Working at Play: The Phenomenon of 19th Century Worker-Competitions

By Zarnowski, C. Frank | Journal of Leisure Research, Second Quarter 2004 | Go to article overview

Working at Play: The Phenomenon of 19th Century Worker-Competitions


Zarnowski, C. Frank, Journal of Leisure Research


Introduction

Competitive work games became an apparent part of America's economic and cultural life in the 19th century. Work-sport champions performed feats of strength, dexterity and endurance at or after work. By the end of the century more than 45% of the American work-force found themselves in occupations in which worker-competitions were widespread (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975). Remarkably, given the economic and cultural implications, not a single study focuses on the phenomena. Vincent (1994) explains the evolution of occupational sports:

Americans had been engaged in sports since colonial times, as evidenced by the numerous edicts and diatribes written by Puritans condemning everything from horse racing to deer hunting. However what passed as athletics in Colonial America was along the lines of informal competitions between neighbors to see who was the fastest woodchopper. (p. 16)

Because work time and leisure time were not so rigidly separated as they are today, early 19th century work and play mingled with one another.

I have defined worker-competitions (work-sports) as physical contests derived from a laborer's occupation (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1998). Many 19th century occupations were unquestionably skilled requiring strength, speed, endurance, dexterity and eye-hand coordination (Conk, 1980). Examples include plowing and mowing matches, breaking or drilling rocks, logrolling and tree cutting, and laying rails or bricks. Some delimitation is necessary.1 Initially these competitions were local in scope and played without standardized rules. Many were arranged ad hoc and the distinction between the spectators and the players was, at times, not clear cut. And there was no need to distinguish between amateurs and professionals. These games were part of a larger pattern which Gold and Goldstein (1993) called folk recreation. As defined here worker-competitions or work-sports should not be confused with what sports historians often refer to as "worker's sports," the amusements and recreations of the laboring class (Couvares, 1984; Cumbler, 1979; Gorn, 1986; Harvey, 1969; Nelson, 1975; Rosenzweig, 1983). Nor should work-sports be confused with the work situation in which laborers "compete" with one another for better materials (especially in piece rate jobs), or work space (Zahavi, 1988).

The immediate justification for the American worker to engage in such activity may have been to have some fun, relieve boredom or win a monetary sum. There may have been deeper reasons. Regardless of the reasons for participation, successful work-athletes won bets, set records and enhanced their own local reputations. And since worker competitions amounted to de facto on-the-job training programs in numerous occupations, productivity was advanced. Not only did the games demonstrate the capability of workers and develop new tools and techniques, but they served as early efficiency training (see Table 1).

This study identifies the phenomenon of 19th century work-sports and offers a rationale for their incidence. Three issues should be made clear from the start. First, worker competitions are not new. Plowing and grass cutting (with a scythe) contests were part of Homeric Society (Applebaum, 1995). What is different is the frequency and popularity of worker competitions in American work history. A count in just America's sporting journals in the years immediately preceding and immediately after the Civil War reveal hundreds of documented cases. Yet in England, for example, there appears to be little evidence of the same. In Thompson's (1963) seminal study of the English working class not a single reference to worker competitions, games or contests exist.

Second, modern historians, both labor and sporting, have paid scant attention to this phenomenon, perhaps thinking that the concept of competitive work-sport was the other's domain. For the most part, with the exception of minimal references in Kirsch (1992) and Gems (1995), the story of competitive work contests has fallen through history's cracks. …

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