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Turn of the Century Leisure & Recreation


June 26, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

Around the turn of the century, several factors converged to spur a change in American leisure activities. Work hours decreased from an average of 66 hours per week in 1860 to 60 hours per week in 1890. By 1900, unions achieved the 50 hour work-week. In 1914, the eight-hour day became standard. This change provided Americans with the time to undertake such activities. During the same period, salaries went up, especially for white-collar workers, and the middle class began to emerge. Even among the working class, people found a way to carve out a bit of money for recreation. In larger cities, immigrant enclaves (in some cities, over 80 percent of the population was immigrant based by 1890) opened native language theatres and saloons. New activities emerged such as department stores, motion pictures, organized spectator sports, theatre and vaudeville, dance halls and other public entertainments, parks and amusement midways, recreational sports, and transportation centered recreation such as bicycling and automobiles. Inventions such as streetlights created safer environments and transportation advances such as electric trolleys (from the late 1880s), subways (Boston opened the first in 1897), and automobiles allowed people to access new activities. The Progressive Era (1890-1914) saw a leisure and recreation revolution.

Among the earliest leisure time expansions were family-centered. With the decrease in working hours and improvements in lighting, families found themselves with extra time in the evenings. Older Americans formed whist clubs. Church social activities expanded. Men’s and women’s clubs began to spring up. Young people gathered at one another’s homes for lawn games or musical pursuits around the ever present pianos. Board games became popular in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Novels targeted to young people were introduced around 1880. By 1900, families had enough time and money to take annual vacations.

More and more Americans developed an interest in physical activity. Outdoor recreation attracted both men and women as young people began playing tennis and lawn games such as croquet. Golf also attracted both genders. Calisthenics became popular and Indian clubs (thin wooden devices shaped like bowling pins) became a craze as early as 1885. Gymnasiums and YMCA facilities sprang up in larger cities and physical fitness was introduced in schools. Organized team games drew many.

With the expansion of team games came the corresponding growth of spectator sports. The first sport to draw large numbers of spectators was boxing. Prize-fighting had previously been a clandestine activity, taking place largely in saloons or isolated arenas or in empty lots. Though the padded boxing glove was invented in 1743 (by John Broughton), the sport remained less than respectable. John L. Sullivan turned the tide. Between 1882 and 1892, Sullivan traveled the country offering prize money to those who could best him. Amounts ranged from $50 to $1000 as his reputation (and the number of followers) grew. The sport became organized into weight classes and was covered in the media. Black fighter Jack Johnson won the heavyweight championship in 1908, briefly sparking racial unrest.

Basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith, a YMCA coach, as an indoor sport for the winter months. Football was embraced by colleges, drawing student body fans. Rutgers and Princeton played the first college game in 1869, modeled on the European rules. American rules were written in 1876. Professional clubs evolved over the next quarter century and the first professional league was formed in 1902. Rules, at first, were lax and eighteen players were killed by injuries in 1905, resulting in formation of the NCAA. Helmets, designed in the 1890s and steadily improved, became standard. As scoring and rules slowly evolved to those that exist today, the sport expanded. Famous turn of the century players included Glen (Pop) Warner, Charles Follis (the first known black pro football player), George (Peggy) Parratt, Dan (Bullet) Riley, and Jim Thorpe (double Olympic gold medal winner).

Baseball became the “National Pastime”. Growing from a gentleman’s game to amassing crowds of fans, the game was played throughout the country. Dedicated baseball fields were created throughout the country (including one at Elitch’s Gardens). The National League was established in 1876 and teams toured the country. The American League was later formed and the first World Series between the two leagues was played in 1903. Large baseball parks such as Fenway Park (Boston), Shibe Park (Philadelphia) and Wrigley Field (Chicago) were built as the craze grew.

Amusement parks and pleasure gardens grew rapidly in popularity around the turn of the century. In 1870, they didn’t exist but thirty years later, they were in every major city.

Parks, such as New York’s Central Park, grew first. Central Park was built over a twenty year period, from 1858-1878, and replaced swampland with an orderly, planned public park for the surrounding population. It served as the model for other cities. Most provided trees, meadows, quiet waterways and allowed space for picnicking, playing, concerts, and water fun. Some included conservatories, bandstands, and carriage paths.

