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A Leisure Culture

In the half-century after the Civil War, the American calendar swelled with more than 25 new holidays. At a time when the country felt disjointed at almost every level-the sectional divisiveness of the war lingered, huge numbers of immigrants splintered cities, civic leaders designed days of ritual and shared remembrance to try to bind the nation together. Few of the new festivals stuck: Have you thrown any Constitution Day barbecues lately?

Colonial Puritans deplored all holidays as an invitation to drunkenness and sin. They allowed just a few festivals on their calendar - even Christmas and Easter passed unobserved - and bred a phobia of idleness in the early United States. Virtuous Americans worked six days a week and spent the Sabbath in prayer and Bible study, leaving little time for mischief. But as the industrial revolution allowed the country to produce goods with greater efficiency in the 1800s, businessmen began to fear that the United States might create more than its workers could buy. To encourage spending, the developing economy of the 1800s celebrated leisure in a way alien to earlier generations. Increasingly, Americans defined themselves not only by their labor but by how they spent their time off.

In his January 4, 1965, State of the Union message to Congress, President Lyndon Johnson said, "We are in the midst of the greatest upward surge of economic well-being in the history of any nation. We do not intend to live-in the midst of abundance-isolated from neighbors and nature, confined by blighted cities and bleak suburbs, stunted by a poverty of learning and an emptiness of leisure." In outlining his vision of the Great Society, Johnson promised something for everyone. Almost every paragraph of the fifty-minute speech called for a new government action or study. Even after his administration had fallen apart under the weight of its own ambitions, Johnson believed in the principle of the Great Society. "We're the wealthiest nation in the world," reflected the former President in 1970. "We need to appeal to everyone to restrain their appetite. We're greedy but not short on the wherewithal to meet our problems."

One of the principal sneering criticisms of President Reagan's eight years in the White House is "Oh, he didn't do anything except make us feel good." While I believe that assessment is basically wrong and simply states the conventional wisdom that held that President Reagan was bound to be a failure, it also seems to me that it overlooks the fact that it is quite an accomplishment to make the American people "feel good" about their country and themselves. When we have that feeling, there are very few limits to what each of us and the country can accomplish.

By the 1920s most Americans lived in urban areas where they enjoyed greater anonymity and social freedom. A burgeoning leisure culture provided more and more places, from dance halls to movie theaters, where men and women could meet on common ground. And as an educated work force became increasingly important to the vitality of America's advanced economy, more young people (75 percent by the 1920s) were attending high school, creating a new mixed-sex peer culture and environment. Almost every suburban family accepted the aesthetic of smoothness, greenness, and shortness; the nation's lawn-mower manufacturers had determined that grass height should be standardized at one and one-half inches, and suburbs everywhere displayed lawns perfect for playing a wide variety of games. Tennis, croquet, badminton, and other lawn sports became known as suburban sports. The velvet lawn reflected a new love of a new beauty - and a new attitude toward leisure at home.

The 1920s heralded America's entry into the modern era. It was the first decade when the nation came under the full influence of advertising, consumer culture, movies, and radio. In a new world that was defined more by the city than the farm, Americans responded with enthusiasm to the promise of abundance and leisure. Their new watchword was fun; their new goal, fulfillment; their new obsession, sex.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the average American household was transformed by the introduction of a group of machines that profoundly altered the daily lives of housewives; the forty years between 1920 and 1960 witnessed what might be aptly called the "industrial revolution in the home." Where once there had been a wood- or coal-burning stove there now was a gas or electric range. Clothes that had once been scrubbed on a metal washboard were now tossed into a tub and cleansed by an electrically driven agitator. The dryer replaced the clothesline; the vacuum cleaner replaced the broom; the refrigerator replaced the icebox and the root cellar; an automatic pump, some piping, and a tap replaced the hand pump, the bucket, and the well. No one had to chop and haul wood any more. No one had to shovel out ashes or beat rugs or carry water; no one even had to toss egg whites with a fork for an hour to make an angel food cake.

Although log flumes and kiddie rides might seem no more than simple fun now, when Hershey Park first opened, on April 24, 1907-with little more than a bandstand and a pavilion interrupting its shady groves-amusement parks were, like model towns, a tantalizing glimpse at a hopeful future, in which technology and human ingenuity promised to erase civilization's ills. Milton S. Hershey believed wholeheartedly in that vision, and he put it to the test when he built his attractive, luxurious company town in the dairy fields of Pennsylvania. He made sure his workers had safe homes, decent transportation, and, no less important, a source of wholesome amusement.

