246ff. See also John S. Gilkeson, Jr., Middle-Class Providence, 1820-1940 (Princeton, NJ, 1986), Ch. 4. On the "organizational synthesis" version of mass society theory, see, for example, Alan Brinkley, "Prosperity, Depression, and War, 1920-1945," in Eric Foner (ed.), The New American History (Philadelphia, 1990), pp. 119-41. See also: T. J. Jackson Lears, "Mass Culture and Its Critics," in Encyclopedia of American Social History, edited by M. K. Cayton, E. J. Gorn, and P. W. Williams, (New York, 1993), pp. 1591-1610.

4. Middletown (New York, 1929); also Robert Lynd, "The People as Consumers," in President's Research Committee on Social Trends, Recent Social Trends, Vol. 2 (New York, 1933), pp. 857-911. Fromm, The Sane Society (New York, 1955), pp. 124-25; Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (Chicago, 1984).

5. Barth, City People (New York, 1980); see also Dale Somers, "The Leisure Revolution: Recreation in the American City, 1820-1920," Journal of Popular Culture 5 (Summer 1971): 125-47; Francis Couvares, "The Triumph of Commerce: Class Culture and Mass Culture in Pittsburgh," in Working-Class America, edited by M. H. Frisch and D. J. Walkowitz, (Urbana, 1983), pp. 123-52; William R. Leach, "Transformations in a Culture of Consumption: Women and Department Stores, 1890-1925." Journal of American History 71 (September 1984): 319-42; and the collection edited by Richard Butsch, For Fun and Profit: The Transformation of Leisure into Consumption, (Philadelphia, 1990).

6. Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture & Society in the Gilded Age (New York, 1982), pp. 122-23.

7. See, for example, Sebastian de Grazia, Of Time, Work, and Leisure (New York, 1962); David Popenoe, Private Pleasures, Public Plight (New Brunswick, NJ, 1985); Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier (New York, 1985); or, for a more polemical rendition, Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (New York, 1977).

8. McKelvey, The Urbanization of America (New Brunswick, 1963), Chapter 13.

9. Reiss, City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Society and the Rise of Sports (Urbana, 1989), Chapter 2.

10. For example, Daniel Horowitz, The Morality of Spending: Attitudes toward the Consumer Society in America, 1875-1940 (Baltimore, 1985); Michael Schudson, "Delectable Materialism: Were the Critics of Consumer Culture Wrong All Along?," The American Prospect 5 (Spring 1991): 26-35; Jean-Christophe Agnew, "Coming Up for Air: Consumer Culture in Historical Perspective," MS, Yale University, n.d.

11. For more detail on the towns, see Claude S. Fischer, America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 (Berkeley, 1992).

12. My assistants and I gathered these materials as part of a larger research project on the social history of the telephone (Fischer, America Calling).

13. The statistics are from Bureau of the Census (Historical Statistics of the United States, 1790-1970, Washington, 1975, pp. 399-400; Statistical Abstract of the United States 1990, Washington, 1990, p. 230). See Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia, 1986), and Roy Rosenzweig, Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1920 (New York, 1985), for studies of the role of movies in working-class leisure time.

14. "In the air:" quoted by Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday (New York, 1964), p. 65; statistics: Bureau of Census (Historical Statistics, p. 796).

15. A Gallup poll in 1938 found that 21% claimed reading as their favorite leisure activity, followed by movies and theater (17%), dancing (12%), and listening to the radio and playing games, such as cards (both 9%; John P. Robinson, "'Massification' and the Democratization of the Leisure Class," Annals of the American Academy 435 |January, 1978~: 220).

16. J. F. Steiner, "Recreation and Leisure Time Activities," in Recent Social Trends, edited by President's Research Committee on Social Trends, Vol. II, (New York 1933), p. 921; Bureau of Census (Historical Statistics, p. 396). See Warren Belascoe, Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910-1945 (Cambridge, MA, 1979), and "Cars Versus Trains: 1980 and 1910," in Energy and Transport, edited by G. H. Daniels and M. H. Rose (Beverly Hills, CA, 1982), pp. 39-53, for thorough studies of auto-touring.

17. On baseball and bowling: Bureau of Census (Historical Statistics, p. 399); on sports watching and playing, see, e.g., Foster Rhea Dulles, America Learns to Play: A History of Popular Recreation, 1607-1940 (New York, 1940), Ch. 21. On dance halls, see Steiner, "Recreation and Leisure Time Activities," and Peiss, Cheap Amusements.

18. Lloyd Warner, et al., Yankee City, Abridged Edition (New Haven, CT, 1963); George A. Lundberg, Mirra Komarovsky, and Mary Alice McInerny, Leisure: A Suburban Study (New York, 1934); luncheons: Steiner, "Recreation and Leisure Time Activities;" Lynd and Lynd, Middletown, Part IV; and Robert Lynd and Helen Lynd, Middletown in Transition (New York, 1937), Ch. 7.