From such parks grew pleasure gardens. These sanctuaries combined the best features of public parks (such as trees, picnic areas, concert space, and waterways) with added features such as zoological gardens. A few combined live theatre as an attraction. This model inspired John and Mary Elitch to create Elitch’s Gardens in 1890.

At the same time, resort areas such as Atlantic City, Coney Island, and Long Beach were adapting the midway areas that grew up next to hotels. Saloons and gyp joints (gaming areas designed to take advantage of those who played) gave way to family-centered games, exotic architecture suggesting other areas of the world, bright lights, exotic shows, and the new mechanical amusement rides. The new “amusement parks” drew members of all social and economic classes by offering an escape from everyday life. Coney Island grew from a small entertainment area in 1870 to the location of multiple amusement parks by 1903. Roller coasters, Ferris wheels, and other amusement rides attracted thousands.

Wheeled activity also became popular around the turn of the century as roller skates, bicycles, and automobile use sped through the country.

Roller skates originated in the 1860s as a favored activity among the elite who vacationed at Newport. Within ten years, the sport had spread and rinks were built in most major cities. Hard maple flooring formed the rink surface and admission settled between a quarter and fifty cents. Metal and wood roller skates could be rented. Rink activities were much like today with circular leisure skating, dancing, and races. Many rinks had galleries so spectators could watch.

Others chose outdoor activity on the bicycle. A velocipede with one large wheel in the front and a smaller one in the rear debuted in the 1870s. The contraption was difficult to mount and to balance; use was generally restricted to men as women’s clothing made riding it nearly impossible.

In 1884, John Kemp Stanley perfected a design for a “safety” bicycle with two wheels of equal size connected by framing. In 1887, the Victor model appeared for women, with dropped framing. Pneumatic tires, a guard over the gears, and coaster brakes also were added. Within a year, 50,000 men and women were cycling and the number doubled by 1890. In that year, over 10 million bicycles were produced by 312 different companies. Initially, bicycles were a steep investment. Though the cost was less than a horse, the price of a Columbia or a Spaulding was still $90. A used Monarch might cost $50 but a worn bicycle could be had for $35. Cyclists might enjoy rides on their own and many couples found the activity conducive to courting without parental supervision. Others joined cycling clubs—by 1895, there were 500 such clubs in Chicago alone—or took part in racing. Some of the clubs became involved in politics, pushing for better roads and changes in laws. The sport even impacted women’s clothing designs and promoted the “new woman” ideal. There were 10 million bicycles in use by 1900.

Automobiles further changed American culture. Like bicycles, they became a mode for socializing, independence, and adventure for younger people. Many of the first motorists were those involved in the industry. They often undertook road trips to prove the capabilities of their products or engaged in racing. The American Automobile Association emerged to establish common rules for such events. Driving schools were created as more and more people purchased automobiles. Motorists carried tool kits in case of break-down (a frequent occurrence) which included spare tires, patching, spark plugs, socket wrenches, jacks, shovels, a grease gun, extra gasoline, and other assorted tools and parts. The Lincoln Highway Association was formed in 1914 to promote construction of a transcontinental highway system honoring Abraham Lincoln. The 3389 mile route was later named U.S. Route 30 and still exists in some areas today. (A circa 1905 automobile makes an appearance in ESCAPING YESTERDAY.)

Businesses that fostered social gathering also changed around the turn of the century.

Saloons, a traditional gathering spot for men, grew out of early pubs. From 1870 to 1919 (Prohibition), saloons offered men a place to get away from the worries of life. In the cities, though, the nature of saloons began to shift toward more of a neighborhood center (think the typical Western gambling saloon versus a bar a la Cheers). In 1897, there were over 215,000 licensed liquor dealers in the U.S. with perhaps 50,000 unlicensed establishments. In 1915, New York City alone had 10,000 licensed saloons. These urban saloons took many forms. Some catered to professionals and businessmen. German beer gardens welcomed women and children and served food at long tables. Workers’ saloons might be specific to particular trades or welcome workers from certain factories. Ethnic saloons were gathering places for immigrants from specific areas while neighborhood saloons welcomed cross-cultural groups from the local area. In general, the workers’ saloons did not attract the middle class, though, who tended to drink at home. Many workers’ saloons cashed checks, offered public restrooms, offered meals, sold cigarettes and cigars, lent money, and acted as communications and political centers. Most remained dominated by men with only a handful welcoming women.

