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Spare Time in Texas

Spare Time in Texas
Recreation and History in the Lone Star State

A first-ever history of recreation in Texas that shows how our pastimes reveal our characters.

Series: Jack and Doris Smothers Endowment in Texas History, Life, and Culture, Number Twenty-one

January 2008
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
300 pages | 7 x 10 | 112 b&w illus. |

What do Texans' pastimes and recreations say about their characters? Looking at Texas history from a new angle, David McComb starts from the premise that how people spend their leisure time may well reveal more about their true natures and interests than the work they do or their family connections. In this innovative book, McComb traces the history of various types of recreation in Texas, gathering significant insights into the characters of Texans from the pleasures they have pursued.

Reflecting the frontier origins of Texas, McComb starts with the recreations that were most popular with men in a crude, still-developing society—drinking, gambling, and whoring. He goes on to show how, as Texas became more civilized, so did its diversions. He describes how Texans have connected with nature in parks and zoos; watched football and baseball in great stadiums such as the Astrodome and Cotton Bowl; discovered the pleasure of reading in public and university libraries; and enjoyed radio, TV, movies, and live theater in places such as Houston's Alley Theatre.

This recreational history reveals that Texans are open-minded and generous; that they respect the land; oppose prostitution but indulge in gambling and drinking; support racial and gender rights; love zoos; champion libraries; take pride in theatrical productions; and adore sports.

  • Introduction
  • 1. The Licit and the Illicit
  • 2. Parks and Other Public Spaces
  • 3. The Great Stadiums
  • 4. The Pleasure of Libraries
  • 5. Theater and the Electric Revolution
  • 6. Conclusions and Afterthoughts
  • Notes
  • A Bibliographic Note
  • Index

David G. Mccomb grew up in Houston and is an emeritus professor of history at Colorado State University. He has written extensively about Texas, including award-winning books on Houston and Galveston, as well as about Colorado and sports.


For many people recreation, or leisure, is a trivial subject. Work is what is important—an opinion shared by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, sociologist Max Weber, and four centuries of Puritans. John Adams of Massachusetts, second president of the United States, proclaimed, "I was not sent to this world to spend my days in sports, diversions, and pleasures. I was born for business; for both activity and study." A century later, another president, Theodore Roosevelt of New York said, "Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." To be sure, making a living, or work, is vitally important, but Adams also developed a taste for Parisian theater, and Roosevelt rode his horse every afternoon in Washington's Rock Creek Park.

Upon meeting someone for the first time our initial question is usually, "What kind of job do you have?" It is a means of economic identification and a measurement of worth. The Southern variant is, "Where do you come from?" This is meant to establish family lineage and social status. We might gain greater insight, however, by asking an additional question, "What do you do in your spare time?" This is the activity that a person freely chooses. How people spend their leisure time is an indication of their true interests, since they are not under the direction of a job or boss. A person's choice of recreation, therefore, may well be a better measurement of individual character than vocation or family, the usual standards. In larger terms, the recreational preferences of a people reveal the character of the people.

After time spent for work and everyday life maintenance, such as grocery shopping and house cleaning, there are about as many leisure hours left over per week as those used for a job. This can be roughly calculated by assuming forty hours per week for work, fifty-six hours for sleeping, and thirty-two hours for meals and errands. What is left over—forty hours—is leisure. Of course, there are variations. Some people labor many more hours, or sleep less, or have their spare time taken up with the demands of children, or they eat fast foods, or may be unemployed, or may be retired. But as sociologist John R. Kelly put it, "Leisure is what we don't have to do." In general, people have a large quantity of discretionary time.

"Recreation," although often used interchangeably with the word "leisure," implies a certain amount of organization, self-direction, benefit, and purpose. Leisure is leftover time—the quantity; recreation is what is done with the time—the quality. Recreation history, thus, is the study of how people have used their leisure. It includes entertainments, diversions, festivities, vacations, sports, and games. It should be noted, moreover, that there have long been a recognition and concern about the use of leisure. A royal Egyptian official, Ptahhotpe, wrote in the twenty-fourth century BCE, "Do no more than you are ordered to, nor shorten the time accorded to leisure. It is hateful to the spirit to be robbed of the time for merriment." In Genesis the Old Testament God created heaven and earth in six days and then rested on the seventh. Ancient Greeks thought leisure necessary for self-development and for political participation.

