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article number 644
article date 03-14-2017
copyright 2017 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our New Appreciation of Leisure Activities, Late 1800’s
by Arthur Schlesinger

From the 1941 book, Political and Social Growth of the American People, 1865-1940.

* * *


(continued from a previous article) . . . it was only through freedom of inquiry that American scholars and scientists were able to contribute so notably to the world’s intellectual enlightenment.

No less fruitful were the forces at work in letters and the fine arts. In 1871 the poet Walt Whitman published his most noteworthy prose work ’Democratic Vistas.’ Boldly he called for a literary culture springing from the common life, one begot of the people, by the people and for the people.

Whitman’s challenge to the new era was what Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ’The American Scholar’ had been to the generation of the thirties and forties.

But where the Concord sage had pleaded for an aristocracy of literature—for the lone man thinking his own thoughts—Whitman pleaded for a democracy of literature, one “permeating the whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief, breathing into it a new breath of life.”

Know you not, Whitman asked, “that the people of our land may all know how to read and write, and may all possess the right to vote, and yet the main things may be entirely lacking?”

Whitman exemplified his own teachings. Beginning as early as ’Leaves of Grass’ (1855), he had shown how the poet, bursting the fetters of rhyme, meter and conventional imagery, might trumpet the glories of common folk and common things in an authentic American manner.

As if summoned by his clarion call, there trooped forth from every corner of the land young writers eager to record their varied impressions of a traditional rural civilization fast disappearing before the standardizing blows of urbanism and industrialism. Impatient with the bookishness and fastidious diction of their predecessors, they told their stories simply, often with unconscious idealization, and always with careful attention to dialect and local color.

Never before had American fiction so completely mirrored the regional diversities that characterized the national life. Edward Eggleston in ’The Hoosier School-Master’ (1871) and later novels depicted mid-century conditions in rural Indiana.

“Mark Twain” (Samuel L. Clemens), drawing upon his own earlier experiences, offered a broadly humorous account of life along the Mississippi, producing his masterpiece in ’The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ (1884). With Bret Harte and the poet Joaquin Miller, he also helped make memorable the picturesque life of the Far West, while Helen Hunt Jackson in ’Ramona’ (1884) recalled the romance and drama of the passing of the old Spanish order in California.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by “Mark Twain."

Nor were other sections of the country less ably represented. There was a literary New South as well as a political and economic one. In delicately wrought sketches George W. Cable, Grace King and Kate Chopin introduced a wondering America to the exotic, orange-scented atmosphere of Creole life in Louisiana, while the chivalry of the old Virginia gentry lived again in the pages of Thomas Nelson Page and F. Hopkinson Smith.

By contrast, “Charles Egbert Craddock” (Mary Noailles Murfree) in such stories as ’In the Tennessee Mountains’ (1884) pictured the humble folk dwelling amidst the grandeur of the interior highlands, and Joel Chandler Harris immortalized the whimsical tales of Negro folklore through the mouth of Uncle Remus.

In authors like Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary E. Wilkins (Freeman), New England had its regional spokesmen, but they were concerned not with a colorful past but with the drab hues of the present, giving sympathetic portrayals of narrow, introspective lives in the era of New England’s rural decline.

Still other writers found their themes in the main stream rather than the backwaters of American life. In a series of novels distinguished by such works as ’The Rise of Silas Lapham’ (1884) and ’A Hazard of New Fortunes’ (1889), William Dean Howells dealt with the trials and foibles of middle-class urban people, with ever sharpening emphasis upon the “economic chance-world” which governed human destinies under modern conditions.

Henry James, residing abroad and writing with intricate precision, discovered rich literary ore in the psychological impact of Old World culture upon leisure-class Americans in Europe.

Both Dean and James strove for realism, and, though they were influenced by the contemporary realists in France and Russia, they revealed their innate Americanism by dwelling upon the normal rather than the abnormal in human nature. As a wit remarked, “The present realism in fiction is in France a discovery of the unclean, and in America a discovery of the unimportant.”

