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FYIWhistling while we work

Making the most of it: Fun in the 1700s

The coming of leisure

Opportunity cost

Having Fun


While we work<
Soup's on!
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Making the most of it

Consider the less-than-complimentary idiom many people use to describe a dull job: "The daily grind." For a healthy dose of perspective, take your job – on it's worst day, under the worst conditions – and compare it to what "the daily grind" must have been like for those early settlers of our area during the late 1700s.

After a long winter of isolation, The "Mountain Men" or "Frontiersmen" would all come out of the hills and valleys and meet at the center of the settlement. This was usually the Trading Post where they would come to replenish their stock and buy seed for the spring planting. They would vent their energies pent up over the winter by drinking and engaging in competitive activities with the other settlers. These competitions would usually use the same skills that that had enabled them to settle the land and sustain their life in the wilderness -- axe throwing, log rolling, knife throwing, arm and body wrestling, log wrestling -- and sometimes bear wrestling. When they had spent all their stored up emotional steam, they returned to their homes and put those same skills to work getting the years crops started.

Also after the long winter of isolation, the women gathered together and had a "Quilting Bee." The whole community worked together on each others quilts that the women had pieced together during the long winter months, using up all the "good" parts of the family's worn out clothes. The children came to the "Bee" too. The older ones were put to "work" under the quilting frames pushing the needles back up through the fabric to the quilter's hands above.

The men would usually come in from the fields and join them for a meal of hearty soup or stew that had simmered on the stove all day while the women worked. Sometimes after the meal, if they still had some energy left over, they would roll up the rugs and dance to a fiddle, "bones," or spoons.

Just as keelboatmen found a way to inject fun into a difficult job with their elaborate brags (See Mike Fink in Rivers and Valleys), farmers did the same thing when it came time to build a house for himself or a neighbor. Everyone got together to share the work but also to share the fun. The women brought food and they had music, and possibly a "barn dance" at the end of a long day of labor.

The coming of leisure

Over time, modern advances and automated conveniences helped to provide leisure time – once the domain of only the wealthiest families --to the middle-classes, too. While people did – and still do, today -- use the arts, sports, hobbies, etc., to help pass time during an unsavory task or job, pockets of leisure time were being carved out for people who sought the satisfaction of simply indulging a special interest. Perhaps they participated in a church or community based group, where ethnic traditions such as singing and dancing reminded them of a distant beloved homeland. Perhaps they took part in an organized sport. Perhaps they strove to make their home not just safe and an effective barrier against the weather, but also a haven adorned by flower gardens and family treasures.

Opportunity cost

Today, we are a culture bombarded by media messages telling us to "work hard and play hard." We spend literally billions of dollars indulging our hobbies, pastimes, and our passions. Many people build their lifestyles around a particular leisure activity, for instance, jogging, hiking, dancing, antique collecting, etc. At its simplest root, "leisure time" is the time a person chooses not to be working. Rather than devoting that time to a money-earning venture, a person is using it on a leisure pursuit so fulfilling that it makes it worth the money he or she is sacrificing. When you consider it from that angle, studying how a person chooses to spend such precious leisure time gives great insight into his or her culture, values, interests, character and skills..

South Side youngsters playing a traditional game of hand jive.

Photo of hand jive
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

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