Play Stuff Blog

From Luxury to Affordability  

One of the most interesting stories of the history of play in North America is its economic “democratization.” Broadly speaking, over the course of the late 19th century and throughout the 20th, a rising standard of living allowed more North Americans to devote extra time to playing.

This trend from luxury to affordability paralleled similar developments—at the beginning of the last century, education began to reach more children as school reformers pursued a policy of “classes for the masses.” And after World War II, the rising “multiversity” provided a college experience to more students. In a similar way, technology became less expensive as more households acquired labor-saving devices such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners. By the 1930s, production costs had fallen so dramatically that even middle class households stocked their kitchens with electrical devices that kept food cold, washed dishes, toasted bread, popped popcorn, brewed coffee, mixed flour, and cooked waffles.

Access to information followed this democratizing route too. Here’s an extreme instance: A thirty-volume set of Encyclopedia Britannica, a luxury item, cost about $2,000 in the 1980s. If the current Wikipedia were to bind all its information between covers, a set would comprise more than twenty two hundred volumes, and the online encyclopedia information mountain grows at about twenty thousand articles per month. To the point here, Wikipedia is available for free for all who have access to the Internet.

Sports, leisure, and play followed a comparable pattern over the course of the twentieth century. Recreational hunting, once an aristocratic monopoly—“the sport of kings” in Europe—became a middle class pleasure in America. By the 1930s, local, state, and federal governments acquired and set aside wild areas and wetlands and protected them as hunting grounds and game preserves. (In 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act that sold collectible “duck stamps.” The proceeds still support wildlife conservation for the purposes of hunting.) Similarly, playing football was once a pleasure reserved for only a few hundred students who attended exclusive and expensive Ivy League schools. Now, about 1.2 million athletes play in increasingly professionalized high school and college football programs. Recruiters seek out the most talented athletes and schools award scholarships. The result: today, about six college football players out of ten are African American.

In the 19th century, golf belonged to the few who could afford to join, and who were permitted to join private clubs. (Need I mention that these clubs excluded Jews, blacks, and women from the links?) But by the second decade of the century, municipalities—often and increasingly with the help of federal money—began to establish new “people’s country clubs” in old city parks. I happen to live across from one of these, and every summer morning, I watch the golfers tee up. They’re mostly retired guys and nearly all African American. Some play every day until the snow flies. And they play for an annual fee that amounts to less than a cup of coffee a day.

I’ve been thinking about skiing lately, and as it happens, skiing followed a parallel course. It was once ritzy and only for the few who could afford Sun Valley or Gstad, but about three million skied after the “boom” in the late 1920s. Still skiing remained an expensive sport. Outfitting for a season of skiing— skis and boots like those pictured here—would have cost the average worker more than a week’s pay in 1932. Now, a new outfit costs the average worker about two and a half day’s salary and used equipment costs less than half that. The result: twenty five million now ski and snowboard.

Even my old rust-belt hometown, alas the third poorest in the nation, still manages to support ski hills that lie within easy reach by bus. Public high schools negotiate deep discounts for lift tickets and sponsor ski clubs for Friday night skiing. Watching is fun, but participation is better, and Friday night skiing is superior to spending a Friday night spectating at a football game. Each new season, local hills fill with teenagers dressed in jeans and borrowed parkas who hit the illuminated slopes for the first time.

For several years, I delighted in chaperoning these weekly adventures for my daughter’s edgy, diverse, downtown magnet high school ski club. The first few trips each year always kept my wife and I busy buckling kids in their boots, loading them on the chair lifts, and untangling them from crashes. (The first few times on the slopes provides skiers with a lifetime of hilarious slapstick memories.) Occasionally somebody would need a pair of gloves or a bit of help buying a hamburger. But of course kids at that age are game and famously resilient, so they learn quickly if play challenges them sufficiently. And with a task this much fun, their learning curve ascends more steeply than the slopes. Technology helped democratize too, as learner-friendly snowboards and parabolic “shape skis” (bought cheaply at swap meets) have drastically reduced the time (and so the expense) needed to master the art of sliding downhill.

I’ve painted a sunny picture above. But the history of class divisions in the American democracy becomes complicated because the equality of access we expect of our political process does not translate into equality of economic condition. So, I’ll end with three cautionary points for the story in the twenty first century. First, declining cost and greater access to fun, over time, does not necessarily reduce the disparities in wealth  that citizens may still feel acutely. Second, not all people or groups share in rising prosperity equally or as rapidly, and economic gains can stall for all. (When measured in constant dollars, current median household income stands about where it did thirty years earlier.)  And third, over the last five decades, Americans experienced a decline in “pure leisure”—that is, play unmixed with work. And so too, the “social leisure” that once enriched American life has declined as Americans have forsaken group play (bowling leagues and bridge nights, for instance) for more solitary amusement.