A grimmer temper, however, displayed itself in a younger group of writers, notably Hamlin Garland, who in ’Main-Travelled Roads’ (1891) stressed the repellent aspects of Midwestern rural life, and Stephen Crane, whose ’Maggie, a Girl of the Streets’ (1892), exposed one of the tragic failures of the vaunted urban civilization.

Garland and Crane’s work foreshadowed the active concern with social and economic injustice which was to characterize the novelists of the early twentieth century.

The 1880’s marked the full bloom of the new literary growths, with a greater number of good novels published than in any previous American decade.

Yet the epoch was even more distinctive for its profusion of short stories, “literature in small parcels,” a form which the writers of this generation molded into a finished work of art. It was peculiarly adapted to the taste of the hurrying, scurrying people who inhabited the cities.

Through the short story America has made perhaps her greatest contribution to world literature.

The public, of course, did not confine its reading to American authors, or even to writers whose artistic merits were acclaimed by literary critics. Of the works of fiction published in the years 1875-1899, the following eventually sold a million or more copies:

• Mark Twain’s ’Tom Sawyer’ (1875) and ’Huckleberry Finn’ (1884);
• Anna Sewell’s ’Black Beauty’ (1877);
• Lew Wallace’s ’Ben Hur, a Tale of the Christ’ (1880);
• Margaret Sidney’s ’Five Little Peppers’ (1881);
• Robert Louis Stevenson’s ’Treasure Island’ (1884);
• George Du Maurier’s ’Trilby’ (1894); and
• Charles M. Sheldon’s ’In His Steps: “What Would Jesus Do?”’ (1899).

Three of the seven authors—Sewell, Stevenson and Du Maurier—were Englishmen.

Judged by the number of juvenile books among the best sellers, children were the most voracious readers, while the taste of their elders ran toward religious fiction. Unfortunately, comparable figures for the circulation of library books are lacking.

Until the last decade of the century professional writers labored under a serious handicap because publishers could reprint foreign works without payment of royalty and could therefore sell them for less than the price of competing volumes of native composition.

The rule naturally worked both ways; and as American publishers in the 1870’s and 1880’s saw more and more of their own books being “pirated” in England and Canada, they decided that the practice was working to their disadvantage.

Joining hands with the authors, American publishers induced Congress in 1891 to adopt the international-copyright act for protecting the rights of native authors in other lands and of foreign writers in the United States. Henceforth American practitioners of letters could pursue their profession without unfair competition from European productions and, at the same time, safeguard the profits of their sales abroad.

Theatre also flourished in many cities.


Equally as significant as the literary revival was the renaissance in the arts of line, color and form.

Just as young American scholars and scientists were flocking to the German universities, so fledgling painters, sculptors and architects were invading the studios of Paris, the world’s art center. During the seventies, as they returned home in ever increasing numbers, their advent was like a fresh wind on a sultry day, clearing the atmosphere of muggy traditions and introducing breadth, freedom and vigor.

In the domain of painting, the clash of schools was so sharp as to cause the “Younger Men” in 1877 to form the Society of American Artists in opposition to the long-established National Academy of Design. Into their ranks they drew some of the more progressive older men like George Inness and John La Farge.

The years that followed brought an epoch of creative achievement such as the nation had never before known. A few names will illustrate both the quality and variety of the productions.

In George Inness America discovered perhaps her greatest landscape painter, an artist with a poet’s insight into Nature’s vagrant moods.

By contrast Winslow Homer painted boldly colored canvases of the sea.

Thomas Eakins’s work exemplified a matter-of-fact realism that led him to portray President Hayes in his shirt sleeves.

James A. McNeill Whistler’s genius appeared best in his nocturnes, which conveyed inimitably the hue and mystery and quiet of night. His well-known picture, “The Artist’s Portrait of His Mother,” a study in grays, was bought in 1891 by the French government.

Albert P. Ryder devoted his brush to legendary and poetic subjects, which he interpreted with great imaginative power.

La Farge transformed American mural painting into a fine art and, through his invention of opalescent glass, helped revive the ancient splendor of medieval stained-glass work.

