Eh.net Book Review: Century of the Leisured Masses: Entertainment and the Transformation of Twentieth-Century America

Published by EH.Net (October 2015)

David George Surdam, Century of the Leisured Masses: Entertainment and the Transformation of Twentieth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press. xviii + 305 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-021157-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by F. Andrew Hanssen, Department of Economics, Clemson University.

Economist David Surdam takes on an enormous task: To explore what leisure is and how it has changed, both in conception and fact, over the last hundred years or so. He not only draws liberally on the work by his fellow economists, but copiously cites research and writings by sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and social commentators of various orders. For a scholar contemplating research in the field of leisure, the bibliography alone is worth the price of the book. Anecdotes abound, many tremendously interesting. The author is very good at explaining the economic issues, when economic issues arise.

The book’s biggest weakness is that the author makes no overarching argument and advances no particular thesis (despite a title inspired by Thorstein Veblen, Veblen’s work comes up only briefly, most interestingly in a preface by economist Ken McCormick). Rather, the author appears content to recount what others have said. This can yield gems: Many of the quotes from long forgotten books and articles are priceless (like the commentator addressing the worry about all those washing machines sitting around idle). But the result is a disjointed work. Topics appear and disappear, sometimes to reappear again and sometimes not. There is too much repetition.

The author begins in Chapter 1 with an attempt to define leisure, and returns to the task from time-to-time throughout the book. Leisure is voluntary, and presumably unpaid. But is unpaid, voluntary time in the classroom leisure? How about paid but well-enjoyed tennis matches? How about mowing the lawn on the weekend? And where do “unhealthy” activities, like drinking or drug taking, or consuming pornography fit in? Indeed, Surdam’s attempt to define leisure brings to mind Stewart Potter’s famous comment about pornography, with the difference that leisure is hard to know even when one when one sees it.

Chapter 2 examines changing attitudes towards leisure, a topic that provides some of the most entertaining anecdotes in the book. Or should I say, unchanging attitudes? It is clear that from the dawn of time (or at least from the early twentieth century) leisure has generated two pressing fears: 1) that the quantity of it is “wrong” (usually there is too much; occasionally there is too little), and, 2) that whatever leisure there is, it is being badly used. The consistency with which these two points come up is quite striking; whether talking about the working class and their nickelodeons, black Americans and their jazz clubs, or teenagers and their drive-ins (to name just a few), things are going to the dogs! The author trots out a number of predictably ponderous and very amusing quotes about the problem du jour. I’m going to stop worrying so much about my daughter’s iPad.

Chapter 3 provides a reasonably good discussion of the economics of leisure, and the effect of rising incomes on leisure taken, both in amount and form. In Chapter 4, the author describes how leisure has evolved over time. The perhaps unsurprising bottom line is that time taken for leisure has increased and leisure activities have become more varied. In Chapter 5, he reviews expenditure on leisure, using annual data from the Census Bureau. Not surprisingly, he finds that spending rose as the twentieth century progressed. His analysis of the changing mix of spending is mostly anecdotal. Chapter 6 is a somewhat rambling discussion that seeks to contrast the leisure activities of the young and the old. The chapter is a grab bag of topics that includes comic books, jazz and rock-and-roll, the “swinging bachelor” of 1950s fame, and the leisure activities of African Americans. (As always, the fear of badly used leisure rears its ugly head.) Chapter 7 looks at trends in public health, and appears only tangentially related to leisure. Chapter 8 contains a very interesting discussion of how jobs went from dirty and dangerous to clean and safe to downright pleasant. The discussion illustrates how hard it is to draw a bold line between work and leisure — as one bats a volleyball across a net with fellow employees on the campus of a Silicon Valley high tech firm, is one recreating or working? It would have been nice to see the author explore that line of argument more thoroughly; for example, do farmers have very little leisure — they are constantly busy — or a whole lot? (One might ask the same thing about economics professors as they conduct their research!)

Chapter 9 focuses on the household, and illustrates the book’s strength and weaknesses in microcosm. It has an interesting starting point: the change in technology, social mores and so forth that gave rise to a massive increase in female labor force participation. It provides an intelligent review of the labor-leisure tradeoff in the context of household work. It presents some basic data in tables, and discusses cogently empirical analyses conducted by a number of researchers, mostly economists. Descriptions of how arduous many household tasks were in former days are fascinating, and the discussion of technological advances that changed things is interesting. I particularly enjoyed the author’s recounting of the debate over whether women used the time freed up for more leisure or to expand the set of household “chores.” But since there is no overarching theme, and no particular argument being made, it is hard to say what it all adds up to.

Chapter 10 begins to address the industries of mass leisure. The author provides good brief histories of amusement parks, saloons and cabarets, music, and theater and vaudeville. But it once again has a grab-bag feel. A paragraph on radio is followed by a paragraph on phonographs is followed by a paragraph on 45 rpm records and rock-and-roll. Chapter 11 continues with movies, sports, radio, and television. Chapter 12 covers the rise of mass transport, electricity, automobiles, the suburbs, and air conditioning. Chapter 13 briefly discusses the role of government in the leisure business, while Chapter 14 reviews antitrust cases involving music, movies, television, and professional sports. Surdam ends with an epilogue, in which he recounts that — guess what? — people are worried about how leisure is being used! There is nothing new under the sun.

I found the book great fun to dip in and out of. For example, in writing this review, I opened the book at five random points, and came up with: 1) a discussion of the “affable” Puritans; 2) Thomas Sowell’s views on acculturation; 3) the recounted astonishment of a 1959 Life magazine journalist who discovers that “the amount spent on dogs is equal to all the salaries and fees paid on legal services”; 4) a discussion of nineteenth century rag pickers; and 5) a description of how Vaudeville houses were established along newly developing New York City subway lines. (The thing I enjoyed most was reading again and again how one set of people deplored another set’s use of leisure.)

As enjoyable as all this is, because it lacks an organizing thesis, the book becomes, for the most part, a recounting of a lot of “stuff.” Thus, as a volume to browse for entertainment, I recommend it. For its terrific bibliography of work on leisure in myriad fields, I heartily endorse it. But as a means to understand mass leisure in the twentieth century, unfortunately, it comes up a bit short.

F. Andrew Hanssen\’s publications include “Explaining Changes in Organizational Form: The Case of Professional Baseball” (with J. Meehan and T. Miceli), Journal of Sports Economics (forthcoming) and “Vertical Integration during the Hollywood Studio Era,” Journal of Law and Economics (2010).

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