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Press release

  • 15 June 2005
  • A leisurely look at America in the Great Depression

    Leisure magazine in the 1930s instructed Americans on how to spend their free time

    Leisure magazine in the 1930s instructed Americans on how to spend their free time

    America gave the world the 24/7 working culture, but it could have been the four-hour day or the three-day week if that nation's social policy had taken a different course in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

    The "crisis" of leisure in 1930s America - when leisure was seen as both the curse of society and the answer to all of modern society's ills - is the subject of a new book, The March of Spare Time: The Promise and Problem of Leisure in the Great Depression (University of Pennsylvania Press), by Dr Susan Currell, a lecturer in American Studies at the University of Sussex.

    Dr Currell says: "That the Depression should change notions of leisure in society should perhaps come as no surprise. But the ensuing debate revealed wider concerns about America at that time. Leisure became the battleground for widespread ambivalence about technology, social and economic change and changing social habits, which led to the publication of thousands of books and articles in the mass media about the 'problem' of leisure."

    The Depression saw up to 25 per cent of America's workforce unemployed - coincidentally it also saw the rise in mass entertainments such as the cinema, dance halls and bars, the end of Prohibition and the repeal of the gambling laws. These changes exacerbated religious and moral concern over increased involvement in passive, sedentary and morally "damaging" pastimes. Academics, social scientists and recreation experts, meantime, looked at how to encourage "proper" activities such as reading, arts and crafts, gardening and folk entertainment that would be healthy and morally acceptable. Books with titles such as How to Relax became popular reading.

    Through her examination of leisure, which taps into a rich seam of 1930s government papers, academic studies and popular "improving" books, Dr Currell reviews a pivotal period in American history at a time of momentous change.

    Such activity was also socially controlling: modern women, seen as a growing threat to men in the workplace and as becoming more socially independent, were encouraged to stay at home and take up quilting or canning produce. Similarly, teenagers were encouraged to conform socially. Organisations such as the Works Progress Administration and the National Youth Administration promoted craft workshops, good housekeeping classes and encouraged thrift and family values.

    But the three-day week and the new world of leisure never materialised. As employment rose to meet the demands of wartime and post-war boom, so the preoccupation with leisure and how to use it faded. Dr Currell says: "America went on to develop a work culture that means Americans work the longest hours and have the shortest holidays in the industrialised world. It also exports commercially-driven leisure globally. The promise of leisure of the 1930s was a Utopian dream that detracted from a proper reorganisation of work in the newly automated world."



    Notes for editors 

    University of Sussex Press office: Contact Maggie Clune on 01273 678209 or email


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