BA American Studies / Course details

Year of entry: 2022

Course unit details:
Work and Play in the USA, 1880-2010

Unit code AMER20112
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by English and American Studies
Available as a free choice unit? No


Why do Americans today work a month longer each year than they did in the early 1970s? Why, if Americans in the late nineteenth century worried about ‘overwork’, is ‘workaholism’ today celebrated by the wider culture? Why are American workers alone in the advanced world in not having guaranteed paid vacation? How in the 1990s did companies like Starbucks train their workforce to ‘treat their customers like celebrities’? This course examines shifting ideas about work in the modern US, alongside the remaking of the concept leisure, which, in the 1880s, was uncoupled from its long-standing associations with idleness, and placed at the core of the country’s labour movement. The module examines the broad transformations in the US economy, from the emergence of the Ford Motor Company’s factory system and ‘scientific management’, to its replacement with variant forms of service work, particularly amid the ‘retail revolution’, and the rise of Wal-Mart and, more recently, Amazon. All of these transformations reorganized not only what Americans did, but also how they thought about work, adjusting the length of the working day, remaking the relationship between work and leisure, and changing opportunities for rest and recreation. Students will consider the recreational activities that won popularity among Americans across the social spectrum between the end of the nineteenth and the start of the twenty-first century, and consider how political, technological, and architectural changes shaped the provision of facilities—from New York’s Coney Island to California’s Disneyland. The module uses a wide variety of texts, including written accounts, as well as photographs, paintings, and films, and a variety of original sources, including The National Police Gazette, and Sports Illustrated. The class begins by considering what the terms leisure and recreation meant in the late nineteenth century US, and what their study can tell us about the structure of American society.  


' To chart the history of the concept of leisure in the United States between 1880-2000, and to examine the particular forms that concept has taken.
- To consider the changing place of and ideas about work in American society.
- Allow students to grapple with historiographical and interpretive trends, namely to have them explain the varying popularity the study of sports, leisure, and recreation has had among scholars of American business, culture, and politics.
- To develop advanced skills of cultural observation, critical analysis, and contextualization.
- To improve students' skills at working with primary-source materials across a variety of genres.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course students should be able to:
On completion of the course students should be able to demonstrate:
- a wide-ranging knowledge of the history of leisure, recreational, and sporting activities in the United States between 1880-2000.
- be familiar with the depiction and representation of these pursuits in American culture.
- have some understanding of the history of concepts, specifically the concepts of leisure and recreation.
- The ability to analyse & interpret a range of primary sources and place them in historical context
- recognize the role of commenting upon historiographical trends.
- have enhanced skills of communication (both written and oral), and research abilities.
- be able to identify, locate, and incorporate primary historical texts and documents in their own research.
- Abilities (in the assessed essay) to effectively research and present a convincing written argument; an ability to understand and assess competing interpretations and conceptual approaches
- Abilities to carry out research, and high-level writing skills
- Development of verbal skills'delivering presentations and debating points.
- Improved critical faculties
- Ability to work independently and in groups.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Students taking this unit will be able to analyse and evaluate arguments and texts. Above all, committed students will emerge from this course unit with an advanced capacity to think critically, i.e. knowledgeably, rigorously, confidently and independently.
Group/team working
Students taking this unit will be able to work courteously and constructively as part of a larger group.
On this unit students are encouraged to respond imaginatively and independently to the questions and ideas raised by texts and other media.
Students on this unit must take responsibility for their learning and are encouraged not only to participate in group discussions but to do so actively and even to lead those discussions.
Project management
Students taking this unit will be able to work towards deadlines and to manage their time effectively.
Oral communication
Students taking this unit will be able to show fluency, clarity and persuasiveness in spoken communication.
Students on this unit will be required to digest, summarise and present large amounts of information. They are encouraged to enrich their responses and arguments with a wide range of further reading.
Written communication
Students on this unit will develop their ability to write in a way that is lucid, precise and compelling.

Assessment methods

Essay 40%
Examination 60%


Feedback methods

Discussion of an essay plan and topic in advance of submission; written feedback on essays; if the student wishes, discussion of the essay in tutorials.

Recommended reading

* Deidre Clemente, ‘Made in Miami: The Development of the Sportwear Industry in South Florida, 1900-1960,’ Journal of Social History 41 (Fall, 2007)

* Lawrence Culver, The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America (2012)

* Bruce Kuklick, To Every Thing a Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia, 1909-1976 (1991).

* Daniel Rodgers, The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920 (1979; 2014)

* Roy Rosenzweig, Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City (1983) 

* Travis Vogan, Keepers of the Flame: NFL Films and the Rise of Sports Media (2014)

* Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (2007). 

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Lectures 22
Seminars 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 165

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Andrew Fearnley Unit coordinator

Additional notes


Indicative Lecture Schedule

1. Work and the Rise of the Leisure Classes

2. ‘Working Out’: Who Gets Leisure and What Should they do with It?

3.‘America’s National Games’: Commerce and Manliness around 1900

4. Playing with Segregation: Race and Gender in American Cities

5. ‘Preserving the Nation’ and Restoring the Community: Nature and Competition during the Depression  

6. A Whole New Ball Game? Business and the Racial Politics of Fun

7. Houses in Museums and Freeways to Ballparks: Architecture and the Planning of Postwar Recreation

8. Worlds of Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy: Theme Parks and Vacations, 1950-1965.

9. ‘Simply in Being There’: Television, Journalism, and the Sports Spectator

10. Obsolete and Overworked: The Changing Nature of Work

11. A Series of World Sports: The Hegemony of American Sports

Other Information

The use of dictionaries in the examination is prohibited. This rule applies to all categories of students, including all Visiting Students.

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