By Bob Stebbins. University of Calgary
History figures in the study of leisure in at least three crucial ways: as general history, history of leisure provision, and activity-specific history. Over the years I have remarked sporadically on all three, and with this article, am now attempting to elucidate more systematically the role of each type. Let me be clear from the outset that I am not privileging one or the other. In many instances a complete explanation of leisure rests on two or three of these histories.
The general histories track and explain the emergence and change of leisure as an institution or segment of that institution such as sport or the hobbies. These histories explain leisure in macro-contextual terms; they present a big chronological picture of leisure. Below are some highlights, showing together a number of the crucial developments leading up to today’s leisure institution as experienced in the West. My object is to provide a sense of the general of history sufficiently clear to set it off from its leisure provision and activity-specific counterparts. Many excellent general histories have been written over the years (e.g., Sylvester, 1999; Spracklen, 2011; Goodale & Godbey, 1988), obviating here the need to go into further detail. The general history also includes discussions of the various leisure trends, some of which I have recently reviewed (Stebbins, 2017, Chap. 8).
Viewed from the standpoint of work and leisure, much of the history of mankind has been about subsistence as a livelihood, with free-time activity taking place in the comparatively few hours left over after seeing to life’s basic needs. Hunting, fishing, and gathering food; raising and harvesting crops; and moving to new land that facilitates all of these, along with defending against enemies, human and animal, occupy a lot of time in a pre-industrial society. But life on this subsistence level must necessarily include a few hours off for games, dancing, music, relaxation, sexual activity, casual conversation, and the like. Hamilton-Smith (2003, pp. 225-226) wrote that archaeological findings on this sort of leisure gathered from artifacts, living sites, cave painting, and so on date as far back as the prehistoric cultures.