In modern American society there is the thought that recreation is necessary in order to recover from work and to prepare to go back to work. It is "re-creation." The seventeenth-century proverb from English writer James Howell, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," has become a part of the vernacular. Thus, recreation is rationalized to be beneficial, if not necessary. It is certainly demanded by the public. About one-half trillion dollars were spent in the United States on recreation at the turn of the twenty-first century, and the number of visitors to national parks equaled the population of the nation.

Still, there is little documented evidence that recreation is vital for human beings, and indeed, there has been some cynical comment. At the end of the nineteenth century, economist Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) wrote scathingly about the nonproductive leisure class. About conspicuous leisure and consumption by the upper class, he commented, "In the one case it is a waste of time and effort, in the other it is a waste of goods." University of Chicago educator Robert Hutchins (1899-1977) later grumped about the lower class, "More free time means more time to waste. The worker who used to have only a little time in which to get drunk and beat his wife now has time to get drunk, beat his wife—and watch TV."

The Evolution and Commercialization of Leisure

Amounts of leisure, of course, have varied over time—generally, declining during the Industrial Revolution (1775-1900) and increasing during the twentieth century. The "three eights" became the modern standard: eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for leisure along with a two-day free weekend and two weeks or more of vacation. During this transformation into the modern world, railroads spun a spider web of connections across the United States and hard surface roads spread within and between cities for the benefit of trucks, buses, and cars. At first, the recreational ambitions of bicycle riders and automobile enthusiasts inspired the construction of good roads. Air travel became an important mass transport system after 1945.

People who had increasing amounts of time and money thus could travel to distant recreation areas. Not surprisingly, the American playground movement began in 1885 and cities with public parks expanded from one hundred in 1892 to sixteen hundred in 1926. Central Park, the model for all urban parks, opened in New York City in 1853, and the National Park system began with Yellowstone in 1872. Motels started as experiments in the 1920s and Holiday Inn, the first motel chain, began in 1952.

Commercial recreation blossomed with the innovations of P. T. Barnum, who put circuses on trains in 1872, and Thomas Cook, who put people on trains for grand tours of England and Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. The 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago with its midway, displays, Ferris wheel, and exotic dancer "Little Egypt" demonstrated the potential of amusement parks. Seaside resorts for the wealthy have a long history reaching back into the eighteenth century, but Coney Island in New York City was the first to entertain the American masses beginning in 1890.

Professional baseball began its storied history with the formation of the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869, a team that toured all the way to California aboard the newly completed transcontinental railroad. Professional baseball and later professional football required the building of large stadiums in order to provide playing fields and control admission. Within the cities by the end of the nineteenth century, in addition, music halls, horse-racing tracks, bawdy houses, theaters, saloons, and nickelodeons offered a variety of entertainment. More forms of mass entertainment developed in the twentieth century with movies in the 1900s, radio in the 1920s, and television in the 1950s. Zoos, theaters, sports, libraries, parks, bars, and nightclubs continued to offer their varied attractions throughout the century. Americans, including Texans, consequently had plenty of choices for the expenditure of free time.

The Academic Study of Leisure

Psychologists, sociologists, geographers, economists, physical educators, and philosophers have all studied the phenomenon of leisure. Business people who at first were only mildly interested became vitally interested when the tourist trade became the second largest employer in the United States and in Texas after World War II. Notably for academics the Journal of Leisure Research began in 1969. Yet, historians have ignored the leisure phenomenon. As Gary Cross, a comparative historian at Pennsylvania State University, explained: "To be sure, leisure has had a place in the study of everyday life and popular culture. But scholars have usually undertaken these topics for ulterior purposes—like the study of class, gender, or political change. As a result, historians have neglected the story of the modern emergence of free time and the changing meaning of leisure as an activity of intrinsic value."