In response to the new interest in painting, art schools increased from less than forty in 1880 to nearly a hundred and twenty at the century’s close.

The establishment of great art museums at Washington, New York and Boston in the postwar decade helped to foster a constant improvement in popular taste, and caused other large cities presently to make similar provision.

In a less obvious way, the waxing popularity of the camera, especially after the simplifications introduced in the eighties by George Eastman of Rochester, helped to awaken in many a latent æsthetic sense.

In sculpture, gifted men like Daniel Chester French, Frederick W. MacMonnies and George Grey Barnard pushed to the front and exerted a profound influence for higher standards.

The foremost practitioner, however, was the Irish-born Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose statue of Admiral Farragut (1881) in Madison Square Garden, New York, first revealed his genius to the public. His symbolic figure, “The Peace of God,” erected at the tomb of Mrs. Henry Adams in Washington in 1891, is generally considered the greatest sculpture America has yet produced.

The Adams Memorial. (1891) by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Photograph by Brown Brothers.

In no other branch of art had the national traditions been so poor. These men and their like raised the native product to a plane comparable with the best work in contemporary Europe.

The new influences made slower headway in architecture, partly because of the enormous construction of new buildings required to accommodate the needs of the swift-growing cities, partly also because people did not know how to discriminate between ostentation and good taste.

Even men of wealth and note oftentimes lived in houses disfigured with towers, turrets, Moorish arches and fantastic jigsaw work in wood and iron.

It was Henry Hobson Richardson who ushered in a better day. Employing the heavy Romanesque style of southern France, he taught the superiority of sturdiness, unity and restraint as elements of design. His crowning achievement was Trinity Church, Boston, in 1877, for which John La Farge provided the murals and much of the stained-glass work.

Before Richardson died in 1886, many fellow craftsmen had risen up to foster the better standards; and from plans published in magazines like the ’Ladies’ Home Journal’ even the ordinary person could learn how to build a well-designed, inexpensive house. The younger men wrought characteristically in the classic mode or some of its Renaissance derivatives.

The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893—largely the artistic creation of Daniel H. Burnham, Charles B. Atwood, Richard M. Hunt and the firm of McKim, Mead and White—marked the supreme attainment of the classic style. The effect was a poignant dream of loveliness reminiscent of the chaste perfection of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century architecture in America.

A special problem was presented by the necessity of economizing ground space in the congested business quarters of big cities. The obvious solution was a lofty perpendicular structure, whose use the recent introduction of fast elevators rendered practicable.

Masonry construction, however, required supporting piers so huge as to devour much of the desirable space in the lower floors. The outcome was the invention of the skyscraper, a building riveted securely in a metal frame and employing brick or stone merely to afford privacy and screen off the weather.

Less trammeled by tradition than the Eastern centers, Chicago first ventured upon the new departure, the original skyscraper being the Home Insurance Building (1885), which rose to what then seemed the dizzy height of ten stories.

The most notable contributor to the new architecture was Louis Sullivan, who sought to break with the musty traditions of his craft and establish the principle: “Form follows function.” His influence proved greatest, however, on the next generation of skyscraper designers.

Meanwhile Chicago and New York, generally employing decorations in the Roman mode, pushed their commercial buildings higher and higher until in 1898 the Ivins Syndicate Building in the latter city achieved twenty-nine floors, a mere hint of what awaited in the next century.

These “proud structures, defiant in their altitude,” fittingly symbolized the titanic energy, the willingness to experiment, the superb engineering competence, that characterized the age. Since historical research has denied to Americans the credit of devising the log cabin, the skyscraper stands as the nation’s unique architectural gift to the world.

If progress in musical composition was less brilliant, still the nation began in a modest way to repay its debt for the rich stores of melody it had long derived from Europe.

The principal composers had all received their training in Germany. John Knowles Paine, George W. Chadwick arid Horatio Parker won a transatlantic reputation for their orchestral and choral scores, while Edward A. MacDowell composed piano selections distinguished by originality and haunting beauty.

