Do you tend to think our ancestors were stodgy and never did anything fun? You’re not alone. Those stereotypes are fueled by the serious expressions people had in photographs and the stories of families working from dawn to dusk. In reality, our ancestors did work harder than we do, but they also participated in a variety of leisure activities.
Modern inventions and shorter work days in the late 19th and early 20th centuries gave people increasingly more free time. People decided to spend that time participating in leisure activities, although what kind depended upon social class.
In addition to leisure activities, affluent families often retreated to a summer house for part of the year. Many middle-class families could afford a vacation while for poor families, a day away was all they had to look forward to.
Team sports and sports exhibitions were popular attractions. These included:
- Horse racing
- Ice skating
- Roller skating
Men also participated in outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing.
Doctors once believed women were too fragile for sports. Attitudes, however, were changing as doctors were becoming aware of the value of exercise.
Women competed at Wimbledon for the first time in 1884 and competed in the 1900 Olympics in Paris in three events — tennis, golf and croquet.
Fairs and Amusement Parks
Circuses and traveling fairs provided an evening’s diversion. Zoos also became popular among families. For most people, it would be their only opportunity to see exotic animals.
The classic age of amusement parks was during the first decade of the 20th century. These parks included such novelties as:
- Roller coasters
- Ferris wheels
- Games of chance
- Shoot the Chutes
The most famous classic amusement park, Coney Island, opened in 1886.
The Victorians and Edwardians had hobbies just like we do. Popular hobbies and ways to pass time included:
- Going to the park
- Playing instruments
- Playing cards
People of all social classes attended balls. The affluent held private affairs while the other classes enjoyed balls held by social clubs, civic organizations and other organizations that were opened to the public. Public balls charged an admission fee.
Refreshments served at balls are surprising by 21st century standards.
“Substantial fare, such as fowls, ham, tongue, etc., was absolutely necessary,” Victoriana Magazine explains. “Jellies, blanc-mange, trifle, tipsy cake, etc., would be added at discretion. Nothing upon the table would require carving; the fowls would be cut up beforehand, and held together by ribbons. Whatever could be iced would be served in that way.”
Pop culture of the time also provided much entertainment including:
- Music halls
- Concerts, both classical and popular music
- Motion pictures
- Magic shows
- Freak shows
High society attended the opera and theatre shows.
“A typical music hall bill would feature a chairman keeping order with a gavel,” the Daily Mail explains, “a comedian or two, dancers in daring costume, novelty acts like a juggler, contortionists, trapeze artists or trick cyclists, a drag act, and a magician…. The centrepiece of music hall, however, was music – and the star was always the singer.”
Updated: 19 October 2020