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Collection America at Work, America at Leisure: Motion Pictures from 1894 to 1915

America at Leisure

The period from 1894 to 1915 was one in which workers in the United States began to have more leisure time than their predecessors. One reason for this was that industrial employers began to decrease working hours and institute a Saturday half-day holiday, which gave workers more free time for leisure activities. (Other types of workplaces would soon follow suit.) Vacations began to be regularly offered to workers, although they were usually unpaid ones. The monotony of specialized industrial work and the crowding of urban expansion also created a desire in the worker to have leisure time away from his or her job and away from the bustle of the city. The Progressive movement was another factor which contributed to the increased value of leisure time for workers, as their health and well-being received more attention. Yet another factor was the installation of electric lighting in the city streets, which made nighttime leisure activities less dangerous for both sexes.

Babies Rolling Eggs

People responded to this increased allowance of free time by attending a variety of leisure activities both within and away from the city. New types of amusements that people of all classes and both sexes could attend came into existence and quickly spread across the country.

Urban Entertainment

Within cities, people attended vaudeville shows, which would feature a multitude of acts. Shows often ran continuously so that theatergoers could come and go as they pleased. Vaudeville shows crossed economic and ethnic boundaries, as many different social groups would mix in the audience. Other popular shows of the time included circuses and Wild West shows, the most famous of the latter being William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody's.

[Claremont Theatre, N.Y.]

Motion pictures also served as entertainment during leisure time for urban audiences. Initially the movies were novelties in kinetoscope viewers, until they became acts in their own right on the vaudeville stage. As motion pictures became longer, they moved into storefront Nickelodeon theaters and then into even larger theaters.

Further Afield

Outdoor activities remained popular as people attended celebratory parades and county fairs, the latter featuring agricultural products, machinery, competitions, and rides.

A Glimpse of the San Diego Exposition

Some people wished to go further afield on their vacations and leave the city. Many with limited budgets went to the countryside or the beaches. Towards the latter part of the nineteenth century, resorts opened in the outskirts of cities, such as the beach area of Asbury Park in New Jersey, which was founded in 1870. Amusement parks opened in places like Coney Island, New York, founded in 1897, offering rides, fun houses, scenes from foreign life, and the latest technological breakthroughs, such as motion pictures. National parks were created by the federal government to preserve nature and many began to tour these areas on vacation. One such example was Yellowstone Park where people camped or stayed at the hotels built there in the late 1880s.

World's fairs and expositions held in different U.S. cities offered Americans a chance to "tour the world" in one place. The fairs celebrated progress and featured exhibits of science and technology, foreign villages, shows, rides and vendors. The first major one was the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, which was followed by fairs in Chicago (1893), Atlanta (1895), Nashville (1897), Omaha (1898), Buffalo (1901), and St. Louis (1904).


After the Civil War, the popularity of sports as leisure activities grew as people began to see the importance of exercise to health. While initially only the wealthy could partake of most sporting events, the opening of publicly available gymnasiums, courts, and fields allowed the working and middle classes to participate also. Athletic clubs such as the New York Athletic Club were organized and the YMCAs began to institute sports programs. These programs mostly focused on track and field events, instituted by communities of Scottish and English descent, and gymnastics, heavily influenced by German athletics. Gymnasiums, which featured exercises using Indian clubs, wooden rings, and dumbbells, were opened in many Eastern cities.

Basket Ball, Missouri Valley College

Although men performed the majority of sports activities at this time, opportunities for women, too appeared as the nineteenth century ended. Sports in which women participated included canoeing, rowing, and walking, although by the turn of the century schools began to offer even more sports activities for females, such as gymnastics and basketball.

Canoeing on the Charles River, Boston, Mass.

Spectator sports became popular as people flocked to see boxing rounds and different types of races. Although boxing was initially frowned on because of the violence and gambling associated with it, by the 1890s the Marquis of Queensberry's code was adopted, imposing limits on the game which made the sport somewhat safer. Its adoption in athletic clubs, YMCAs, and colleges by the early twentieth century brought boxing a measure of respectability.

Horse racing had always been supported by the wealthy and gamblers; by the end of the nineteenth century, people of all classes attended races. Although yacht races were also initially more popular for the wealthy, the America's Cup series of racing, begun in 1870, increased the sport's appeal. Other types of races which were popular included rowing, sailing, auto boat, and automobile races, the last category beginning in the 1890s.

International Contest for the Heavyweight Championship-Squires vs. Burns

Sports which involved teamwork, such as baseball, basketball, and football, became wildly popular with Americans, who enjoyed the games both as participants and spectators. Baseball had its origins in the English games of rounders and cricket and started as an adult game in New York during the 1840s. By the 1850s, the sport rapidly spread to many parts of the country as teams were formed from all classes and ages of society. Baseball rapidly became more organized as it became America's favorite sport.

Derived from the English game of rugby, American football was started in 1879 with rules instituted by Walter Camp, player and coach at Yale University.

Basketball derived from the need for an indoor sport during the winter months. James Nasmith, an instructor at the YMCA Training School at Springfield, Massachusetts, devised the game in 1891. Soon YMCAs and colleges around the country began playing it. The game was adapted for women at schools around the country with differing rules in the 1890s, until in 1899 a standard set of rules for women were adopted.

Princeton and Yale Football Game

Other sporting activities which people performed during this time included roller skating, bicycling, swimming, ice skating, sleighing, hunting, and fishing.

First invented in 1863, roller skating became a fad in the 1880s. Improved skates revived the trend by the turn of the century, making it fashionable for the middle classes and also for women.

Bicycling became popular in the 1880s, and the introduction of safer bicycles the following decade increased interest in the sport.

Swimming rapidly became more popular in the latter part of the century as women were increasingly allowed to swim in mixed company. Swimming began to be seen as an acceptable sport for women.

The Roller Skate Craze

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, urban men in the East sought the outdoors for their sports activities, indulging in hunting and fishing. Anglers' clubs abounded as the sport of fishing grew in popularity.

Winter sports, such as sleighing and ice skating, also gained in popularity in the mid-nineteenth century.

The films in this collection offer ample evidence of many of the activities mentioned. Film audiences of the time would have been amused to see other people or themselves on the screen, out enjoying their leisure time. For today's viewer, these films are historical documents of how Americans spent their leisure moments a hundred years ago, and how activities which are still enjoyed today began.

Boys Diving, Honolulu

[Sources for essay: see Selected Bibliography.]

NOTE: Film titles used in this presentation are the original production titles, which may include archaic or incorrect spellings.

Topics for Leisure

Amusement parks

Autmobile Racing





Boat Racing


County Fairs

Egg Rolling

Expositions *

*For more information on the Pan-American Exposition, go to The Last Days of a President: Films of McKinley and the Pan-American Exposition, 1901.




Horse Racing

Ice Skating

Movie Theaters


Resort holidays

Roller skating



Touring national parks

Wild West shows