In seeking a concept of leisure that can be useful for his purposes, the sociologist may do one of two things: either he may accept leisure to be what people say it is or what it means to them; or he may seek an ideal construct.
As to the first, if he asks several persons at a baseball game, what brought them there, he will receive a variety of answers: “to enjoy the game,” “to get the sunshine,” “to get away from home,” “to rest.” If asked what leisure means to them on a more general level, the same persons are likely to consider it as “time off from work,” “free time,” “my own time,” “doing what I like,” “rest,” and so on. Throughout all of Europe and the United States, changes in work patterns and new expectations of leisure in the interwar period fueled a demand far leisure that manifested itself in a growing variety of sporting activities.
More people had more time for leisure, which was increasingly viewed as something they had a right to enjoy. Many also experienced a genuine rise in disposable income, and although same sports remained socialiy exclusive, increasing numbers of people enjoyed spectating and more working-class people found themselves able to participate in a range of sports.
The effect of the automobile on recreational habits was often decried in the 1930’s: the substitution of a passive amusement for something more active; standardization and regimentation; the moral problem of the parked sedan and roadside tourist camp. The Sunday-afternoon drive was devastatingly described — the crowded highways, traffic jams, and accidents; the car windows tightly closed against spring breezes; and whatever beauties the landscape might offer lying hidden behind forbidding lines of advertisements. “One arrives after a motor journey,” one eminent sociologist wrote, “all liver and no legs; one’s mind is asleep, one’s body tired; one is bored, irritable, and listless. 25 But what such critics forgot was that the great majority of Sunday and holiday motorists, or even vacation tourists, would have been cooped up in crowded towns and cities except for the automobile.
The country they saw may at times have been almost blotted out by billboards and the air they breathed tainted by gasoline fumes. But the alternative in many cases would have been the movie, the dance-hall, or the beer-parlor. The steamboat and the railroad began a century ago to open up the world of travel and provide some means of holiday escape from one’s immediate enviromnent, but until the coming of the automobile, recreation along these lines was a rare thing. The wealthy could make the fashionable tour in 1825, the well-to-do built up the summer resorts of the 1890’s, but every Tom, Dick, and Harry toured the country in the 1930’s — thanks to the automobile.
Much of the criticism of the way the automobile was used in leisure-time activities may have been justified, but any gen, eral condemnation of its part in national recreation implies that pleasure travel, outdoor life, and many sports should have largely remained the prerogative of the wealthy few who could afford other means of transportation.
As one commentator observed of Britain in the 1920s: “The majority of working people, even those in poor material circumstances, were not entirely powerless in the face of external change to shape their own destiny and to gain a sense of well-being from their own spare-time experiences.”
The hedonism that marked the 1920s was accompanied by nations of achievement and challenge, record attendance, and the rapid acceleration of commercialized sport. Between 1919 and 1926 Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, drew crowds totalling over one million. The first luxurious sports areas were built such as London’ s Wembley Stadium, which opened in 1923 and was designed to hold 100,000 spectators. In the 1920s Wembley hosted many types of sporting event, including soccer, tennis, boxing, ice hockey and greyhound racing.
An expensive amusement not only summed up the general opinion of the automobile in these pioneer years, but appeared to be all that could be expected of it. It was a plaything for the rich. Motoring and automobile racing took a place in the lives of wealthy sportsmen which had formerly been held by coaching; it was regarded as a sport comparable to yachting or riding to hounds. Operating expenses and the inevitability of breakdowns for long shut out any idea of the automobile’s more general usefulness, either as a means of transportation in the business and commercial world or as a popular recreation for the people as a whole. As late as 1911 Charles J. Glidden could single out as the primary effect of the advent of the automobile that it had “completely revolutionized the life of well-to-do people.”
The Early History of the Automobile, in so far as recreation is concerned, could hardly have afforded a more striking contrast to that of the movies. There were in all in this country some three hundred horseless carriages — gasoline buggies, electrics, steam cars — when moving pictures were first thrown on a screen in 1895. When John P. Harris opened his pioneer moving-picture theatre a decade later, there were almost eighty thousand. But though the early period of automobiling coincided so exactly with the years of the nickelodeon madness, the automobile and the movies reached entirely different groups of people.
Throughout the decade attendance records were broken at professional and elite amateur events. Newspapers and radio brought distant events to a public primed for news, and, for the media, sport had the distinct advantage of taking place, and making news, according to an established calendar of events fixed well in advance. For its spectators, the predictability of sporting events provided a stable element in an unstable world.
Sporting events enacted essentially optimistic dramas – there was always a victor (whether as hero or villain), a result, a decision, a definite outcome, and always anather game in which wrongs could be righted or triumphs repeated.
Sport as a central interest for many people has sometimes been explained in terms of the backcloth it provided for accommodating the larger and less predictable world beyond. Sport became a celebration of human achievement, constructed around individual sportsmen and sportswomen whose personalities were publicized and manipulated by the media.
Although they were not the creatian of this period, by the 1920s the nations of sporting records and achievements resonated with the cultural values of capitalism. The statistics, totals and averages of a sport such as American football – the “earned run average”, or the “yards gained rushing” – bore marked similiarities to the economic statistics, such as the Gross National Product or the Grade Point Average, that were beginning to enter everyday consciousness at this time.
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