Leisure’s Birth and Death

Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt is a historian primarily concerned with leisure and the labor movements of America. His book Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream catalogues the birth of America’s first dream—that of having free time and leisure— from a fire and brimstone preacher of the 1700’s up until the death of it by various government and pro-business sentiments in the 1980’s. The dream had tremendous progress over its time but it was eventually put to death by unmitigated cultural forces and those pulling the strings of power.

The birth of this dream can be traced to Johnathon Edwards who is most famous for his sermon of Sinners in the Hands of Angry God. It’s a shame that that’s all we’re taught of this figure. It would seem, according to Hunnicutt’s investigation, there is a lot more that he has to offer. He had a vision of the Kingdom of God in America. He saw a future where less toil was possible and a space would open up in America in which Heaven on Earth would become a reality. A place where matters of business can be finished quickly and matters of the spirit could be attended to more readily. The concept of “salvation through work” was not at all relevant to Johnathon Edwards. Those things which are good and Holy would be attended to after “secular business.”

Tis probable that the world shall be more like Heaven in the millennium in this respect: that contemplation and spiritual enjoyments, and those things that more directly concern the mind and religion, will be more the saint’s ordinary business than now. There will be so many contrivances and inventions to facilitate and expedite their necessary secular business that they will have more time for more noble exercise, and…the whole earth may be as one community, one body of Christ. 

A disciple of Johnathon Edward, Samuel Hopkins, further articulated this dream and believed that God was increasingly granting humans liberty and freedom to practice holiness and community. Samuel Hopkins thought it was God’s will to allow humans to regain their original and free nature: “In the days of the millennium there will be a fullness and plenty of all the necessaries and conveniences of life to render all much more easy and comfortable in their worldly circumstances and enjoyments…and with much less labor and toil…it will not be then necessary for any men or women to spend all or the greatest part of their time in labor in order to procure a living, and enjoy all the comforts and desirable conveniences of life.” The rest of the time used outside of “labor and toil” could be used for studying the scripture, private and public worship, improving the mind, public instruction, and reading.

William Ellery Channing translated the ideas of Edwards and Hopkins into an actual plan. Channing was a Unitarian preacher who advocated for the 10-hour workday in Boston and New York. He also gave lectures intended for the working man: “On the Elevation of the Laboring Class” and “Self-Culture.” He intended to help instruct those who may find more leisure on their hands and what to do with it. One suggestion was that physical exercise opens the mind to “cheerful impressions…by removing those indescribable feelings of sinking, disquiet, depression,” and that, “physical vigor is valuable for its own sake.” Channing responds to his critics for trying to emancipate laborers from a sun up to to sun down working day:

The doctrine is too shocking to need refutation, that the great majority of human beings, endowed as they are with rational and immortal powers, are placed on earth simply to toil for their own animal subsistence, and to minister to the luxury and elevation of the few. It is monstrous, it approaches impiety, to suppose that God has placed insuperable barriers to the expansion of the free, limitless soul.

In 1827 was the first stirrings of labor unrest. Channing was part of this stirring, but it does call into question what in the world was going on with the American project. Only 51 years after the Declaration of Independence, the average worker in an American city was being ground to dust in a factory or a mill. Part of what alleviated this “wage-slavery” was the opportunity to move west. The release valve for discontent was always the frontier. And the cities, like a thumb over a water hose, built a lot of pressure and desire to get away from them. 

The next major figure for defining the American dream of leisure was Walt Whitman. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much in him that inspired me. Whitman was most likely a bisexual who also bragged about having 6 illegitimate kids. His vision for leisure took a more hedonistic view than his forbearers. He was interested in play and “mutual caress” and his poetry often employed sexual imagery, or subtle homosexual imagery between men. I’m genuinely surprised the author decided to dedicate an entire chapter to this guy. He certainly employed labor rhetoric at various news publications and dreamt of freedom of leisure in his writings, but an entire chapter on him was tedious. Was there no one else in the mid 1800’s to examine or at least include? But then again this is America, and America has become the grand gay empire it is today, so maybe this chapter was necessary.