A substitute for the saloon was found in the soda fountain. By 1900, many drug stores had installed soda fountain. In some areas, soda parlors emerged. These establishments originally offered effervescent waters to cure ills but the public soon discovered that combining soda water with flavored syrups and extracts created tasty drinks. During the 1870s, ice cream was combined with soda water to create the ice cream soda. Products like Coca-Cola (1886) and Pepsi-Cola (1896) were originally invented as head-ache cures but soon became popular as soft-drinks. The ice cream sundae first appeared in the 1890s and the ice cream cone at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. All became regular offerings at the soda fountain as did women and young people of both genders. At the turn of the century, the soda fountain was considered a safe place for teens and unmarried couple to mingle without chaperones.

In larger cities, dance halls became popular spots for young, single workers. Initially, dance halls were frequented by men, where they paid to dance with female employees. In some cases, these female dancers also entertained men privately. Toward the late 1800s, sponsored dances (by churches and community groups) allowed for the mingling of men and women within a safe environment. These dances were supervised, with strict rules for types of dances, etiquette, and spacing. As women joined the work force in the 1890s, they began to frequent dance halls in larger cities, changing their reputations from seedy to acceptable gathering spots as the growing number of women prompted these public dance halls to implement new rules and hire supervisors to monitor the dance floors. Between 1900 and 1910, the face of public dancing shifted and dance halls became yet another place where young people could safely mingle. Sometimes, alcohol was offered with supervisors closely monitoring for drunkenness. By the second decade of the twentieth century, the trend had reached rural areas and dance halls sprang up across the country. In most, contact within the establishment was monitored; interaction outside the building was not and many courtships that began inside escalated quickly once couples went outdoors.

Vaudeville and theatre and circuses also flourished around the turn of the century. San Francisco had one opera house and two playhouses in 1870, but in 1912, the city had five playhouses along with many new entertainment venues, including eleven vaudeville theaters and sixty-nine movie theaters.

Vaudeville had deep roots, evolving from saloon variety shows, minstrel shows, and circus acts. The first vaudeville theater opened in 1881 in Manhattan. Soon, New York had ten vaudeville houses and had spread to other major cities. The acts lasted two to three hours and attendees paid an admission ranging from 5 cents to one dollar, depending upon the headliner acts. Most shows featured seven to ten acts, including comedians, vocalists, acrobatics, dancers, magicians, skits, and other entertainment. Although variety was the major theme, vaudeville was targeted to families (the earlier saloon acts were risqué and intended for adults). Both matinees and evening shows were offered. Often promoters booked cross-country tours for their acts as well as signing them to longer runs in urban areas. Vaudeville houses competed with one another by booking well-known acts and enhancing the décor of the theatre itself.

Legitimate theatre grew out of vaudeville. Often, small theatre acts evolved into longer shows. Some vaudeville venues turned to more serious productions. Elitch’s Gardens hosted vaudeville acts at first but then turned to summer stock productions. These shows featured a “stock” set of plays by a troupe of actors. The group would perform at one location for the entire summer season, offering the entire set of plays. Mary Elitch would visit New York during the winter months to preview and select the summer stock theatre company for the amusement park season. These touring shows were highly popular between 1890 and 1950. Touring Broadway productions and local community theatre replaced summer stock in many areas.

The circus and the wild-west show also attracted many in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The circus had its beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century in large cities. When Phineas Barnum and James Bailey organized their circus company, they took it on tour. Included were three rings of acts with trapeze artists, clowns, animal acts, music, and the appeal of a big tent. Smaller circuses followed suit. Buffalo Bill Cody toured his Wild West Show between 1883 and 1913 with shooting contests, horse tricks, Indians, and not-so-historic “reenactments”. Performers included Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, Wild Bill Hickok, and Frank Butler. As many as 100,000 attended the shows. Cody was the biggest of the shows, but not the only show in town as smaller companies also formed. Together, the circus and the wild-west show provided Americans with yet more ways to play.

See previous blogs for more details on Coney Island, the early Elitch Gardens, automobile evolution, vaudeville, and the Elitch theatre.


Next week, we’ll return to Eltich Gardens with a look at changes post 1960. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (

Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.

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