Appendix 26: The Evolving Concept of Leisure

Defining Leisure

As a concept, Leisure is problematical. In conversation, for the most part, because of the context, the meanings of terms are clear. Most words present little difficulty when you use them. Not so with the word leisure.

Evidently no one universally accepted definition exists for this, seemingly simple, term.

In The Psychology of Leisure (2d ed. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1981 -- fulltext not online), John Neulinger, identifies fourteen definitions for the term. In general, definitions of fall into two broad categories: (1) quantitative and (2) qualitative. And other definitions combine both dimensions.

Quantitative definitions attempt to define Leisure in terms of

    discretionary time

    or by

    activities engaged in during free time.

For researchers investigating the concept, leisure, data that give the term quantitative dimensions are useful in studying the economics and sociology of leisure.

However, when we view leisure as merely time or activity, we are drawn away from the personal nature of the experience of leisure -- leisure' most significant aspects -- and the less capable we become in understanding it.

Qualitative definitions -- the second category of definitions -- address these deeper issues. Why? and as such can be thought of as qualitative because they tend to view leisure as a complex of emotions, attitudes, and personal values. Leisure, according to this view, is entirely subjective, a state of mind.

Leisure and Home Ownership

Leisure, too, factors into any discussions of topics associated with home ownership, including Time, Space, and Money.
    Time, in relation to the historical reduction of the workweek.

    Space, in relation to the expansion of the square footage of homes in America, owned by the residents.

    And for Money, the long upward trajectory of disposable income.

Residential Mobility

The real impact of home ownership's alliance with leisure time, though, was the growth of home ownership in abating "residential mobility", a "malady" that we blame on the constant movement of families who rented -- rather than owned -- their living space. Read more here

The Guru of Leisure Studies

If there is a guru of leisure studies, it is Sebastian De Grazia. (His Of Time, Work and Leisure New York: Anchor Books, 1962, is the classic, but not online.) De Grazia says:

The word leisure has always referred to something personal, state of mind or a quality of feeling. It seemed that in changing from the term leisure to the term free time, we... now had something that could be measured with ease (59).

On the idea of "leisure is a state of mind", Neulinger (above) notes that this boils down to experiences, a condition which puts the concept in the scientific domain of psychology.

Dictionary Meanings of leisure: (first jpg below from Webster's International Dictionary 2d ed 1892, but this dictionary is not yet online; the 2d jpg is from Webster's New International Dictionary, 2d edition 1952.)

dictionary definition of leisure
Between 1900 and 1940, as a concept in the popular mind, leisure underwent a remarkable shift in what the term encompassed.

In 1892, Webster's Dictionary (above) defined leisure as "freedom from occupation; vacant time; opportunity; convenience; ease. By the 1950s, in Webster's New International Dictionary, 2d ed., 1952 -- not online -- the concept incorporated a greater number of meanings.

webster's new international 1952

In 1899 -- a book which continues to have impact, over a century later -- Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class created a sensation. Veblen's definition of "leisure" gave us a concept of leisure that still resonates today, but a definition that -- as often as not -- is a target of ridicule or parody.

As a concept, leisure was demonized by the American sociologist, Thorstein Veblen, who in 1899 -- in Theory of the Leisure Class -- indelibly identified "leisure" with "conspicuous consumption" when he linked the term to "the non-rational, symbolic relation of consumption to social status and social stratification. By definition, conspicuous consumption is the lavish and wasteful use of goods and services for the purpose of symbolizing or establishing one's position as a member of a particular social class, especially of the upper classes, or, according to Veblen, specifically "a leisure class". As a behavior, conspicuous consumption creates cruel class distinctions, a pattern of conduct set by the richest, the leisure class, and emulated in its own fashion by each lower social class.

One Motivation for Woodworking: The Great Depression's Impact -- Millions Without a Job

Large scale unemployment was forcing the nation to consider policies that would relieve the hardship that unemployment was causing.
One consideration was to change the concept of leisure from that of a luxury pursuit to one applied to all levels of society.

Thirty years before -- at the turn of the century -- leisure was a luxury, enjoyed only among those affluent enough to take advantage of leisure time activities, as illustrated in Document 2 and Document 42, or during the Depression itself, in Document 41. In contrast, in the Depression -- with the specter of a nation collapsing economically -- the concept of leisure, in a turn-around in meaning from the beginning of the 20th century, was cast instead athe ideal of a life preserver, often permeated with jingoistic rhetoric.