After the Civil War the rallying cry of the 8-hour day became normative. Labor unions of the day succeeded in establishing the 8-hour day in many separate places. The victory of labor’s demands are too numerous to count, but company after company, and even entire industries slowly began to bend the knee to this demand. Politicians such as Teddy Roosevelt even ran for office in 1912 with a campaign promise of the 8-hour week. Progress was slow though. By 1914 the majority of Americans still worked a 12 to 14 hour day. After decades of agitation, this resulted in the 1937 Fair Labor Standards Act that set the maximum workweek at 40 hours and any employee who worked more hours would receive a bonus.

The turn of the 20th century was a fascinating time. This was a time when many Americans in major cities did have an 8-hour work week and did have the leisure time they dreamed of. The preparation for this leisure was actually taken into account by community oriented WASP types. The WASP powers that be sought to provide wholesome leisure activities that included mostly public spaces: parks, beaches, playgrounds, resorts, community centers, and libraries. These things though were only marginally successful in “Americanizing immigrants and uplifting the masses to the kinds of recreations they felt proper.”

Unfortunately this leisure time wasn’t used as constructively as an 1880 survey by the Bureau of Statistics of Labor predicted it would. 85% of those surveyed said they and others would “make good use” of additional leisure time which included things like: educate children, sit down and have a smoke, go riding with friends, dress up and go visiting, garden, walk about, out-door exercise, mental improvement, work around the house, play ball, get fresh air, etc. 

Instead the leisure time for the first Americans to really have it was coopted by capitalism. As Hunnicutt puts it, “Workers, careful with the little free time they had, were not overly interested in the kinds of wholesome recreations urban reformers were offering. More frequently, they found commercial facilities more to their liking. Entrepreneurs recognizing the opportunity leisure represented, accommodated them with saloons[…]dance halls[…]and new places of amusement. Coney Island, vaudeville, nickelodeons, professional sports, and the movies began to compete for the workers’ free time and extra cash.” It’s almost like Americans failed the test the second they were given it. I don’t fault them for it though, and I think this a learning moment for people in our milieu. Capitalism will win. It will destroy or co-opt any higher ideals you might have. Human nature will choose the easy and shallow over the difficult and satisfying every single time it is given a chance. A system that truly elevates people wouldn’t have given capitalists a chance to waste people’s time. It would have put a governor on those money making forces and tried to at least see what organic society could develop from American freedom without capital intervention.

The early 20th century also had competing ethnic visions for what leisure should entail. Historians Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar seem to relish in the idea that WASP intentions to elevate the community and have some direction in public park usage were almost immediately discarded in the case of Central Park. Instead they outline a history where Central Park in New York City is used on divided ethnic lines, by gay men, and female athletes. Of course from Rosenzweig, I expect that type of analysis to be viewed as some type of good. Another piece of history in the book that was included was a black environmentalist Dianne D. Glave’s and Mark Stoll’s revisionist account of blacks in the early 20th century. They try to paint the idea that “black Chicagoan’s saw recreation in nature” with their leisure time and struggled to gain access to recreational facilities. Chicago’s worst race riots of 1919 is hilariously portrayed as being due to black exclusion from lake Michigan’s beaches. This narrative is presented in a way that makes it seem like blacks are a nature loving group that were pushed to the point of rioting by being excluded from the beach rather than the racial conflict between white and black gangs that was brewing in the city for years. 

The International Ladies’ Garment Worker’s Union is credited with being the first women’s labor union and also being radically feminist. It was overwhelmingly Jewish in leadership with Fannia Cohn, Pauline Newman, Rose Schneiderman, and Juliet Poyntz (gentile) shaping the ILGWU’s vision. Juliet Poyntz was actually pressured to leave the ILGWU in 1918 despite being just as radical as her fellow Jews.

