Entertainment in the nineteenth century was vastly different than recreation today. At the time deTocqueville was traveling, the social life of Americans was in a state of transformation. Although change came much slower in the Southern states, by the 1830's reform movements concerning alcohol, corporal punishment and prison reform were beginning to have an effect on the minds of Americans.
DeTocqueville wrote, "...men in America, as with us, are arranged according to certain categories in the course of social life; common habits, education, and above all wealth establish these classifications. But these rules are neither absolute, not inflexible, nor permanent. They establish temporary distinctions, and do not form classes properly so called. They give no superiority,even in opinion, to one man above another, so that even though two individuals never meet in the same salons, if they meet on the public square, one looks at the other without pride, and in return is regarded without envy. At bottom they feel themselves equal, and are" (Pierson, 551).
This quote might apply to men within the setting of the local tavern. Much of male socializing took place in these gathering spots where all classes came together to drink heavily, swap stories, gamble and fight. Yet even outside of the taverns, drinking was a pervasive part of life in the early years of the century. Men commonly drank while working, as did ministers while preaching, and women while socializing. It is estimated that the consumption of liquor was four gallons of pure, two hundred proof liquor per capita (Larkin, 286).
DeTocqueville included a specific depiction of a Michigan tavern in his journal, "We had ourselves taken to the finest inn of Pontiac (for there are two), and we were introduced, as usual, into what is called the bar-room; it's a room where you are given to drink and where the simplest as well as the richest traders of the place come to smoke, drink, and talk politics together, on the footing of the most perfect exterior equality (Pierson, 246).
While drinking was the favorite pastime of men, as the country entered the 1830's the temperance movement was becoming the organization of choice for women. The American Temperance Society was founded in 1826 and "demon rum" became the enemy of all Christian women. The Temperance Society had a marked effect on drinking in America as fewer tavern licenses were issued and many storekeepers declined to sell liquor. But the majority of Temperance work and Temperance pledges were signed in the Northern section of the country. The South retained its drinking, gaming and gambling with much less interest in the Temperance Society. The two images below show a Currier and Ives portrayal of "The Drunkard's Progress" and a painting of a man signing his temperance pledge as his wife and children celebrate and a drunk man stands to the side.
As with most aspects of life, recreation in rural communities was different than within the cities. Occasions for socialization in the country were centered around assisting other families with work and getting difficult jobs done by utilizing the efforts of a large group. Such occasions included cornhuskings, barn raisings, and quiltings. The corn huskings were called together in order to accomplish the monotonous job of stripping the harvested corn of its leaves and husks. Southerners and Westerners typically husked corn in a competitive manner, either with teams of men or as races between individuals. In the New England states it was usually a circle of men and women who husked and talked together, which served as a courting opportunity as well (Larkin, 267).
House and barn raisings were also the work of the entire community. Usually the men performed the hard labor and the women prepared food for the after work festivities. In the late nineteenth century, communal activities began to wane due to a lack of economic practicality, but house and barn raising continued for many years because a large group was necessary to raise the heavy timber frames. Attempting to build a frame house without enough manpower was a dangerous folly.
Also common were gatherings of women for quilting bees, apple bees and other chores that might be performed in groups. This allowed women an opportunity to socialize with one another while accomplishing their work. Such meetings were typically centered around the creation of a craft and have become the modern representation for folklife and folkart, such as the image to the left.
The church was at the heart of many nineteenth century social lives. Sundays were set aside as a day of rest, family time and church services. Depending on the piety of one's family, the day was spent in long morning and afternoon services with no playing or frivolity; while less severe families felt that work was forbidden though social activity was not. With a reputation established long ago, New Orleans was scandalous to nineteenth century Americans as they featured "not only dances and drinking, but promenading prostitutes, frequent duels and hours-long slave dances to African drums..." on the Sabbath (Larkin, 277). Retaining a French attitude toward religion, New Orleans stood in contrast to much of the country.
The camp meetings of the time contrasted normally austere church services. Common in the West, camp meetings consisted of outdoor services that were predominately made up of uneducated peoples, and which relied on a great deal of emotional appeal. Frances Trollope visited an outdoor revival during her 1832 visit to America and wrote that, "The combined voices of such a multitude, heard at the dead of night, with the dark figures of the officials in the middle of the circle and the lurid glare thrown by the altar fires in the woods beyond" were very effective. These revivals served as meeting places and religious opportunities for a common experience among sections of the country.
Another quotation from deTocqueville is indicative of the sort of activities which appealed to him concerning everyday activities of Americans. He wrote, "Their customs have none of the naivete of the fields; the philosophical and argumentative spirit of the English crops up there as in all parts of America; and there is an astonishing circulation of letters and newspapers in the midst of these wild forests. We were traveling with the mail. From time to time we stopped before what they called the post. It was almost always an isolated house in the depth of the woods. There we dropped a large packet, from which doubtless each inhabitant of the neighborhood came to take his share. I don't believe that in the most enlightened rural district in France there is carried on an intellectual exchange as rapid or as large as in these wildernesses" (Pierson, 588).
In describing his own recreation in the cities, deTocqueville noted, "Evening at the theatre... Strange spectacle offered by the chamber. First stalls (loge) white,second grey, coloured women, very pretty, white ones among them, but a remainder of African blood. Third stalls black. Audience, we think ourselves in France, noisy, uproarious, turbulent,talkative, a thousand leagues away from the United States. We leave at ten. Quadroon ball. Strange sight: all the men white, all the women coloured, or at least of African blood. Single tie created by immorality between the two races. A sort of bazaar. The women vowed as it were by law to concubinage. Incredible laxity of morals. Mothers, young girls, children at the dance;still another harmful consequences of slavery. Multitude of coloured people at New Orleans. Small number in the North. Why? Why, of all the European races, is the English race the one that has best preserved its purity of blood and mingled least with the natives?" (Pierson, 628-29).
He also recorded the French impression of a formal dinner in America, "As for the dinner itself, it represented the infancy of art: the vegetable and fish before the meat, the oysters for dessert. In a word, complete barbarism (Pierson, 88). Coupled with the practice of consuming whisky, rather than wine, with meals, the Frenchment did not enjoy their dining experiences during the journey. Yet these varied experiences support Tocqueville's guiding statement that, "...one improves oneself in...know[ing] men of all kinds" (Pierson, 86).