[from here]

Woodworking in all its branches is essentially creative. It teaches art through design, and permits the individual to display his information and abilities in a concrete manner. Source: Shelley, "Some Observations on the Cultural Value of Woodworking", 1924, page 374

Source: T. A. Hippaka, "Industrial Arts and Worthy Use of Leisure Time," Phi Delta Kappan, 12 June, 1929, pages 29-30.

[don't have a copy of this article]

Writing in the

Source: Alfred Lloyd, American Journal of Sociology 28 (September 1922), p. 160, The University of Chicago sociologist, argues that leisure is a much a social problem as is work


Title: Leisure time, a modern challenge Personal Author: JACKS, Lawrence Pearsall Journal Name: Playground and recreation Source: Playground and recreation v. 24 (December 1930) p. 475-9


The Concepts of Leisure and "Handicrafts as Therapy"

Some of this attitude of national emergency permeates the spirit of Harry Hobbs' text in his Leisure League of America publication, Working With Tools, Document 10. Nonetheless, throughout that publication, Hobbs -- at the time an editor of Home Craftsman -- generates a tone of satisfaction that you can derive from the craftsmanship of woodworking.

Title: Exit the gospel of work Personal Author: FAIRCHILD, Henry Pratt Journal Name: Harper's Source: Harper's v. 162 (April 1931) p. 566-73 Publication Year: 1931 ISSN: 0017-789X

Title: Leisure in a machine age Personal Author: CHASE, Stuart Journal Name: Library Journal Source: Library Journal v. 56 (August 1931) p. 629-32 Publication Year: 1931 ISSN: 0363-0277

Title: Problems of increasing leisure Other Titles: official summary of report of President's research committee on social trends Journal Name: Recreation Source: Recreation v. 26 (February 1933) p. 511-3 Publication Year: 1933 ISSN: 0961-2580 PRESIDENT'S research committee on social trends; Recreation Historical Subject(s): Leisure; PRESIDENT'S research committee on social trends; pages 597-606
Revival of the Crafts":
the Handicraft Movement

(Parenthetically, decades earlier, in 1893, the Englishman, William Morris, pioneer in Arts and crafts movement, speaks of a "Revival of Handicraft".

For Morris, History's Medieval period represents the idyllic period of the crafts. Morris famously railed against the destructiveness to art and humanity wrought by the Industrial Revolution, where power machinery and mass production technology ruined human handicrafts. For background, read Appendix 11: On the Origins of the Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts Style. Testimony of a revival of handicraft in America at the turn of the 20th century is Max West's 1904 Revival of the Handicrafts in America.)

The true root and basis of all Art lies in the handicrafts. If there is no room or chance of recognition for really artistic power and feeling in design and craftsmanship?if Art is not recognised in the humblest object and material...
Source: William Morris, Arts and Crafts Essays London: Rivington, Percival & Co, 1893, page 4,

Other contemporary notices of a revival of handicrafts

John Starkie Gardner, "Revival of handicrafts", Magazine of Art 23 October 1900, page 488.

The Record of Technical and Secondary Education - 1891, page 29

b>House Beautiful 1896 Page 263
... crafts movement, and the revival of handicrafts, that one is tempted to ignore the whole matter as being not merely a twice but a ten- times told tale. ...

Franz Sales Meyer; John Starkie Gardner, A Handbook of Art Smithing for the Use of Practical Smiths, London, B.T. Batsford 1896, page 81:

However, with the re-awakening and revival of art handicrafts during the last decade, which have been brought about by schools for art industries and by ....

Recreation, Not Leisure

Sponsored by the New York-based Russell Sage Foundation, Allen Henderson Eaton famously authored several books that survey American handicrafts in the 1920s and 1930s. Both volumes deserve our concern because of the attention given woodworking as a handicraft: Allen H. Eaton, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1937); Handicrafts of New England New York: Harper, 1949.

(In the latter book, Eaton covers the 1920s and 1930s, but didn't get the book published until after WW II.)