Fannia Cohn believed that enough leisure time and high enough wages was necessary for revolutionary ends and was essential for “women’s eternal struggle.” Cohn’s desires were prototypical if anything, “Our labor members have a dream of a new world where social justice is to prevail, where men and women will not sneer at friendship and love.” This vague and revolutionary worldview is a precursor for the vague and revolutionary world view we hear espoused from SJW’s today. She would also go on to say that she believed in an “alternate vision” and of finding ways to “transform relationships between women, between male and female workers, between husband and wives.” As Hunnicutt puts it, “Their imaginations were captured by the idea of large-scale social transformation.” The key to the social change was through leisure to come.

With your ear to the ground for ethnic conflict you can pick up a little bit of it in the different labor unions of the early 20th century. The American Federation of Labor seemed much less culturally revolutionary and a lot more WASPy despite the founder of it being Samuel Gumpertz. The AFL was interested in shorter hours and higher wages as well as creating libraries and reading rooms for workers that may find themselves with more free time. Their ends were less revolutionary than the ILGWU’s and because of that suffered the classic accusations of racism and sexism. Though at the time the AFL was powerful enough to whether those accusations and even pressured the Worker’s Education Bureau (50% Jewish founding) to become less socialistic and withdraw support from leftwing and progressive labor colleges.

The vision of free time and what to do with it continued to develop in the early 20th century. Some people began to push back on capitalistic forces that coopted people’s time by reasserting community oriented public goods that could be accessed by common people. Parks, forests, playgrounds, public libraries, museums, community centers, and theaters were some of these things. The community theater was an interesting idea that grew up alongside wilderness advocates. These theaters, founded by Percy MacKaye, were meant to be used by common people to create entertainment for their community. This idea was in direct opposition to the mass entertainment being developed at the time. Many “little theaters” sprang up around the country in places such as North Dakota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and then eventually to California, North Carolina, and New York due to Percy MacKaye’s books. 

Following the Great Depression an idea gained power that seemed to solve many of the issues plaguing the country. This idea was one of “work sharing” and shorter hours. The theory was that the Great Depression wasn’t a problem of a lack of available goods so much as it was an issue of not enough leisure time to purchase the goods available on the market. Over production and too much speculation created a glut of goods on the market that no one had time to enjoy. Work sharing would enable people reduce their hours and consume more goods thus solving the problem of a stagnating economy as well as solving the unemployment problem. Companies such as Kellogg’s and Goodyear employed a “work sharing strategy” that was heralded by many publications as being the key to economic recovery. By 1933, the U.S. Department of Labor calculated 25% of the nation’s workforce “are employed today by work sharing.”

In 1933 as Roosevelt was preparing to take office the Black-Connery bill was gaining traction in Congress. This bill would have standardized a 30 hour work week nationwide. This bill was close to being signed, and even the first circulated edition of Newsweek stated that this new 30 hour work week would be the law of the land on its front cover. This would be the high water mark of the century long shorter hours movement. Roosevelt’s advisors, Rexford Tugwell and Harry Hopkins dissuaded him from signing the bill. The administration then took on a belief that full-time, full employment and permanent economic growth would solve the nation’s problems—an idea that is still held today. The government’s tone shifted from shorter hours to solving unemployment to a philosophy of committing the government “to do whatever it would take to create enough new work in the public and private sectors of the economy to replace the work taken by technology.” This, it would seem, would be the birth of a new type of managerial class that oversees permanent economic development as its prime function rather than personal human development.

The rest I suppose is history. Roosevelt and his advisor’s advice certainly demand a lot more historical attention as to why and how they came to their decision. The book is rather vague on this subject and simply continues the history of the labor movement and characters up until around the 21st century. 

World War II put labors demands for shorter hours and higher wages on the back burner for the purpose of winning the war. 

In the 1950’s a remarkable man by the name of Robert Maynard Hutchins outlined his vision for the future where it was presupposed that leisure would reign. He was (is?) University of Chicago’s most celebrated president and had tremendously high ideals for America..

