Bathers, Atlantic City, NJ.
Credit: Library of Congress, American Memory.
If one looks at the United States from one ocean to the other in July and August, he will see millions of people at play—people of every social and financial gradation; for few are so poor as not to take at least a short vacation.
From "The People at Play," World's Work (1902)
How did Americans "have fun" a century ago? Where did they vacation and how did they get there? In a time of profound social and cultural change, the increasingly mechanized urban environment left many feeling anxious. The construction of parks in urban areas, the recommendation of physical exercise as a way to ward off stress, and the rise of spectator sports became part of the leisure landscape in the United States. Vaudeville, dance halls, and motion pictures became popular, while new modes of travel allowed Americans to escape to mountain and seaside resorts. In this lesson, students will learn how Americans spent their leisure time and explore new forms of entertainment that appeared at the turn of the century. In addition, they will learn how transportation and communication improvements made it possible for Americans to travel to new destinations.
Between 1865 and 1920, the American population doubled to more than 60 million people. More than 10 million immigrants arrived in America, mostly from northwestern and central Europe. The influx of immigrants, and the migration of African Americans to northern states, swelled the populations of America's cities.
Americans witnessed the inventions of new technologies designed to improve their daily lives. Commuter trains, trolleys, and eventually, the automobile, helped them get to and from work. Newspapers and magazines kept them informed of local, national, and world news. And the telephone enabled them to communicate with loved ones far away.
While some Americans adapted to these social and cultural shifts, the increasingly mechanized urban environment left others feeling anxious. To offer respite from urban life, social reformers championed the construction of parks in urban areas. Physicians recommended physical exercise as a way to ward off stress. Spectator sports emerged, including baseball, football, and tennis. New forms of commercialized entertainment appeared, such as vaudeville, dance halls, and motion pictures. Railroad, steamship, and trolley lines enabled Americans to escape the congested urban environment for the clean air and beautiful surroundings of mountain and seaside resorts.
By the early twentieth century, the Victorian ideals of decorum and self-restraint, once prevalent in the nineteenth century, gave way to the notion that "having fun" was good for one's health and overall well-being. The mass media promoted the concept of fun to encourage Americans of all economic levels to engage in leisure activities.
Ask students to define the term "leisure." You might direct them to consult a print or online dictionary for a definition. Dictionary.com, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource The Internet Public Library, defines leisure as "freedom from time-consuming duties, responsibilities, or activities." Next, ask them to define the term "entertainment," which Dictionary.com defines as "something that amuses, pleases, or diverts, especially a performance or show." Ask students—what is the relationship between leisure and entertainment; how are they inter-related?
Explain that by the turn of the century reduced work hours gave many Americans leisure time, and higher wages gave them the means with which to explore new forms of entertainment. To provide historical context, explain that by 1900 there were more than 29 million people in the American workforce. This included men, women, and children. Americans worked an average of 59 hours per week and usually received Saturday afternoons and Sundays off. Many companies provided unpaid leave to their employees.
Ask students to describe what they like to do in their leisure time. Encourage them to discuss their favorite forms of entertainment. Use the following questions as a guide:
Write their answers on the left side of the blackboard in front of the class.
Now ask students to think about how Americans might have spent their leisure time a century ago. To help students brainstorm, show some of the following photographs, or have them explore them in groups using the EDSITEment-reviewed National Archives Document Analysis Worksheets:
These and many other photographs useful for this exercise are available via the following EDSITEment-reviewed resources:
Use these photographs as a springboard for discussion about leisure and entertainment at the turn of the century. Have students identify the activity depicted in each photograph. Ask the following questions:
Hand out copies of the Inventions timeline, which lists leisure-related inventions. If you prefer, you may refer students directly to the Technology Timeline, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource The Internet Public Library, and the Interactive Timeline at the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Learner.org. Discuss some of the leisure-related inventions listed in the timeline, such as the phonograph (1877), the Kodak camera (1888), the motion picture camera (1891), and radio (1906). Explain that these inventions came before the age of television (1927) and well before the age of the Internet. These new technologies connected Americans as never before. For the first time, Americans could listen to music in their own homes, take their own photographs, watch a motion picture at a local theater, and listen to radio broadcasts.
Encourage students to brainstorm other leisure-related inventions that may have been introduced at the turn of the century. Write their answers on the right side of the blackboard in front of the class. Now compare the two sets of answers. Ask students if they see any similarities or differences between the activities they enjoy today and activities Americans enjoyed a century ago. Make some comparisons—e.g., Americans watched motion picture shows then; today, we have television and the Internet. Ask students which turn-of-the-century entertainments are still popular today, and which ones they enjoy.
Refer again to the Inventions timeline introduced above. Discuss some of the transportation inventions listed in the timeline, such as the steamboat (1807), the transcontinental railroad (1869), the electric trolley (1885), the automobile (1892), and the airplane (1903). Use the timeline as a springboard to discuss turn-of-the-century technologies that influenced the growth of the leisure industry.
To provide historical context, explain that transportation improvements opened inland and coastal areas and led to the establishment of national parks and resorts. By the turn of the century, a growing network of railroad, trolley, and steamship lines and inexpensive fares made it possible for Americans to travel to new destinations. Transportation companies often financed the construction of amusement parks and other attractions to encourage people to use their transportation services to reach resort areas.
Have students explore the interactive map, On the Old Fall River Line, to see how steamship lines carried passengers to and from a turn-of-the-century seaside resort. As part of this exercise, students will explore The Fall River Line and Other Steamers website, available at the EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at UVA.
