1) Division of Work/Leisure /
3) The Rise of Consumerism (Individualism)
Work and Leisure: For working class immigrant men in "Packingtown" in turn-of-the-century Chicago, the concept of leisure time centered around the saloon. Spending time in "their bar" (e.g. Irish in Irish bars, Germans in German bars . . . heaven help the Jewish immigrant, I guess) was deﬁnitely the "highlight" of their day - their guaranteed "down time". As Peiss mentioned, it was interesting that the working class men that worked the most hours and/or earned the least in wages spent the most time in saloons. One of the most
common questions my students ask is how that situation can be possible; and that's the perfect time for a economics lesson in the inelasticity of goods! Inelasticity, very simpliﬁed, means that demand of a good doesn't change when the price increases. Since all motion is relative, if one's wages decrease, and the price remains the same, it is still a price increase. Alcohol consumption is one of the great examples of inelastic goods in American history, and it is a guaranteed item of purchase, especially in poorer neighborhoods to this day (Did you know that in 1991, right before the arrest of Rodney King, that South-Central Los Angeles had more liquor stores than the entire state of Ohio?).
I mention working class men in saloons and price inelasticity because, for young, single working class women, the dance halls were their equivalent to the saloon, and it was a guaranteed item of purchase. Like working class men in a saloon, the dance halls were "their time" for working class women, and if they needed to "go without" a necessity in order to afford the price of admission for an evening at the dance hall, so be it. More single, young working class women had leisure time because they were ﬁnding employment in factories (e.g. the garment industry), and in low-wage white collar jobs, such as sales or clerical work by the late-19th Century. Despite the long hours, when the shift ended for these young, unmarried working class women, they were on "their own time." These working class women drew a "Line of Demarcation" between work-and-leisure time, and were very willing to make difﬁcult cost-beneﬁt analysis decisions in order to enjoy their time in the leisure sphere. One of those cost-beneﬁt analysis decisions involved the time spent on entertainment, in particular, on the weekend. "Blue Mondays" referred to the signiﬁcant percentage of working class women that didn't show up for their shift on Monday because they were in "recovery mode."
Respectability and Sexuality: It is one thing to have the time to spend in the leisure sphere as a young, single working class woman, but what if there isn't enough money to spend for commercial amusement? True, there were relatively free amusements, such as activities in "The Street", but these young working class women wanted more excitement and adventure, and that meant paying for commercial amusements. Basically, young, single working class women had to negotiate a level of sexuality with a man in order to afford commercial amusements. "Treating" was their ticket to these commercial amusements, and through these amusements, working class women hoped to ﬁnd a man to marry. So, "Treating" provided
commercial amusement plus the possibility of ﬁnding a husband. "Treating" presented a constant dilemma for young, single working class women in terms of respectability and sexuality, in that what were the expectations of the "beau", and how would they be viewed by their community? In short, the sexual norms of young, single working class women differed from those of the middle class during the Progressive Era, when the Victorian Code was still
What Peiss called the "Charity Girls" provide a glimpse of the ﬁne line between respectability and sexuality, in that they were willing to "offer themselves" to some degree in exchange for material gain (e.g. a pair of shoes for work) or attention, but not for money. Young, single working class women in the leisure sphere were constantly approaching, and even crossing, the line of respectability in the opinions of the Victorian middle class. Perhaps the most common example was dancing - in their desire to ﬁnd adventure and excitement on a regular basis in the leisure sphere, certain dancing styles (e.g. "tough dancing"; basically "suggestive" dancing) were the norm. I'm sure the middle class reactions to that kind of dancing were similar to the reactions in 1960 when kids were dancing-to-the-devil with "The Twist." Interestingly, one common thread between those two "dancing eras" is that the Victorian model in the 1910's, and the "Code of Conformity" in the 1950's / early-1960's for the corresponding middle classes had started to crumble.
Rise of Consumerism (Individualism): By the 1910's, entertainment had become
a commodity in the growing "Consumer Culture" that valued a high degree of individualism (for the middle class, individualism became the "Pursuit of Pleasure"). During the late-19th Century, the young, single working class women's pursuit of sensual pleasure was equated with immorality by the Victorian middle class during the Progressive Era. Preiss pointed out, by the Post-WW I Era, the middle class had largely accepted social freedom, sexuality, and mixed-gender fun in its commercial amusements; self-fulﬁllment equaled consumerism (individualism). Two of the key developments in commercial amusements that allowed these trends to become at least more acceptable to the middle class were modern amusement parks and movies - if these ventures were going to turn a proﬁt, they needed to have a large number of young, single working class women as patrons, as well as a sizable middle class contingent. While Luna, on Coney Island, was met with acceptance by both middle-and-working classes with its "Disney World-esque" themes, it was the Steeplechase amusement park that had staying-power. If a young, single working class or middle class woman wanted to have an exciting-and-adventurous excursion to Coney Island, Steeplechase was the destination. This amusement park was designed for "sexual brinksmanship", in that participants could approach "the line", but couldn't cross that line. The intimacy and voyeurism provided by Steeplechase was packaged and contained so this "brinksmanship" was the normal experience for its patrons, both from the working and middle classes.
In other words, the close proximity between the genders (and increasingly between classes) was rendered relatively harmless at Steeplechase. This "Sexual Brinksmanship" became acceptable for the middle class after World War I, which indicates the diminishing inﬂuence of the Victorian model and its reformers. Progressive Era Victorian middle class reformers tried to "weave their magic" by inﬂuencing the content of movies. These reformers may have won some battles (e.g. screening movies in advance for content) which led to movies reﬂecting middle class virtues and morals, but there were still many movies being made that appealed to working class women. The middle class reformers may have been able to inﬂuence the content of the movies, but they were unable to change the social aspect of the experience for the working class women (In part, that was due to the reality that all working class women could remain "in their sphere" by going to the movies that were being made, in essence, for them).
After World War I, the middle class started to adopt some of the working class norms into their own in terms of what was acceptable in the world of commercial amusements. This is
hardly the only time the middle class has "adopted" something that they didn't start as "their own." Jazz, rock, and hip-hop are all examples of white middle class kids, in particular, adopting a genre of music as their own that was pioneered by others. In a way, amusement parks and movies in the early-1900's were the equivalent of Benny Goodman, Bill Haley and the Comets, and, my blood is curdling . . . Vanilla Ice. The middle class eventually adopted the values and behaviors in these commercial amusements as their own; by the early-1920's, individualism, the constant pursuit of pleasure by the middle class, had largely replaced the Victorian Code - the Progressive Era was over.
In the introduction of her book, Cathy Preiss argued that young, single working
class women pioneered new manners and mores; the "true skeptic" in me said "prove
it." After reading the book, I was convinced with evidence that the statement was true. How interesting: by pursuing fun, these young single working class women helped change attitudes towards work and leisure, not only in their time, but also in American History.
Out of curiosity, I went to such sites as the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and found
(scroll down on the above .pdf to page 2, Leisure Activities in 2014)
- In 2014, for people 15-and-over, total leisure time per day totaled 6 hours
(2.8 of the 6 hours was involved watching TV)
- In a 2010 Consumer Expenditure Survey, Americans spent 5.49% of their income
on entertainment; it was 10.83% if one includes "Food Away from Home"