The substitution of machines for slaves gives us an opportunity to build a civilization as glorious as that of the Greeks, and far more lasting because far more just… That mechanization which tends to reduce a man to a robot also supplies the economic base and the leisure that will enable him to get a liberal education and to truly become a man…the aim of liberal education is human excellence…It regards man as an end, not as a means; and it regards the ends of life and the means to it. For this reason it is the education of free men. Other types of education or training treat men as means to some other end [economic], and are at best concerned with the means of life, with earning a living, and not with its ends.

Robert Hutchins had high ideals for what a liberal education should be. He saw a liberal education in quite different terms than how we see it today. He often criticized other colleges for only preparing students for a future job and not instilling any type of higher values or virtues. The great irony is that today we have the worst of both worlds—college hardly prepares students for a job and fails to instill any higher values them. Hutchinson also makes the prescient observation that relying on science will not create a better society. “We cannot rely on science to tell us how to get a better society unless we know what is good. If we know where want to go, science will help us get there. If our problem is where to go, science cannot help us.”

Hutchins popularized the idea of adult education with the classics. He was responsible for the Great Books of the Western World—a massive volume of over a 100 books meant to foster book clubs and stimulate conversation about the Western tradition and contemporary problems among normal working Americans. The market was adults with leisure time and it had surprising commercial success. 153,000 sets were sold and 2,200 groups formed nation wide with a total of 35,0000 participants. 

In the 50’s and 60’s many people turned on the dream of shorter hours. Previous supporter of shorter hours, David Riesman, is an interesting case. He wrote a book in 1950 about the coming time of leisure and by 1961 had simply “changed his mind.” Arthur Goldberg (JFK secretary of labor) began to write about “the problem” of leisure. Perhaps a little too much Western Classics was the concern? More prominent Jews in the Kennedy administration also turned against decreased hours. Along with Goldberg, Theodore Sorensen and Paul Samuelson began to actively oppose shorter hours. Samuelson is quoted as saying, “If we don’t produce a better environment of economic demand capable of absorbing large numbers of those now unemployed, I predict an increasing and more successful agitation for a shorter work week.”

More Jews such as Daniel Bell (sociologis, Harvard professor), Bretty Frieden (feminist activist), and other academics such as B.F. Skinner (gentile), left behind their traditional position of advocating for shorter hours in favor of the need to “restructure work.” Many seemed to change their mind about this goal and project that jobs and full time employment would be more fulfilling. Arthur Schlesinger went so far as to say, “The most dangerous threat hanging over American Society is the threat of leisure…and those who have the least preparation for leisure will have the most of it.”

I’m not making the argument that only Jews were involved in the turn from leisure to anti-leisure and the ideological shift to full employment and permanent economic expansion, but as in many things, their voice seems to be highly over represented. There were certainly WASP types (Roosevelt, John Lewis, B.F. Skinner, Walter Heller) complicit in this, but this historical oddity is (as you’d expect) completely over looked by the author of the book. The irony of this period is that the author ends it by pointing out that people of this period believed that, “Puritan-like, that human nature is naturally selfish and essentially uncivil, controllable only by the harness of perpetual work.” I think it’s a very honest question to ask, was it Puritanism or some other religious impulse that foisted perpetual work on Americans? Was Johnathon Edwards not a Puritan who gave birth to this idea?

There’s a lot more to uncover, but let’s fast forward this story. The 1980’s is when the author of the book determines the ultimate death of the shorter hours movement. By this time the idea of permanent economic growth and full time employment was a cemented value in America. In the 1990’s Americans worked 350 more hours than Western Europeans and many journalistic pieces discussed overworked and stressed Americans. Nearly 2/3 of Americans reported that they had little to no discretionary time Saturday or Sunday. In 2017 a Gallup poll found that Americans averaged 47 hours per week or 9.4 hours per day. 

It’s something to think about, but perhaps the leisure movement is prime for reawakening. 

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