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The March of Spare Time

The Problem and Promise of Leisure in the Great Depression

By Susan Currell

Publication Year: 2010

In The March of Spare Time, Susan Currell explores how and why leisure became an object of such intense interest, concern, and surveillance during the Great Depression. As Americans experienced record high levels of unemployment, leisure was thought by reformers, policy makers, social scientists, physicians, labor unions, and even artists to be both a cause of and a solution to society's most entrenched ills. Of all the problems that faced America in the 1930s, only leisure seemed to offer a panacea for the rest.

The problem centered on divided opinions over what constituted proper versus improper use of leisure time. On the one hand, sociologists and reformers excoriated as improper such leisure activities as gambling, loafing, and drinking. On the other, the Works Progress Administration and the newly professionalized recreation experts promoted proper leisure activities such as reading, sports, and arts and crafts. Such attention gave rise to new ideas about how Americans should spend their free time to better themselves and their nation.

These ideas were propagated in social science publications and proliferated into the wider cultural sphere. Films, fiction, and radio also engaged with new ideas about leisure, more extensively than has previously been recognized. In examining this wide spectrum of opinion, Currell offers the first full-scale account of the fears and hopes surrounding leisure in the 1930s, one that will be an important addition to the cultural history of the period.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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Introduction: The Re-creation of Leisure

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pp. 1-11

In 1929, no one knew how long the Depression would last, but once it had happened many saw the Crash as the inevitable result of deeply entrenched economic and social problems. Although the start of the Depression did not signify the extent of the catastrophe that was emerging, social leaders and politicians had long been concerned with the...

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1. The Problem and Promise

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pp. 12-30

While European nations had been experiencing revolution, waves of economic depression, and the formation of new state structures, America in the 1920s had appeared somewhat immune to such traumatic events. Commercial, corporate, and municipal recreation had all expanded in an unprecedented way, and the necessity of amusing the unemployed...

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2. Preparing for Spare Time

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pp. 31-50

In 1931, few could imagine federal intervention in the new machine-made leisure, even if they could see its potential to rebuild the defeated nation. Concerned about the peril of this new leisure on the laboring classes, journalist Ralph Aiken of the North American Review discussed the double-edged view of leisure, where “likelihood is that those who lose...

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3. National Recovery of Recreation

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pp. 51-74

The New Deal government began a massive plan for recovery by funding huge programs to rebuild and remake the nation. Although many of these were labeled as “work” relief, they often had as much to do with the new use of leisure time as with work. As a sign of the new government’s commitment to leisure and recreation, funding was soon made...

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4. The March of Culture

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pp. 75-100

The issues and problems of national leisure soon spread beyond the social scientific and governmental worlds. The discourses of leisure and the definition of its proper use reached out into the cultural sphere through books, periodicals, and newspaper articles. Writing in the context of a “national wrangling over the deposition of American bodies at work and at rest,”...

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5. Shopping for Leisure

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pp. 101-124

In a chapter on consumers in Recent Social Trends, Robert Lynd and Alice Hanson noted that leisure was increasingly tied to consumption: “The growing margin of leisure in the American family, with the increasing variety and availability of leisure time . . . affects the consumption of a wide group of goods and services.”1 ...

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6. Motion Pictures and Dance Halls

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pp. 125-157

The combination of woman’s perceived weakness as a consumer and her apparent desire to be thrilled and seek new sensations in her leisure appeared, to many observers, to pose a grave threat to the stability of family life and society as a whole. These fears over women’s leisure activities, appearing at the same time that crime seemed to be escalating,...

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7. Mate Selection

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pp. 158-182

The importance of leisure to many reformers centered around the fact that it was in her leisure that Beatrice the Business Girl, who was crucially at the “mating age,” would find her husband and produce America’s future progeny. As sociologist George Lundberg wrote in 1932, “The whole sex complex, including courtship, marriage, and the begetting...

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Conclusion: The Leisured World of Tomorrow, Today

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pp. 183-189

On their return to Muncie, Indiana, in 1935, after six years of depression, Robert and Helen Lynd found much to be lauded about the changes in leisure wrought by the Depression, changes that gained their approval in comparison to the uninhibited commercialism and the centrality of money of the previous decade. ...


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pp. 191-221


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pp. 223-235


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pp. 237

E-ISBN-13: 9780812201710
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812221251

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2010