Knights of Labor Knights of Leisure
In April 1889, Ralph Beaumont traveled to Philadelphia to deliver a series of lectures on KOL reform efforts. As the Order's paid Capitol Hill lobbyist, Beaumont was well known and well respected. Brothers from LA 1 took it upon themselves to show Beaumont a good time while he was in their midst. But if Beaumont expected tributes to the KOL founders who first sanctified LA 1, he was soon disappointed. Instead, he was taken to Curio Hall to see "gum-chewers." Beaumont reported that twenty-four brightly clad women masticated "a sort of gum of an elastic nature, which enabled them to hold one position of it with their teeth while they stretched the other out the full length of their arms, and then gradually lapped it back into their mouths with their tongues."
Having witnessed this remarkable performance, Knights whisked Beaumont off to a twenty-five-minute "variety show" for which he paid a 10-cent admission. Later, they took him to view the wonders of a local dime museum. By the end of his stay, Beaumont was 30 cents poorer, but perhaps wiser. It did not escape his notice that there were some fifteen hundred workers crowded into the variety theater but none of his three lectures attracted more than one hundred. In disgust he jested, "I have made up my mind that I will change my occupation as Lecturer to gum-chewing."1
This amusing little anecdote contains several lessons. First, how people play can be just as revealing as their work or the ideas they profess to hold. Ralph Beaumont came to Philadelphia with one agenda, but the Knights he encountered had lighter things on their minds. What did leisure mean to frolicking Knights? Although KOL leisure activities were frequently riddled with deeper political and ideological meanings, they were not uniformly so. Leaders did not have an easy time controlling or shaping rank-and-file diversions. Further, the patterns of play do not fit neatly into any analytical category. One finds equal doses of politics and____________________