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Amusing the Million: Mass Culture and Leisure at the Turn of the 20th Century

Theme: Social Change and Social Reform
Topic: Amusing the Million: Mass Culture and Leisure at the Turn of the 20th Century
Date: 12 July 2006
Scholar: Brad Austin, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, History Department, Salem State College

Overview | Required Reading | Reading Questions

Materials selected and syllabus created by Brad Austin, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, History Department, Salem State College.


It is very easy for students, and their teachers, to get overwhelmed by the statistics associated with the triumvirate of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization. The period between 1880 and 1920 was, without doubt, the era of “big business” and the birthplace of a modern mass culture. Scholar identify this period as the time when “personality” come to matter more than “character,” simply because people did not have the time or the opportunity to get to know each other well. To millions, it seemed that the living and working circumstances in the “land of opportunity” were conspiring against them, seeking to deprive them of any joy or personal fulfillment. It is not a coincidence; therefore, that one of the most important goals of organized labor was to get an eight-hour workday. This would have given the workers, as the popular slogan expressed it, “Eight hours for work; eight hours for sleep; and eight hours for what we will.”

This session will focus on what Americans did with their “hours for what [they] willed.” While they didn’t always have eight hours each day for recreation, the did have some. Studying their leisure activities – at amusement parks, the Salem Willows, dance halls, and public parks – helps historians understand the ways people become more “American” while often preserving elements of their own cultures. This type of examination also helps to highlight the tensions that existed within American cities and socio-economic classes. In other words, studying leisure time helps us understand the lives (and the loves) of the “millions,” making them a little more interesting and their stories a little more relevant to our students.


(please read in order they appear below)

Garland, Joseph E. Boston's Gold Coast: The North Shore, 1890-1929. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1981. Chapter 2: "Each Night When I Call on My Sweetie." pp. 14-37

Hardy, Stephen. How Boston Played: Sport, Recreation, and Community, 1865-1915. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982. Chapter 4: "Parks for the People." pp. 65-84

Kasson, John F. Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century. New York: Hill & Wang, 1978.

Rosenzweig, Roy. Eight Hours for What You Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1920. New York: Cambridge University PRess, 1985. Chapter 6: "The Struggle Over the Fourth: The Sage and Sane July Fourth Movement and Immigrant Working Class." pp. 153-168.


1. How do the leisure activities described in these readings relate to each other? If they are all, in some ways, responses to contemporary conditions, then what explains the differences?

2. Was Kasson wise to use Coney Island as an example of the triumph of mass culture? Can you think of other, better examples? What will future historians use as the symbol of our popular culture?

3. What explains the differences between Coney Island and the Salem Willows? In its operation and its clientele?

4. How did places (Coney Island, the Willows, etc.) and class status affect the rituals of courtship and other types of social interaction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?

5. What can studying the "eight hours" of leisure really tell us about the living and working conditions of industrializing and urbanizing America?



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