Hobbies are How Work Infiltrates LeisureHistorians in the News
tags: cultural history, COVID-19, leisure, Hobbies
Grocery-store scallions repotted on windowsills. Sourdough starters in the fridge. Cooking, knitting, jigsaw puzzles. Hobbies could not cure the coronavirus, but for a moment it seemed like they could cure the anxious stagnation of pandemic life. Time had become unsettlingly abundant, but we tried our best to avoid falling into idleness and despair. Articles that were meant to be comforting suggested that exploring a new pastime could help reduce the stress people were feeling: Yes, we are living through a once-in-a-generation catastrophe, but have you ever tried baking bread?
One nonscientific survey found that 59 percent of Americans have picked up a new hobby during the pandemic. People baked so much that all the flour ran out. Lumber prices soared, thanks in part to a boom in home DIY projects.
Sure, there were other popular ways to spend time during the pandemic’s early days—playing Animal Crossing, organizing Zoom happy hours, watching Tiger King. But we all kind of knew that picking up a hobby was somehow better than those things. The Protestant work ethic that is foundational to American culture positions labor as morally good in and of itself, whether you’re working hard at a desk, on a farm, or teaching yourself the guitar tabs to “Wonderwall.” Conversely, any time not spent productively is wasted.
“Hobbies take on this aura of being good, useful, appropriate, and socially sanctioned. Something you should—the word here is should—be doing,” Steven M. Gelber, a historian and the author of Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America, told me. “And if you’re one of those slackers that doesn’t have a hobby, then you are suffering from some kind of a moral weakness or failing.”
This attitude far predates the coronavirus pandemic. If you’ve ever felt like your Instagram feed is taunting you with all the lovely crafts, elaborate home-cooked meals, and sweaty Peloton rides that other people seem to manage to fill their time with; if you’ve ever felt like your dating profile looks empty unless you list several impressive leisure pursuits; if it seems like everyone has a hobby and you should too, there is a reason for this. The anxieties of capitalism are not confined to the workplace. They have a long history of leaking into our free time.
Ahobby was not always something to aspire to. Up until around the 1880s, the word was used to refer to any sort of preoccupation, which could be positive but could also be an obsessive fixation, as in “riding a hobby horse.” The word evolved, and a hobby came to be understood as a wholesome, enriching form of leisure and the most virtuous way for a person to spend their free time.
The moralization of hobbies followed a major shift in how Americans spend their days. During the Industrial Revolution, the nascent labor movement advocated for reduced work hours, eventually leading to the eight-hour workday and the five-day workweek. Some people saw the resulting increase in leisure time—and the saloons, theaters, and amusement parks that popped up to fill it—as a threat. The thinking was that leisure “led to both delinquent activity and deviant ideas,” Gelber writes. The solution to the moral depravity of cotton candy and Ferris wheels: hobbies.
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