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The Art of Recreation

How Americans learned to live with leisure

July 4, 2011 | By Aia A. Hussein

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, two social trends converged: Many ordinary working Americans found themselves with “extra” time just as burgeoning urbanization and cramped city living were making them anxious. The rise in the number of vacations offered to industrial employees, including Saturday half-day holidays instituted in the 1880s, combined with the monotony of a specialized industrial work environment, created a desire within working Americans to spend this new “extra” time on recreational activities.

Working Americans turned to a number of activities for respite, such as vaudeville shows, motion pictures, and a host of outdoor activities -- one of which, sculling, is captured full-swing in a famous watercolor painting by Philadelphia-based artist Thomas Eakins.

Eakins’ 1873 watercolor painting titled "John Biglin in a Single Scull" is a depiction of one of New York’s famous professional rowers as he races on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. It serves as an example of the sort of outdoor activity that was growing in popularity near the turn of the twentieth century as medical opinion increasingly encouraged exercise.

Visit EDSITEment’s lesson on nineteenth-century American leisure, “Eakins’ Vision of American Recreation – ‘In the Good Old Summertime’” to learn more about Eakins’ view of leisure through a closer look at his painting. The lesson points educators in two directions: a more detailed look at leisure at the turn of twentieth-century through the lesson plan “Having Fun: Leisure and Entertainment at the Turn of the Twentieth Century” or a closer examination of composition through the lesson plan “Repeat After Me: Repetition in the Visual Arts.”

Through relevant lesson plans, reviewed websites, and recommended teacher/student resources, this EDSITEment lesson provides an interdisciplinary introduction to the concept of leisure as it was beginning to take shape and form in the minds of many ordinary working Americans.

To access EDSITEment’s lesson on nineteenth-century American recreation, click here.