What Did Entertainment Look Like 100 Years Ago In The USA


The Auditorium theatre in Toronto, 5c admission, / Photo by William James, CC0 1.0

In the days of bright lights and multiple screens, it’s rare that Americans need to struggle for entertainment. We have films, books, television, computers and the internet at our fingertips. The modern problem is not one of boredom, but of overstimulation and escapism. The question is not “What is there to do?”, but “Can I stay off YouTube for long enough to do something meaningful?”.

When I was younger, I remember asking my grandad what he used to do before television. He said that there was plenty to do, that families sat around and talked and played board games. “Sounds boring”, I said, much to his dismay.

Doubtless younger generations think the same of their own everyday activities, imagining what life was like for those who weren’t ‘fortunate’ enough to be born into a realm of Playstation and Instagram.

Before any of it existed – the screens and the movie theatres and the sleepless nights of Fortnite – there was still entertainment. People still had ways to pass time, to connect and to enjoy moments of solitude or social events. Just what was entertainment like 100 years ago in the USA?

Cultural Differences Between Classes

It’s important to understand that society, and by extension everyday life, was very different in the early 1900s. For example, the 1920 Census shows that over 80% of ‘men’ over 10 worked, compared to only 69% of men over 16 today.

In 1899, more than 100,000 youngsters worked in factories, while around half of families lived on farms. City dwellers often walked to work, as very few people had cars. Family vacations were also unheard of, and days out typically involved shopping with parents, with perhaps a small treat.

There were also huge class divides, and cultural differences between classes when it came to entertainment.

Lower classes often lived off $5 a week. Entertainment consisted of penny arcades, dance halls and nickelodeons, early cinemas with a very low entrance fee. Many also took part in activities related to their ethnic traditions.

Middle classes typically went out to the circus or to vaudeville shows. These were stage plays that could involve comedy, singing and dancing. Home life might consist of playing the piano or listening to the phonograph.

The ‘Elite’ at the same time often found their entertainment in ‘high-brow’ arts, such as opera, symphonies and Broadway theatre. There was an emphasis on romantic idealism that carried over from the 19th century. Many also had an interest in European and Asian antiquities.

Mulberry Street in NYC, around 1900 / Photo by Detroit Publishing Co., CC0 1.0

Board and Card Games

Considering that so many people worked long hours 100 years ago, and at such a young age, there was less time for leisure, especially among working classes. Yet loved ones found time to spend together, often with board games, which have been around a great deal longer, as the activity of choice.

Electric lights were becoming increasingly common, and so it was becoming easier to play the board games of the time, games like ‘Motor Carriage Game’ which depicted a road trip, even though there were only a few thousand cars on the roads at the time.

Card games were also popular, and often had a cultural and geographical context. Texas Hold ‘em was popular only in Texas during the early 1900s, long before the game spread to Vegas by the late 1960s. Hold ‘em is now one of the most popular card games in the world, especially online, where one major site has recently reached a new milestone, with 200 billion hands dealt. ‘Whist’ was another popular card game across the US, and ‘Faro’ even became more popular than poker in the 1900s.

There were also plenty of toys to play with in the 1900s, if you could afford them. The best dolls were from Europe, while dolls and action figures were often homemade for both boys and girls. Marbles was a popular game to play, along with games like ‘Duck-on-a-Rock’, which basically consists of throwing rocks at a target. Hopscotch, skipping rope, and of course the timeless act of building with sand and mud were popular with the young.

Life Before TV

There was no such term as ‘popular’ culture 100+ years ago. This was the really early days of mass marketing entertainment. There was no mass communication. Print was the most popular medium, but again what people read depended a lot on social strata.

The elite tended to read journals and columns by respected authors of the time like Mark Twain and Sarah Orne Jewett. The masses read romance and adventure series, such as Jack London’s ‘Call of the Wild’ and ‘White Fang’.

Though reading was still the most available form of media entertainment, movies were also about to gain popularity. Cinema was invented in 1894, and in 1903 the public were treated to the first public screening of the “Great Train Robbery”. No film by today’s standards, but a collection of images collated using the parallel cut technique.

Life before TV was difficult for many people, but more because of the social and economic conditions of the time. People still had plenty to do. Those who could afford elaborate entertainment went out and lavished themselves, and those who couldn’t found creative ways to pass the time and have fun. In the end, entertainment itself is not really that much different – it is the mediums that have changed, as well as the conditions of society that dictate how much entertainment time we have, and what we fill it with.

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