The Anxiety of Leisure and the
Search for "Wholesome" Recreation


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The decade's mass production and mass consumption ethic brought with it considerable anxiety about what impact sustained increases in real income, greater amounts of free time, and increased spending on goods and services, fueled by the new availability and expansion of consumer credit, would have on traditional patterns of family life. Many worried about how unaccustomed increases in money and leisure time could be spent "wholesomely." The playground, the motion picture and the automobile formed the battlegrounds where the struggle for wholesome leisure and recreation was waged.

The September 1926 issue of American City Magazine provided Secretary of Labor James Davis with a forum for predicting the downfall of American civilization unless the new "luxuriousness" were mediated by wholesome leisure, particularly leisure taken in nature. The December 1926 issue of the same journal carried the article "Leisure as a Cause or Cure of Crime," which took as its point of departure the shorter work week. The March 1926 issue of Playground Magazine boasted an important talk by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, delivered originally in October 1925 before the 42nd International Convention of the Y.M.C.A.'s of North America, expressing concern that increased wealth and decreased working hours posed a fundamental moral danger to American society.

The automobile, for example, could be a vehicle for wholesome forms of recreation, such as touring and camping out, especially when these were done as a family, or for what was regarded as less healthy forms of recreation, such as back-seat dating escapades and other activities associated with the sexual revolution. The December 1926 issue of the trade journal Playground Magazine carried an article on "the vacation habit" and the need to exercise it in a healthy way, avoiding "energy wasted in hectic pleasures." Another article in the issue focuses on the 13th Recreation Congress, which addressed the need to "slow down the jazz age environment" and cultivate "the wise use of leisure."

Motion pictures, too, were a form of leisure that could be used wisely or unwisely. Movies, it was believed, could corrupt children's and adults' morals, or educate and uplift them. Moving Picture Age, a subscription magazine for those interested in using motion pictures educationally, carried an editorial in its December 1921 issue that began "Enough has been said . . . regarding the general iniquity of the motion picture. . . ." A follow-up editorial in the January 1922 issue discussed the Better Film Movement and what policy the magazine intended to implement to promote it. The April 1922 issue carried "Recreation that Re-creates," an especially useful piece by Mrs. Charles E. Merriam, Chairman, Better Films Committee, Illinois Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, on the subject of the new recreation and the fear of movies' effect on society, particularly on children.

Playground Magazine for July 1925 carried a piece on "wholesome" forms of recreation for children in the form of "Will H. Hays's Saturday Morning Movies." As endorsed by Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, and his Department of Public Relations, movies meeting the definition of "wholesome" could be obtained from the major national distributors (Fox, Universal, Paramount, and Metro-Goldwyn) for screening by local exhibitors. Items in the March 20, 1926 issue of Motion Picture News include an editorial celebrating Will Hays' fifth year in the motion picture industry and the industry's ability to regulate itself in the face of morality attacks and the threat of censorship; and an article on the so-called "blue laws," which banned Sunday movie showings. (DETAIL NOTE Will Hays and Motion Picture Censorship)

A particularly fascinating subset of documents in the Coolidge Papers case file Advertisement Exploitation concerns the use of a photograph of Coolidge and a quotation from one of his speeches to promote the right of theatres to ignore the blue laws and show motion pictures on Sunday. The text in the promotional newspaper advertisement sent to the White House quotes from the October 6, 1925 Address of President Coolidge before the American Legion Convention at Omaha, Nebraska, reproduced in the Everett Sanders Papers: "Whatever tends to standardize the community, to establish fixed and rigid modes of thought, tends to fossilize society. If we all believed the same thing and thought the same thoughts and applied the same valuations to all the occurrences about us, we should reach a state of equilibrium closely akin to an intellectual and spiritual paralysis. . . ."

One reason that moving pictures in particular became such a magnet for anxieties about the new leisure was that movies were perhaps the single most popular and widely available leisure experience of the age, outside of the home (where there was radio). In Screening Out the Past: The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry (1980), Lary May notes that "movies absorbed the largest portion of the average American's recreation budget in the 1920s. During the decade, the number of theaters in the United States grew from 21,000 to 28,000" (p. 165). Many of the new theatres were "palaces," which seated audiences of 1,000 to 2,000 people at each screening. A sharp increase in attendance took place immediately after 1928, due to public enthusiasm for the "talkies." Movies were a leisure experience that had the power and appeal to blur class and ethnic distinctions and unify viewers, regardless of income level, into a new mass culture. The cultural signals and messages conveyed through such a medium were of considerable concern.

The Playground Movement provided the third arena in which the struggle to affirm wholesome forms of leisure was played out. The outdoor recreation movement seems to have covered a lot of ground, from small neighborhood greens, to treeless school lots where youngsters could play ball, to elaborate city and state parks with magnificent playing fields, to neighborhood centers where families and adults could play sports and take exercise in a variety of ways. Playground Magazine, published monthly by the Playground and Recreation Association of America, devoted its March 1926 issue to such forms of "wholesome" adult leisure, for both whites and African Americans, as neighborhood center sports, the arts, paddle tennis, and recreational activities organized by labor unions.

American City Magazine carried an article on "Recreation for Colored America" in its August 1926 issue. Other articles in Coolidge-Consumerism on African Americans and leisure appear in Southern Workman. The February 1926 issue discusses "The Negro Church and Recreation," and the August 1927 issue offers a surprising article on early opportunities for blacks to play tennis, as well as a short piece on the recreational opportunities afforded by the black Boy Scout program at Hampton Institute.


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