19. E. de S. Brunner, and J. K. Kolb, Rural Social Trends (New York, 1933), pp. 255-56. They also noted a decline in the fraternal lodges even while other activity groups increased (pp. 244, 262).

20. Displacement: e.g., Gilkeson, Middle-Class Providence, p. 9, Ch. 6. John Clark, "Pessimism versus Populism: The Problematic Politics of Popular Culture," in For Fun and Profit: The Transformation of Leisure into Consumption, edited by Richard Butsch, (Philadelphia, 1990), pp. 28-46. For an example of compensation arguments, Somers ("The Leisure Revolution," p. 136) quotes John Higham as saying that Americans seized upon sport as a way "to break out of the frustrations, the routine, the sheer dullness of an urban-industrial culture".

21. Thomas, Bender, Community and Social Change in America (New Brunswick, NJ, 1978).

22. Rosenzweig, Eight Hours; Cohen, "Encountering Mass Culture at the Grassroots: The Experience of Chicago Workers in the 1920s," American Quarterly 41 (March 1989): 6-33; cf. Couvares, "The Triumph of Commerce."

23. John Chan used personal networks to find interviewees in San Rafael, Laura Weide and Lisa Rhode used institutional contacts, such as churches and historical societies, to find their interviewees in Antioch and Palo Alto. I have drawn on these assistants' interview summaries for the present analysis.

24. Oral histories have their limitations. The interviewees were not always consistent with one another or with themselves (see Fischer, American Calling, p. 360, n2). But this material is invaluable for fleshing out our views of the past.

25. This account draws primarily from the Palo Alto Times, various materials held by the Palo Alto Historical Association (PAHA), the Community Recreation Survey, 1936 (at PAHA), and records such as the Report of Community House collected in the city's Annual Reports. All these were read and summarized by Steve Derne. I draw, in addition, on the interviews done in Palo Alto by Lisa Rhode.

26. There is a significant literature on women's organizations during this era and a recurrent question is what happened to their militancy after suffrage. See, for example, Sophonisba P. Breckinridge, Women in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1933); Nancy E Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven, 1987); J. Stanley Lemons, The Woman Citizen (Chicago, 1973); and Lois Scharf and Joan M. Jensen (eds.), Decades of Discontent (Westport, CT, 1983).

27. Women interested in more community activities joined the Civic League, which had spun off from the suffrage movement in 1912. By 1918, there was virtually no overlap in membership between the Women's Club and the Civic League. Sources on the Women's Club include: Mrs. F. G. Frink, c. 1936, "The Women's Club of Palo Alto, 1924-1936," Typescript, Yearbooks of the Women's Club, and other Women's Club materials in the PAHA.

28. The major source on Antioch's leisure life comes from reading of the Antioch Ledger by Barbara Loomis, supplemented by Elise Schott Benyo, Antioch to the Twenties (Antioch, CA, 1972); Charles A. Bohakel, Historic Tales of East Contra Costa County, Vol. I (Antioch, CA, 1984 |printed by author~); and Earl Hohlmayer, Looking Back: Tales of Old Antioch and Other Places (Antioch, CA, 1991 |distributed by author~). Laura Weide interviewed about a dozen elderly residents of the area.

29. Ledger, 30 July 1910.

30. See "Women's Club of Antioch: Golden Anniversary Year, 1902-1952," Pamphlet at the Antioch Historical Society; Benyo, Antioch to the Twenties; the Contra Costa Gazette; and the Ledger.

31. Information on San Rafael comes largely from its two newspapers, as read by John Chan, and interviews he conducted with several old-timers.

32. This impression, however, is not sustained by the numerical analysis reported below.

33. John C. Schneider, "Homeless Men and Housing Policy in Urban America, 1850-1920," Paper presented to the Social Science History Association, (New Orleans, 1987), among others, has pointed out that urban districts that used to cater to single men by providing flop houses, cigar shops, saloons, brothels, and the like, declined in the early twentieth century to mere skid rows. Among the reasons proffered is changing labor conditions and a simple decline in the number of unmarried adult men. See also Perry R. Duis, The Saloon: Public Drinking in Chicago and Boston, 1880-1900 (Urbana, IL, 1983) and Jon M. Kingsdale, "The 'Poor Man's Club:' Social Functions of the Urban Working-Class Saloon," American Quarterly 25 (October 1973): 472-92.

34. To illustrate how simple notions of "modern" activities replacing "traditional" ones may be misleading, consider private automobile touring. To some extent, private auto-touring replaced commercial train tours. But which was the more "modern"? Also, many saw auto-touring as a closer-to-nature experience than train touring. See, for example, Norman T. Moline, Mobility and the Small Town, 1900-1930: Transportation Change in Oregon, Illinois (Chicago, 1971); and Belascoe, "Cars versus Trains."