In each book, chapters focus on the such issues as the significance of leisure time and/or "handicrafts as therapy", where, together, are factors that mark a major shift in civic thought about personal fulfillment. In particular. we get s "feeling" for the ambivalence -- maybe, follow Thorstein Veblen, discussed below -- we should speak in terms of a dichotomy of the multiple "meanings" of leisure during the 1930s. Below are some ruminations on "leisure", "recreation", and "conspicuous consumption" in the 1930s:

"Recreation", Not "Leisure"

"At no time in history", argues Eaton, "has so much emphasis been put upon the importance of recreation for everyone". The use of the term recreation -- today, at least -- seems curious.

definition of recreation from webster's 2d ed 1952The Webster's New International Dictionary, second edition 1952, defines recreation as the "refreshment of the strength and spirits after toil". Recreation's value for children has long been recognized, claims Eton, but recreation's value for adults is an idea that, historically, was accepted more slowly, because its [embrace as a civic value] required other factors to occur first.

leisure defined in webster's 2d 1952

Earnest Elmo CALKINS, "Hobby horses", The Atlantic v. 151 May 1933 pages 597-606
Source: Emerson William Manzer Bronxville, "Industrial Arts and Leisure" Industrial Arts and Vocational Education 22 (December 1933): 374-377

this is appendix 22
is a much a social problem as is work

1933: Announcing a great new craftsman's club:
...The National Homeworkshop Guild A nonprofit organization founded to help you develop your handicraft hobbies and make the most of your increased leisure under the NRA

Document 12: Formation of the National Homeworkshop Guild 1933

Planning the Curriculum for Leisure Henry Harap Journal of Educational Sociology, Vol. 7, No. 5, Society Challenges the Curriculum. (Jan., 1934), pp. 308-320

The Formation of the Leisure League of America in 1935

HARDIN, Robert A. "Leisure-time aspects and values of woodworking" Industrial Education Magazine v. 38 (May 1936) p. 143-4 [full text in notes on leisure file]

MUMFORD, Lewis "Leisure to replace work?" Science Digest v. 11 February 1942 pages 5-8

The New Leisure Class L. C. Michelon The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 59, No. 4. (Jan., 1954), pp. 371-378.


The fundamental problem of retired people -- today's leisure class -- is essentially the substitution of a new set of personal values and new kinds of activity for the lifelong job of earning a living, raising a family, and overcoming the day-to-day obstacles that affect one's income, status, and career.

Leisure in retirement, of course, has different effects on different individuals. Some try to duplicate the frenzy of their working lives by doing anything to use up time; as Santayana said of fanatics, they redouble their efforts when they have forgotten their aim. For others, retirement is the beginning of a long, terminal hibernation characterized by lonely and maddening inactivity. Between these extremes is the rare individual who can look ahead to the golden years, make the needed changes in values, and substitute new, vital activities for the meaning of work.

Jim Spring, [Leisure Trends survey] American Demographics 15 (October 1993) p. 56-9

According to Leisure Trends' surveys of the leisure activities of 6,000 adults, most Americans normally end up doing the activities that are the easiest to do and not necessarily the things they claim to enjoy the most. Watching TV was the leisure activity most frequently reported, even though only 14 percent of respondents said that they enjoy it more than other activities. A wide gap exists between the number of people who say that they enjoy an activity and the much smaller number who actually do the activity regularly. As a general rule, the more difficult something is, the more important behavioral data are in measuring trends of participation. Attitudinal information, however, provides clues about potential markets because changes in attitudes can signal a potential change in behavior. The implications for product marketing are discussed, and charts present data on the demographics of reading, movies, and do-it-yourself activities.

As a concept, leisure was demonized by the American sociologist, Thorstein Veblen, who in 1899 -- in Theory of the Leisure Class -- indelibly identified "leisure" with "conspicuous consumption" when he linked the term to "the non-rational, symbolic relation of consumption to social status and social stratification". By definition, conspicuous consumption is the lavish and wasteful use of goods and services for the purpose of symbolizing or establishing one's position as a member of a particular social class, especially of the upper classes, or, according to Veblen, specifically "a leisure class". As a behavior, conspicuous consumption creates cruel class distinctions, a pattern of conduct set by the richest, the leisure class, and emulated in its own fashion by each lower social class.


In 1937, at the height of the Great Depression, Allen Henderson Eaton, argued that "leisure time" -- as a term -- "seems highly inappropriate when applied to persons out of work and exerting every effort to find it".

Leisure time is a term which can fairly be applied only to those who have incomes sufficient to secure at least the essentials of life for themselves and their dependents, with the unoccupied hours to be used as they please.

Source: Allen H. Eaton, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1937, pages 316-317

Sources: Lawrence Pearsall Jacks, Education Through Recreation New York: Harper, 1932 (Chapter 8 is "Leisure Recreation and Art); Steven M Gelber Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America Columbia univ press, 1999 [to here]