Antebellum America: Recreation, Leisure

During the antebellum period, popular pastimes included a variety of participant and spectator sports. The New York Clipper, a magazine first published in 1853, employed a network of reporters spread across the country who used the new electric telegraph to cover every kind of sport, including foot races, pedestrian (walking) events, horse races, dog fights, cock fights, rat catching, boxing matches, rowing regattas, and, of course, baseball games.

Although the myth persists that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York, the game actually evolved from the English sport called “rounders” and was played in the colonies during the eighteenth century. Credit for key changes to what was variously called “town ball,” “four‐old cat,” and “base ball” belongs to Alexander Cartwright. In 1845, he suggested that runners be tagged with the ball rather than hit with it and that each team be limited to three outs. These rules led to modem baseball, which was on its way to becoming a national pastime by the Civil War.

Popular reading. Improvements made to printing presses had a dramatic impact on Americans' reading. As technology reduced production costs, allowing publishers to sell newspapers for a penny an issue, readership increased. The number of newspapers in the country grew from fewer than 100 in 1790 to more than 3,700 by 1860. Large metropolitan papers, such as the New York Sun and the New York Herald, featured sensational stories about crime, sex, and scandal. The number of magazines also began to grow in the second half of the nineteenth century. “Highbrow” periodicals, such as the North American Review and Harper's, which is still in print today, carried articles by some of the most noted authors of the day, while other magazines catered to the tastes and interests of specific audiences—women, farmers, and businessmen, for example.

The expansion of public education, the opening of lending libraries, and the popularity of the lyceum created a mass audience for books. Although the works of Cooper and Hawthorne sold well, even more popular were sentimental novels by and for women, books that provided advice or practical instruction (early “how‐to” books), and literature with a moral message. Often, books were serialized in newspapers or magazines before they were published as full novels. Such was the case with Harriet Beecher Stowe's bestseller Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), which was written in response to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and did much to strengthen antislavery sentiment in the North.

Theater and P. T. Barnum. The theater was as popular in antebellum America as movies are today. Best‐selling novels were adapted for the stage; Uncle Tom's Cabin was produced in New York in 1853, for example (interestingly, African Americans had to enter the theater through a special entrance and were segregated from the rest of the audience). Shakespeare's plays were a perennial favorite, as were melodramas and comedies. Shows that touched on the social issues of the day were important. Temperance plays, which showed how alcohol could destroy a family, were a popular genre, and about fifty plays about Native Americans were staged between 1825 and 1860.

Early in his career as a showman, Phineas T. Barnum realized that people would pay to see exotic and sensational exhibits purported to have an educational value. In 1835, he introduced the public to an aged black woman, Joice Heth, who he claimed had been George Washington's nurse. Barnum followed this hoax with the “Feejee mermaid,” created by sewing together a fish and the upper body of a monkey. The “mermaid” and other odd displays, along with appearances by the famous twenty‐five‐inch‐tall dwarf, General Tom Thumb, were featured attractions at Barnum's American Museum in New York City (1842). Barnum was also a legitimate theatrical promoter; he brought the noted Swedish singer Jenny Lind to the United States for a concert tour in 1850.

The impact of the minstrel shows. One of the most popular forms of entertainment beginning in the 1840s was the minstrel show, which featured white performers acting out skits, singing, dancing, and telling jokes in blackface makeup. African Americans were consistently portrayed either as clumsy, lazy, stupid, docile, and childlike or as arrogant and dandified, looking ridiculous as they tried to adopt white ways. The extreme stereotypes that the shows and their advertising conveyed reflected the strong racial prejudice in the United States. Minstrel shows confirmed whites' sense of superiority while providing a racial justification for slavery. Curiously, the shows were popular at a time when feelings against slavery in the North had been increasing.

Long after the heyday of minstrel shows passed, American audiences could still see vaudeville entertainers such as Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson in blackface, and the tradition continued into the era of sound motion pictures. Even African‐American stage actors often had to undergo the indignity of putting on the distinctive makeup because theatrical convention required it.