Laboring to Play: Home Entertainment and the Spectacle of Middle-Class Cultural Life, 1850-1920

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Laboring to Play: Home Entertainment and the Spectacle of Middle-Class Cultural Life, 1850-1920 Melanie Dawson. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.

"All play means something," writes J. Huizmga m Homo Ludens. In Laboring to Play, a historical analysis of 19th century home entertainment, Melanie Dawson sets out to explain what it meant in the lives of middle-class Americans. Whereas much has been written about children's toys and play in this era, little scholarship has addressed adults' games and leisure activities. However, Dawson's story of them sheds light on important class and gender issues.

Play in nineteenth century America took on many forms, such as parlor games, charades, home dramas, and tableaux vivants. Analysis of these forms shows how middle-class Americans developed a sense of group identity and set standards for proper etiquette and social conformity. For example, "The Genteel Lady," a popular parlor game, requires participants to perfectly repeat a complicated text, and when they fail, they receive paper horns. "Although a game like 'Genteel Lady' purports to uphold something labeled 'gentility,'" Dawson writes, "it aggressively questions the fhtedness of genteel ambitions to the game's participants, most of whom will in fact lose the title 'Genteel Lady' and become 'Horned Ladies' instead" (21). …