With a six day workweek, long hours on the job, and the hard labor required to keep house, leisure time was precious in the 1800s. Without recorded music, radio, movies, TV, video games, or the Internet, Americans had to make their own fun, and most of it was simple and very low tech - singing around the family piano, visiting with neighbors, or picnicking in the woods. In the bigger towns and cities, theaters offered live, professional entertainment ranging from classic plays to raucous minstrel shows. In the smaller towns and rural areas, people waited anxiously for those few times a year when a traveling show or circus might come through the area. As the 1800s progressed, leisure time and economic resources increased for many Americans and a more sophisticated public demanded new and more exciting amusements. Read all about America at play in the 1800s!
For most of the 1800s, children were considered small, unruly adults who needed to be strictly disciplined and put to useful work as soon as they were able. The very concept of childhood itself, as a carefree, innocent time, is a result of increasing economic stability and changing family roles in the 1800s. Before child welfare laws were enacted and compulsory education enforced, children made up an important part of the industrial and agricultural workforce in 1800s America. Toys and time for games and fun may have been a luxury, but kids will be kids, and the adults that loved them made sure their lives weren't all work and no play. The establishment of public schools, more humane working conditions, and expanding economic opportunities helped improve the life of Americas children in the 1800s, but they worked hard and their pleasures were simple ones.
Medicine developed into a science in the 1800s, but it was a long evolution from folk remedies and superstition to a modern understanding of how the human body works and how disease is spread. Throughout much of the century, the life expectancy of the average American was decades shorter than it is now. A lack of understanding of simple hygiene contributed to the early death of many women after childbirth, and children routinely died of common childhood diseases like measles. An incorrectly treated broken arm could kill a healthy young man, and pain, disfigurement, and epidemic disease was the fate of many Americans. Traditional herbal remedies were sometimes the best treatments available, while patent medicines often contained toxic substances, and medical procedures were often painful, disgusting, and ultimately useless. The dedicated scientists and medical researchers of the 1800s made a tremendous contribution to the health and happiness of Americans.
We're all here because of people who met and fell in love in the past! In the 1800s, most young men and women were bound by powerful traditions of family, church, and society that limited their choices in romance and marriage. As an economic and community-building institution, marriage options were traditionally controlled by the older generation. Marriages were often arranged by families, and the bride and groom's personal feelings for each other were much less important than they are today. But as in so many other ways, America was a new and more open society. Communities of people from different and diverse backgrounds were established in a new land, and young people came together in a freer, more open environment. Romantic love flourished in the America of the 1800s as it never had before, with a whole variety of courting and marriage customs, many of which we still cherish today.
The farmers, workers, and pioneers of America in the 1800s were nourished by a tradition of hearty, down home cooking that is still a part of our national cuisine - New England baked beans, roast beef, turkey, corn on the cob, and pumpkin pies. With roots in the British Isles, and with important contributions from Native American food plants and cooking techniques, American food and drink quality and seasonal variety was vastly improved during the 1800s by new technologies in transportation, food storage, hygiene, and preservation, growing national and world markets, and not least the delicious ethnic cuisines of new immigrant groups. Hungry for innovation, quality, and economy, Americans in the 1800s became the best fed nation in the history of the world!
American society in the 1800s had a rough edge to it. In a nation made up of people of diverse backgrounds and heritage, social controls needed to be strict and enforceable. The extreme economic inequality of Americas cities and the wide open moral code of the frontier led to a culture of crime and violence that still plagues our country. During the 1800s, professional police forces were established in cities, towns, and territories across the continent. On the frontier, justice was often swift and severe, with hanging judges making their reputations as representatives of the law in a lawless land. Long prison sentences in miserable conditions were the rule for criminals, and many a prisoner might have preferred the option of a quick execution. Before the reform of the legal system, which is an ongoing process, there was definitely a separate law, and a separate standard of penalties, for the rich and for the poor. The evolution of a humane penal system and a fairer protection of all citizens under the law is an important contribution of 1800s America to the modern world.
America's love of sports goes back a long way. Baseball, basketball, and football all came of age in America of the 1800s. While men like Abner Doubleday may not have invented these sports, they did much to popularize them as rules were officially standardized and national-level organizations were founded. Amateur (and, later, professional) teams sprang up in towns, factories, and schools across America and rooting for the home team built strong community bonds and stimulated (usually) friendly rivalries. From horse racing to boxing to competitive target shooting, Americans would watch, cheer for, and bet on just about any contest of strength and skill. The growing class of Americans with leisure and money to spare discovered tennis and golf and polo, and women for the first time participated in competitive sports. Long before the World Series and the Super Bowl, Americans were idolizing their favorite athletes, while they played and watched sports with enthusiasm.