Perhaps more significant was the heartening growth of musical appreciation. Conservatories of music sprang up in the more important cities; artists’ recitals enjoyed a profitable patronage; choral societies flourished, particularly in German centers; and the founding of the New York Symphony Orchestra in 1878 and of the Boston Symphony Orchestra three years later signalized a new era in that branch.

More than any other one person, Theodore Thomas, who had come as a youth from Germany in 1845, promoted an intelligent popular interest in music, organizing great music festivals, founding and conducting orchestras in various cities and training his players to standards of performance never before known in his adopted country.

Grand opera, too, secured a firmer footing with the opening in 1883 of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Such evidences of public support and improving taste augured well for future musical attainments.

The Metropolitan Opera.


All classes in the cities faced the problem of using wisely the increasing leisure at their disposal. Even the wage-earners had more time than formerly, thanks to the gradual reduction of the workday.

Life under pioneer conditions had taught the American people how to work but not how to relax. They therefore turned to pleasure with the same fierce energy that they devoted to money-making: In Bryce’s contemporary phrase, they “make amusement into a business.”

Society life in the greater cities became characterized by frantic display, especially on the part of the newly rich eager to vault into the ranks of the exclusive. Though it was said the menfolk knew no masters, not even the Old Masters, they meekly left to their wives and daughters the strategy of advancing the family socially.

Ways and means lay at hand. Palatial mansions and lavish entertaining hid the rise from humble origins; liberal patronage of fashionable charities smoothed the path; proper “ancestors” were always procurable from the right genealogists.
successful were ambitious mothers in this quest that toward the end of the century it was estimated that over $200 million had been exported to
But the supreme goal was a brilliant international marriage. So replenish the coffers of impoverished European nobility.

The average person was little affected by such matters, but other leisure-time interests demanded his attention. None made a greater appeal than the opportunity to join one or more of the secret fraternal orders that sprang up as if by spontaneous generation.

A product of urban conditions, these lodges not only provided a substitute for the neighborliness of rural communities, but, through their elaborate ceremonialism, enabled members to recover a sense of self-importance lost in the solitude of crowds. A further attraction appeared in the sickness and death benefits usually provided.

Playing Croquet, 1869.

Between 1880 and 1901 no less than four hundred and ninety different fraternal organizations were founded. A writer in the ’Century Magazine’ characterized this development as the “great American safety-valve.” In 1890 Boston, Chicago and St. Louis had three times as many lodges as churches.

As the century closed, the United States had firmly established its title of a “nation of joiners,” with over six million names on the rosters of its secret societies.

At the same time, the multiplication of city dwellers rendered possible a vast expansion of popular entertainment. Between 1880 and 1900 the number of actors trebled. The serious drama probably has never been better presented than by such native performers as Edwin Booth, Clara Morris and Lawrence Barrett and by such foreign visitors as Sarah Bernhardt and Helena Modjeska.

Bronson Howard, the principal dramatist, wrote plays that held the boards for from one hundred and fifty to four hundred nights.

More characteristic of the times, however, was the enthusiastic patronage accorded the minstrel show and the circus, while blood-curdling melodramas pleased a public taste whetted by the dime novel and the sensational press.

Yet no form of stage entertainment so well suited the restless urban spirit as vaudeville, which Tony Pastor, B. F. Keith and others made into a great success. Vaudeville, observed a contemporary, “belongs to the era of the department store and the short story.”

By the 1890’s vaudeville accounted for the attendance of perhaps half the theatergoers.

Comic opera also made its appearance, floated into general favor on the wave of popularity that greeted “Pinafore”, and other delightful concoctions of the Britons, Gilbert and Sullivan.

Americans such as Reginald de Koven and Victor Herbert entered the field. The former in 1890 composed “Robin Hood,” one of the most popular and melodious operas in the history of the American theater.

The tunes from comic opera performances swiftly became known from one end of the country to the other, thanks to the invention of the talking machine or phonograph. Devised by Edison in 1877-1878, the first crude instrument, consisting of a tin-foil cylinder record turned by hand, was presently improved by Edison and others through the adoption of flat wax-like disks and the use of spring or electric motors.

