A Job You Can't Lose: Work and Hobbies in the Great Depression

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 1991


Oxford University Press


The category ofleisure activity known as hobbies appears to have experienced an unprecedented growth in public acceptance in the United States during the great depression. Municipalities, schools, and businesses sponsored hobby clubs. The media, including newspapers, magazines and radio, regularly focused on hobby activity. Several national organizations emerged to promote hobbies, and the collecting activities of the president of the United States became a model for both children and adults.

Yet, there was nothing close to a consensus about what activities properly constituted a hobby or what benefits were supposed to be derived from partaking in one. In fact, there is really no way to know if more people engaged in hobbies (however they might be defined) in the Thirties than in previous decades. On the other hand, it would seem presumptuous to assume that there was no correlation at all between the great outpouring of hobby literature and hobby participation. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, and in the face of the plethora of hobby shows, hobby articles, and hobby programs that appeared during the depression, the hobby boom of the Thirties probably represented a real increase in mass participation. However, even if there were no expansion in the size of the hobby population, there was an important change in the meaning of hobbies as personal activity. Beginning in the 1920's and accelerating rapidly in the 1930's, discussions of individual hobby activities such as stamp collecting, music making, woodworking, and the like, were often linked under the more inclusive category of"hobbies."1 More exact than "leisure," which had already developed a lengthy scholarly pedigree, the new category referred to a socially sanctioned subset of leisure. The word "hobby" became a strategic term used less to be descriptive than to carry the weight of authoritative approval when applied to individual activities. In other words, the term "hobby," as used in the Thirties, was more an ideological construct created to distinguish between "good" and "bad" pastimes, than a natural category of leisure activity.