Every major American city made room on its picnic grounds for a band shell, carousel, roller coaster, arcade, and Ferris wheel. Many of the new "trolley parks" rejected the brazen character of Coney (home to skirt-lifting compressed-air "blowholes" and the Barrel of Love, which spun riders into the laps of fellow revelers) and the Midway. An exhilarating escape from the tedium of workaday routine would vent an urbanite's otherwise potentially disruptive frustrations. Visitors could indulge their desire for danger in a minutely controlled, family-friendly, usually alcohol-free environment.

The Depression spelled an abrupt death for many amusement parks, but Hershey funded a building campaign in the 1930s to employ more than 600 men. In addition to erecting a community center, an opulent 1,900-seat theater, and a $2 million 190-room hotel, the workers updated the park with a fun house, a water flume, a penny arcade, and a new roller coaster. By 1940, the town of Hershey was welcoming 2 million visitors a year.

The 1940s represented the nadir of the American amusement park industry. Of the 2,000 parks operating in 1920, 1,750 had shut down by 1940. The postwar years, however, brought America new prosperity and a bumper crop of children to entertain. It was a lucrative nexus, one that a veteran Hollywood mogul was wise enough to exploit. In 1955 in an orange grove in Anaheim, California, Disneyland opened its gates and, with runaway success, redrew the blueprint for American amusement parks. Over the next two decades, its imitators-Busch Gardens, Six Flags, Great Adventure-would flourish across the country. No longer bounded by city streets, the new, corporate-owned theme parks sprang up along highways, unreachable by city subway or tram line. High walls isolated them from their surroundings, and visitors bought admission rather than paying a fee per ride. Unlike the earlier generation's attempts to vent the pressures of urban life, these parks attempted to block out the realities of the city altogether. Inside, they presented a meticulously controlled fantasy world, an exotic location here, a bygone era there, an action movie elsewhere.

The suburb provided space for private leisure as well. After building the stone barbecue pit, the family invited close friends to enjoy it. Increased leisure time-shorter workweeks and longer vacations-coincided with the withering of many urban recreational pastimes; decayed parks no longer safe for sunbathing became more unsafe as city dwellers avoided them; fraternal organizations, declining in membership with the flight to the suburbs, no longer provided meeting halls open every evening; neighborhood movie theaters, faced with declining attendance, closed. In the far suburbs, meanwhile, Americans refined the art of backyard recreation, building swings for their children, patios for sunning, and, partly as symbols of status, partly in fear of polio, swimming pools. Leisure became more private. By 1965 the fenced backyard sheltered the housewife sunbathing in a bikini too scanty for a public beach, the child playing with toys too precious for an urban playground, the husband weeding vegetables while he contemplated financing a pool.

Private creativity and private leisure produced well-kept, but always more private, houses; the picture window and fenceless backyard, both much noticed by urban magazine columnists satirizing suburbs of ticky-tacky houses inhabited by homogeneous nuclear families, disappeared even as the scraggly saplings around them matured into full-sized shade trees. The dream endures, the dream of rural bliss manifested in wide lawns and vegetable gardens, miniature orchards and rose arbors, the dream of personal creativity and private leisure, the antiurban dream that from colonial days to our own time appears to have been a large part of the American Dream, if not the Dream itself.

Has the restless spirit of true tourism gotten hold of you? That's the spirit that compels you to drive that extra fifty miles to see the World's Largest Olive (Lindsay, California), the Pig Driving a Cadillac (Hot Springs, Arkansas), the Wonderful World of Tiny Horses (Eureka Springs, Arkansas), the Five-Story-Tall Chicken (Marietta, Georgia), or Jayne Mansfield's Death Car (St. Augustine, Florida). Hundreds and hundreds of other attractions, some quite grand ("The World of CocaCola Pavilion opened in 1990, a $15 million, forty-five-thousand-square-foot shrine to what Coca-Cola humbly calls -.the most successful product in the history of commerce-"), but most of them are parched and desperate little heartbreakers, the alligator farms and stuffed multiheaded animals that embody the entrepreneurial spirit at its most poignant. The days of leisure are precious and usually end in another excursion to the dull wastelands of Six Flags, Busch Gardens, and Disney.

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