Great-Grandma Had Fun, Too — Victorian and Edwardian Leisure Activities

A Victorian carousel

Great-Grandma Had Fun, Too — Victorian and Edwardian Leisure Activities

A crowed beach at the turn-of-the-20th-century
For some families, a day at the beach was the only vacation they had

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 dependent 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 might be all the time off they had to look forward to.


Teenage girls playing field hockey in Winnipeg, 1912
Teens playing field hockey in Winnipeg, 1912

Team sports and sports exhibitions were popular attractions. These included:

  • Hockey
  • Tennis
  • Soccer
  • Boxing
  • Horse racing
  • Croquet
  • Archery
  • Bicycling
  • Billiards
  • Ice skating
  • Swimming
  • 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

A Victorian carousel
The earliest carousels were steam powered

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
  • Steeplechases
  • Carousels
  • Games of chance
  • Arcades
  • Shoot the Chutes

The most famous classic amusement park, Coney Island, opened in 1880s.



A Victorian woman reading a book
In the days before radio and television, reading was a favorite form of entertainment

The Victorians and Edwardians had hobbies just like we do.  Popular hobbies and ways to pass time included:

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.”


A music hall performer
A music hall performer

Pop culture of the time also provided much entertainment including:

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.”


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Updated:  19 October 2020
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.

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