Have students estimate how much money they spend on leisure activities each month. Ask:
In this activity, students will learn about the various people—their social and economic status, activities, jobs, and so forth—that vacationed in Newport. Students will then work together to study the various entertainment venues that were popular at the turn of the century and the economics of leisure. Teachers might have students role-play their characters and follow up with a discussion of how the various individuals might—or might not—encounter one another. Part of this activity's research requirements might be suitable for homework.
Define the term "class" for your students. Dictionary.com, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource The Internet Public Library, defines class as "a social stratum whose members share certain economic, social, or cultural characteristics." Explain that indicators of class include income level, level of education, and choice of employment. A century ago, members of upper-class society included intellectuals and wealthy businessmen. Middle-class workers included salaried employees such as business managers, physicians, lawyers, and teachers. Working-class families included skilled or semi-skilled laborers.
Now hand out copies of the Class in Newport student worksheet. Ask students to read the background information about different classes in Newport on Class and Leisure at America's First Resort, a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed resource, American Studies at the University of Virginia. Ask them to read about how Americans of different classes spent their leisure time in Newport.
Ask each student to select a name from the list on the People in Newport worksheet (or, teachers might cut up the list and hand out names or have students pick them from a hat). Ask each student to read a brief biography of this person. Ask students to answer the following questions (which are on their worksheet) using the information they have researched online:
Now ask students to consider how Americans at different levels of society spent their leisure time a century ago. Explain that the economic levels of many Americans determined how they spent their leisure time. Upper-class Americans took vacations to resorts throughout the country and often stayed in their own vacation homes. Middle-class Americans took short trips away from home, renting small cottages or staying in hotels and boarding houses. Working-class Americans took Saturday afternoon or Sunday trips to local parks and beaches.
Place students—or have them self-select—into groups. Have each group select a topic from the following list:
Have students conduct Internet research and create a brief report on their topic's history and significance, its associated costs, and who might have enjoyed going there.
It may be helpful if students first review the essays and timelines on the following EDSITEment-reviewed websites:
Point students to The Economics of Leisure LaunchPad, which provides a list of web resources they can use to research their topic. The LaunchPad includes a list of questions students should ask as they conduct their research, such as:
Hand out copies of The Economics of Leisure student worksheet for note taking. Remind students that Americans at all economic levels may have participated in any given activity. When the groups have completed their research, ask each to present its conclusions and supporting evidence to the class.
Note: If a group has discovered an interesting game from the turn of the century, encourage them to share it with the class in their presentation. You may ask students to learn to play the game in class.
Ask students to consider how companies might have advertised leisure and entertainment in a time when there was no television or the Internet. What methods might companies have used to reach their intended audiences?
Explain to students that the mass media encouraged the growth of a leisure industry by promoting leisure and entertainment options to all Americans. Turn-of-the-century ads appealed to consumers' desires by convincing them that the products in the ads would satisfy their emotional and physical needs.
Travel ads used words, images, and selected details to interest Americans of all classes in exploring new destinations. Society columns in major newspapers described the comings and goings of American industrialists and their families at resorts around the country. Photographs and illustrations of their vacation homes appeared in popular magazines. This type of media coverage encouraged upper-class Americans to frequent the same locations as their peers. Guidebooks, travel guides, and newspaper ads introduced middle-class Americans to travel. Newspaper ads and word of mouth interested working-class Americans in leisure activities.
Have students examine an actual turn-of-the-century travel ad. Project on a screen or hand out copies of the Easton's Beach ad, which is also available on Class and Leisure at America's First Resort, a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed resource, American Studies at the University of Virginia. Also, hand out copies of the Easton's Beach: The Coolest Place to Spend the Day student worksheet.
Ask students to study the ad and answer the following questions on the worksheet:
Ask students to read the brief history of Easton's Beach available at the EDSITEment-reviewed Class and Leisure at America's First Resort. What other forms of entertainment were at the beach? Were these forms of entertainment listed in the ad? Why or why not?
As a final assessment exercise, ask students to create an ad marketing a popular turn-of-the-century destination. It can be an amusement park, a seaside resort, a national park, or another type of destination. Their task is to market this place to potential visitors.
Ask students to consider what they have learned in this lesson as they work on the ad. If they need to research their destination, they can use the websites listed on The Economics of Leisure LaunchPad.
The ad should address the following questions:
As an additional—or alternate—activity, you may want to show a selection of short film clips produced by Thomas Edison, available at Inventing Entertainment: The Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies on the EDSITEment-reviewed resource American Memory.
Thomas Edison invented a number of technologies that enhanced the leisure industry. He is perhaps best known for his development of the motion picture medium. He invented the motion picture camera in 1891 and the talking motion picture in 1910. He produced a number of short films in the early 1900s. Refer to the inventions timelines listed in Leisure and Entertainment if needed.
To provide historical context, explain that by 1909, there were 9,000 nickelodeons, or theaters, that showed motion pictures to thousands of people a day—a testament to the popularity of Edison's inventions and the importance of his contributions to the leisure industry. This statistic and more can be found at the Chronology of Film History, available in the EDSITEment-reviewed Digital History Hollywood's America section.
The following Edison clips may serve as a starting point:
You can use the same questions in the Leisure and Entertainment exercise when discussing the leisure activities in these clips. In addition, ask students to compare these early films with films produced today. How are they similar? Different?
Have students read The Wizard of Menlo Park, a brief biography of Edison found on the EDSITEment resource, Digital History. Ask students to think about Edison's life in the context of his inventions. How did Edison's hearing loss impact his work? What is considered his greatest invention? Why?
4-5 class periods