Cross has written one of the few general accounts of recreation, A Social History of Leisure Since 1600 (1990), and it compares favorably with the pioneering study by Foster Rhea Dulles, A History of Recreation: America Learns to Play (1940). Only an incomplete, unorganized, and unrecognized collection of writings about recreation history, however, exists for Texas. The major bibliographies of Texas, A Guide to the History of Texas (1988), edited by Light T. Cummins and Alvin R. Bailey Jr., and Basic Texas Books (1983) by John H. Jenkins, list nothing about recreation. Moreover, there are no entries for "recreation" or "leisure" in the New Handbook of Texas (1996). The Handbook, however, does include an article about tourism by Keith Elliott and entries about specific recreation places, such as the Armadillo World Headquarters and the Astrodome. A few references to recreation events can be found in the lengthy indexes of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly. Coverage of the topic of recreational history in Texas, therefore, is spotty.

Organization by Place

One of the great difficulties in dealing with such an amorphous subject as recreation is the enormous variety that can be found not only at a single moment, but also over time. There is, consequently, a great problem of organization. How can the topic of recreation be described, arranged, and analyzed? There are always ethnic, age, and gender differences to consider and economic and social trends to think about. Also, what might be a delight to one segment of society may be a sin to another. Geography, or location, could be a factor. What about architecture? How can a historian gain a grip on such a slippery topic?

Specific events, such as the 1936 Texas State Fair, can be examined, or perhaps topics such as poker, Texas line dance, or jazz might be described and traced. Anthropologists and folklorists like to do that. Another way, seemingly, is to study the places of recreation in a historical sense—how they started, how they were used, why they endured, who was involved, how and why they have changed, and what they have meant to the people who used them. Places are tangible reminders of events, and people are tied by their emotions to locations. They are historical artifacts, in a sense.

Certain places in Texas, when threatened by economic adversity, bulldozers, or greed, have the power to bring citizens into the streets, flood the newspapers with angry letters, and threaten the well-being of local politicians. These are places where memories have been created, sometimes in quiet, sometimes in tumult, but always with remembered emotion. Indeed, battlegrounds such as the Alamo or San Jacinto with their dramatic stories of violent death have become sacred. There are places of infamy, such as the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas and the observation tower of the Main Building at the University of Texas, where an insane sniper peered through a narrow gun sight at unsuspecting people far below. Historic sites are important lest we forget our past.

Less shocking, less time locked, and less obvious are places such as the zoos, libraries, stadiums, parks, saloons, and theaters that have provided memories and moments of relaxation for thousands of people. Such unassuming places reflect an important part of Texas culture, an aspect that has been mainly neglected in the portrayal of the state history, a history devoted mostly to straightforward provincial narratives of politics, war, and economics. Recreation represents the activities of entertainment, rest, and rejuvenation. These activities illuminate aspects of class, income, race, ethnicity, education, age, gender, technology, and geography just as do the more common topics of study. Recreational sites thus can be historically significant.

In this series of essays, consequently, I take a look at Texas places—zoos, libraries, stadiums, parks, saloons, brothels, and theaters—in order to extract some knowledge about the significance of recreation in Texas life. In addition, I comment about the ephemeral entertainment provided by movies, radio, and television. Although decentralized, this electronic extension of theater cannot be ignored. There are other places and activities of recreation, of course, but these subjects seem to be an obvious point to start.

The Historical Essay

The format for discussion is a historical essay. Essays in the literary sense usually deal with one topic or theme; they are generally short, opinionated, and flow easily to a conclusion. These essays, however, contain a lot of information, reach back to historical antecedents, and slice through the entire history of the state from the beginning to the present. They are dense with descriptive information and spiky with footnotes, something not usual for traditional literary essays. As one English professor put it to me, "These essays are like fruitcake, rather than cake." I did not particularly like the analogy, but it is one way to explain the difference. I focus upon Texas, of course, but I usually attempt to place Lone Star developments into a broad national and sometimes international historical context. Recreation in Texas did not evolve in isolation, although often there was a local wrinkle in the story.