The phonograph promoted a rage for popular songs which was without precedent in any earlier period. In the single year 1900, nearly three million phonograph records were sold.

These years also saw the rise of organized sport. As rural life steadily receded into the background, as normal outlets for physical exertion grew less, as more and more people slaved long hours in office and factory, some form of outdoor diversion became indispensable.

Unhappily, softened muscles did not encourage active personal participation. Most people therefore were content to pay others to take their exercise for them, a tendency zealously abetted by sport promoters, who coveted the gate receipts which professional contests made possible.

The “audience habit,” nurtured by the theater, thus came to infect sport lovers as well.

Many of the new games were imported from Great Britain, where an athletic revival had been proceeding since the mid-century. In the United States, however, they were deemed not a special perquisite of the upper classes, but a boon to be enjoyed by everyone. In the case of basketball, invented in 1891, Americans contributed a game all their own.

Of the older sports, thoroughbred racing enjoyed an era of unparalleled prosperity. Prize fighting, though still viewed askance by the respectable elements, brought to the fore a succession of world’s heavyweight champions in John L. Sullivan (1882), James J. Corbett (1892), “Bob” Fitzsimmons (1897) and James J. Jeifries (1899).

Baseball, long a favorite amateur pastime, began to assume its aspect of America’s national game when the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869 turned themselves into a professional team. Soon professional baseball overspread the land, leading to the formation of intercity leagues and, in 1884, to the first “World Series” between1 the pennant-winning teams of the two major leagues.

Football, an American version of the English game Rugby, developed somewhat. more slowly, being closely associated with the growth of college athletics. The first intercollegiate contest occurred between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869, with twenty-five men on each team.

1890 Ohio State football team.

Seven years later the American Intercollegiate Football Association was formed by Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and Yale; and in the next score of years the game, under constantly changing rules, spread to nearly all the colleges and most of the high schools of the land. At Connecticut Wesleyan, Professor Woodrow Wilson in his spare time helped to coach a team which in 1889 defeated Pennsylvania, Amherst, Williams, Rutgers and Trinity.

Of the newer sports, lawn tennis, golf and polo found their way from Britain to America in the 1870’s. Skiing was a contribution of the Norwegian Americans in Minnesota early ir the next decade. In these and other games, differences as to rules caused the formation of national associations to establish uniform regulations and often also to conduct annual tournaments.

In some manner or other, all classes took part in this new play life of the nation. The well-to-do signified their approval by the establishment of athletic clubs, country clubs and yacht clubs.

Amidst his political activities Theodore Roosevelt took time to box, wrestle, fish, hunt and play polo, exemplifying in these early years his championship of the “strenuous life.”

President Hayes found relaxation in shooting at a mark in Rock Creek Park, and his successors, Arthur and Cleveland, were among the country’s most expert fishermen.

The attitude of the general public is reflected in the fact that, when John Greenleaf Whittier died in the autumn of 1892, a leading New York newspaper devoted one column to that event and nearly a dozen to the Corbett-Sullivan prize fight.

No sport, however, attracted so many participants as bicycling. Before the 1880’s this form of exercise had been confined to riders whose courage was undaunted by an occasional fall from the lofty perch over the high front wheel.

But the introduction in 1884 of the “safety” bicycle—possessing two medium-sized wheels of equal height—and the later substitution of pneumatic tires for solid rubber ones produced a cycling craze that ramified to every part of the nation.

By 1893 a million bicycles were in use. Spurred by the League of American Wheelmen, over half the states enacted laws for improving their highways, a movement later to be accelerated by the advent of the automobile.

For untold thousands cycling renewed the forgotten pleasures of open road and countryside. It was recommended by physicians and it also helped bring about more rational fashions for women. “It is safe to say,” declared an expert of the Census Bureau in 1900, “that few articles ever used by man have created so great a revolution in social conditions as the bicycle.”

This generation little dreamed that the rattling, snorting “horseless carriage,” with which inventors in the nineties were hopefully beginning to tinker. would presently spell the doom of the universally popular “bike.”

Bicycling on Riverside Drive, New York, 1895.
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