Shifts in American Cultural Views & Leisure at the End of the 19th Century

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

This lesson covers a wide range of interests and perspectives in the late nineteenth century United States. You'll get a taste for the vast amount of change taking place and how Americans reacted to these developments.

An Era of Change

The late nineteenth century was a time known for developments in the arts, recreation, education, and technology. It was also an era that saw the emergence of new justifications for racism and fear of other cultures. Reforms were introduced in some areas of society while injustices persisted in others.

This lesson considers the range of cultural views and leisure trends during this period of rapid change leading up to the turn of the century.

Leisure of All Sorts

Prior to this period in history, farming was a way of life for most Americans. Yet by 1900, less than 40% would continue an agricultural lifestyle.

For both city workers and farmers alike, the workweek was changing with the introduction of electricity and other technologies. Fewer hours of work for a middle-class population meant more leisure time. Others found themselves working in very poor conditions and enduring long hours. Children were often employed in factories during this period, even as reforms aimed to provide children with greater protection.

For those in the position of having more leisure time, options for fun were exploding. Demand for entertainment combined with money to be made providing this entertainment led to new possibilities.

Sporting events became increasingly popular, with baseball growing into its own as the country's national pastime. University level athletics became more organized as well, with the establishment of groups like the Rowing Association of American Colleges providing structure for collegiate competition.

Vaudeville emerged as a popular form of entertainment, mixing many types of theater, dance, and song into a variety show that would capture the attention of many Americans. Even movies were entering the scene, with the first publicly available commercial films released just a few years before the turn of the century.

Vaudeville shows would continue their popularity into the twentieth century.
A vaudeville theater

As life in urban centers developed, diverse groups of people interacted, and in some cases, this created a desire to embrace new forms of art and music. Syncopated rhythms, like ragtime and early forms of jazz, would grow from African American forms of music, mingling instruments and sounds in new ways. The legacy of this music would lead to even greater variety and enthusiasm for music and dance in the twentieth century.

Developments in Art, Nature, and Education

Realism was another new perspective that influenced everything from painting to literature. Think of realism as an artist aiming to represent their subject in a realistic way, almost like a photograph. While approaches to realism varied, this effort to duplicate 'real life' coincided with other ways of thinking about the world in new terms. When journalists wrote about poor conditions and exposed the problems of new urban life, the public was often interested to learn.

Artists aimed to show ordinary scenes in works of realism, like this depiction of Coney Island.
A painting of Coney Island with elements of realism

During this time, concern for preserving natural spaces was growing. New public areas were created where the industrialized and commercialized world was not welcome. This era saw the establishment of the first national parks, public parks, and playgrounds for children.

Not only was free education for children becoming more common, lifelong learning for adults was valued in ways it had not been in the past. Public libraries made leisure reading more popular. Newspapers became cheaper to produce and so were widely read. As literacy increased, you can only imagine how conversations among people took on new forms.

Forms of Discrimination

Many people of this era held some fear or even hatred for those unlike themselves, particularly when it came to skin color or country of origin. This is known as xenophobia.

Xenophobia was common in the world at this time. In the United States, this impacted a range of people who had recently immigrated into the country, from Mexican immigrants to Irish Catholics, even affecting whether immigrants were safe living their day-to-day lives.

For instance, Chinese immigrants working on railroads were at risk of violence against them due to xenophobia and a lack of knowledge about Chinese cultures. Some novels of the time promoted extremely negative racial stereotypes of Asian Americans. Immigration laws reflected these views, as well.

In Indian training schools, children were removed from the influences of the tribe of their birth to be taught how to become more assimilated into mainstream American culture. This assimilation meant that tribal cultural heritage was viewed as something to be replaced by dress, behavior, language, and religiosity that would match the ideals of educators at the boarding school. This often led to a loss of tribal culture for those who attended.

Indian boarding schools of the time were focused on a goal of cultural assimilation.
A document of The Carlisle Indian School

Although slavery had ended, violence against people of color in the United States was significant during this Reconstruction period, as were racial stereotypes. Racial segregation laws meant that opportunities and physical spaces were separate for whites and people of color in certain states. In addition, local customs also encouraged inequalities at every level of society.

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