35. See Fischer, America Calling, pp. 314-18.

36. To the degree that over time a given private event--a party, a visit, a vacation--was less likely to be reported, this would create an apparent but perhaps not "real" decline in informal, private recreation. Thus, the method is somewhat biased toward finding displacement of private by public leisure.

37. Another possible source, detailed diaries, are so unique as not to yield systematic evidence.

38. The Palo Alto Times series does not begin until 1894, the Antioch Ledger until 1908. We sampled only in the Winter and Spring, but that was true for the whole time series.

39. Barry Goetz performed the coding. We made an effort to avoid a correlation between historical time and coding time by having the newspapers coded in various nonsequential orders.

40. William Barnett assisted in the data organization.

41. For example, Antioch averaged 2.2 "performances for which admission was charged" per issue of the Ledger between 1908 and 1940. Split-half reliability ranged widely around .60 for different measures. For several categories of events, I correlated the number coded in the first January issue with the number coded in the first May issue. These correlations, which range from zero (the number of "socials" in Antioch in mid-January by the number in early May) to over .90 (the number of card games in San Rafael in January with the number in May), understate consistency, since we used four issues, not two, per year. Nevertheless, these are quite variable numbers.

42. For example, the number of club meetings reported in Antioch and Palo Alto increased greatly after World War I; so did the number of events reported in the club columns in the newspapers. Did printing such columns lead to more reports when, in fact, there was no great increase in meetings--an artifact? Or did an increase in club activity lead the editors to expand the columns? Only a close historical study of each newspaper--beyond the scope of this project--could answer that question.

43. My assistants were able to reconstruct histories of the newspapers from their close readings of those presses and biographical information about the changing editors. In addition, a key editor of the Palo Alto Times wrote his own history of the town (D. E. Wood, History of Palo Alto |Palo Alto, 1939~). Also, an article in the Marin Journal (27 May 1967) and a report commissioned by the WPA ("Newspapers," Pamphlet, Marin County Library, n.d.) reviewed the histories of the San Rafael newspapers.

44. The first methodological issue is whether the counts should be adjusted for the population of the towns, calculating events per capita. An increase in reported events may be "spurious," really a product of population growth, not other historical change. This is a difficult substantive and technical issue. Substantively, if we assumed that each particular kind of event, say, a dance or attendance at a game, be it in 1900 or 1940, had roughly the same number of participants, then some form of per capita adjustment would make sense; participation per person may not have increased even if the total number of events did. However, many of these events no doubt grew in the volume of attendance as well as in frequency over time. (I noted earlier that during the 1930s alone the membership of the Palo Alto theater group grew six-fold.) Consequently, dividing the number of events by population would over-correct, underestimating the "true" growth in participation. Similarly, if we think of these events as opportunities for participation, then it is the absolute number that is meaningful. Statistically, population growth accompanies historical time so closely that it is difficult to disentangle the two. In preliminary regression analyses, I discovered that time--i.e., year--was a better predictor of the number of reported events than was town population (except perhaps for predicting the number of commercial events), suggesting that the former was indeed the more critical.

On the second concern, newspaper volume, one could adjust the number of reported events for the volume of the entire newspaper in each year. This procedure is also problematic, but I tried it in various regression analyses. The exercise suggested little change in the substantive conclusions. (Details available from author.)

45. This is consistent with Reiss's (City Games, Chapter 2) suggestion that increasing affluence, greater institutional support (parks, Ys, school fields, etc.), and the diffusion of the ideology of sport expanded working-class participation in sports during the 1920s and '30s.

46. A reasonable explanation of Antioch's repeated pattern of uncertain rises and occasional declines is the changing composition of the population in the 1920s and 1930s. Large influxes of first- and second-generation Italian-Americans moved in to work as laborers in the factories of neighboring Pittsburg in the 1920s. Then, in the 1930s, the region received many refugees from the Dust Bowl. Conversely, according to various reports, successful Antiochians often moved elsewhere.

47. I.e., reports of meetings are not counted here. A report that a club held a meeting and a whist contest afterwards is counted.

48. The regression results for "events sponsored by private individuals" reveal a complex pattern of interaction effects. Nevertheless, the general trend is a decline in the number of privately-sponsored events the newspapers reported. The regressions show an increasing number of commercially-sponsored events over time. The greatest change, however, is an increase in the number of club-sponsored affairs.

49. Regression results show a complex and moderate decline in the number of private events reported, similar to that described for privately-sponsored events; an increase after World War I in the number of club members-only events; and a strong increase in the number of events of whatever sponsorship open to the public.

50. Brunner and Kolb, Rural Social Trends; Rosenzweig, Eight Hours.

51. For a recent use of time-budgets, see Joann Vanek, "Work, Leisure, and Family Roles: Farm Households in the United States, 1920-1955," Journal of Family History 5 (Winter 1980): 422-31.

52. Lundberg et al., Leisure, p. 186.

53. Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (New York, 1977).
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Author:Fischer, Claude S.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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