Origin of Everything

S2 E15 | FULL EPISODE

Why Do We Have Hobbies?

Where did the concept of a hobby come from? And how did humans turn the things they do purely for fun into side hustles and competitions that actually pay the bills?

AIRED: March 19, 2019 | 0:09:06
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TRANSCRIPT

from the early 1400s until the 19th century the word hobby was mostly a

descriptor for a pony or small horse but in the wake of the Industrial Revolution

the diminutive word had taken on a new life as a term used to describe a

recreational activity performed outside of your normal work hours and today

whether it's running marathons baking instagram-worthy cakes or collecting

rare weird stuff it seems like everybody has a productive hobby and they're

getting so productive that leisure time is quickly leaking back into our

productive hours in the forms of side hustles hobby competitions on the gig

economy but why and when did we develop noncompensatory skills outside of our

usual nine-to-five aka things we do for fun but not for money but we still work

actively at getting better at and did you know that the origin of the hobby as

a practice stems from the 19th century rise of middle-class culture and efforts

by this burgeoning conservative middle class to keep people productive and away

from more decadent and frivolous off-the-clock pursuits so let's just

skip over the tiny horse part of hobbies history and get right into the way we

use it today industrialization across europe and the US in the 18th and 19th

centuries brought work largely out of the home or the local sphere and into

larger cities and factories as a result labor became something that was

commodified by hours spent at work which were increasingly sold by poor and

working-class laborers to wealthy business owners but although the

emergence of more industrial labor brought a sharper divide between work

life and home life than say agriculture did where folks often lived on the farms

where they worked work and leisure weren't as sharply separated as you

think in his book hobbyist leisure and the culture of work in America historian

Stephen M Gelber notes that in the early days hobbies in the u.s. developed as a

category of socially valued leisure activity in the 19th century because

they bridged the world of work and home according to Gelber hobbies brought the

values of maximized productivity from the external workplace into the home for

women and allowed men who worked outside of the home to create a businesslike

space he also notes that while hobbies offered relief from the old grindstone

they also occupied a space tied to productive leisure so instead of coming

home to kick off your shoes and eat a bunch of snacks before taking a nap you

are expected to put your hands to use in some fun but also constructive way

Gelber states that for the middle-class worker this created a process of

disguised affirmation where you still feel rewarded and happy for not working

/ taking it easy but you're also unconsciously mirroring the kind of

productivity you experience and are rewarded for at work

so you learn to play an instrument or Whittle or knit although if I learned to

whittle I would have zero fingers left but you don't just bang away aimlessly

at the keys or hack into a piece of wood earn it endless ribbons of material with

no aim in sight you started off shaky but over time you build strength behind

the skill pushing yourself to play harder music make bigger wood projects

or make three sets of baby clothing for your best friend before she gives birth

and all of a sudden you have a workplace level skill that you do for fun but

don't get paid for hobbies but hobbies popularity in the 19th century was also

divided by class and gender Gelber notes that both working-class and middle-class

men could be encouraged to have hobbies because their lives were equally

structured outside of the home by the workweek however for the emerging group

of middle-class women in the United States in the 19th century hobbies were

a distinctive pastime that was separate from the kind of work they were expected

to do in the home and a sign of crafting so instead of sewing in the home to

repair your family's worn-out items or threadbare stockings

perhaps a middle-class woman can now take time to do things like complicated

needlework which is pretty but not always attached to a practical use and

while both men and women who develop hobbies are often interested in

perfecting their craft trades and collections it only remains a hobby if

you are uninterested in profiting from it as your main source of income so you

may be able to make world-class wooden canoes but you can't think of selling

them as your primary livelihood because then it becomes a job so essentially

you're Ron Swanson and hobbies could also continue to enforce the ideologies

of the workplace on off-the-clock workers because unconsciously enforces a

stricter code of conduct than if all those nineteenth-century folks were left

to their own devices and vices so instead of sleeping all day eating a

bunch of food getting drunk or gambling you can figure out how to stuff a ship

into a bottle which would honestly drive me to drink because I'm pretty impatient

but hobbies can also show a sign of conspicuous leisure especially if it's

something you share with others for example women abolitionists in the late

1820s and 1830s organized fancy fairs where they could make display and sell

their handicrafts for charity and by the 1880s middle-class women had returned to

the traditions established by fancy fairs to display intricate needlework by

decayed gentlewomen or upper-class ladies without money with the less fancy

and more humble work still going to charity donations or fund raising

bazaars so when did we make the shift from hobby to hustle because whether you

know someone selling their handiwork on Etsy or entering their pastime into a

competition with a cash prize it seems like the hobbies of the past are

becoming even less about leisure every day well that brings our timeline

lurching forward into the early 20th century in 1908 a New England mill

implemented a weekend in order to accommodate Jewish workers who observe

the Sabbath on Saturdays while the workers often made up their hours on

Sundays this sometimes offended the Christian majority who considered Sunday

their holy day as a result the mill gave the workers both days off and other

factories and mills began to follow suit and thus the institutionalized weekend

was born the part of the calendar not the singer now when the Great Depression

sent in by 1929 and continued through the 1930s the weekend suddenly became a

solution for employers who are looking to shorten the workweek to save money in

the face of economic disaster and suddenly all of those handicrafts and

hobbies that you learn for fun became a bit more essential so people's

recreational pursuits like intense baking building sewing crafting pickling

vegetables started making ends meet between uncertain paychecks in that way

the hobby actually served as ample preparation for economic downturns

because they already functioned as pseudo work and in the mid 20th century

hobbies actually turned into big business for stores that catered to

hobbyists think train building kits specialty albums to store all of your

rare baseball cards in and magazines full of sewing patterns so the

connection between structure leisure and the workplace grew even

stronger since some folks made their livings selling hobbies and the

persistent idea of hobbies as a form of self sustenance continued even after the

Depression and into the 1950s and 1960s but after the latter half of the 20th

century hobbies took on a slight bite to become more competitive eliminating the

illusion of leisure almost all together now we all probably see a million posts

from our friends who used to be casual joggers but now regularly compete in

half marathons or a person who you've a glean ooh like to bake who now has tens

of thousands of social media followers admiring their artful geometric pies I

mean even people who started off vlogging for fun on YouTube are quickly

finding ways to cash in on their formerly recreational pursuits think

about ninja who's been recently making headlines for revealing that he makes

five hundred thousand dollars a month from playing fortnight and streaming it

on twitch and YouTube and according to an article in The Guardian by Richard

Godwin this desire to turn hobby into hustle could stem from a couple of

impulses the first is that were often presented with the fabled hobbies of the

super wealthy and successful people we aim to emulate so if we hear that a

notable CEO runs eight marathons a year and made a billion dollars we

automatically connect this no days off attitude with her thirst for success the

second is a desire to find meaning and purpose in our lives through increased

human perfectionism so it's not just okay to make kind of miss shape and ugly

cookies that taste great and everyone in your family enjoys suddenly you're ugly

butter face cookies are out and you're watching two hours of YouTube tutorials

trying to figure out how to do a mirror glaze on a four-year-old's birthday cake

and the last reason is that we now have the tools and technology to quantify our

progress in various hobbies which brings out the iron person in all of us so your

SmartWatch can track the number of steps you take how many squats you took and

your resting heart rate you can make blogs and videos about your progress in

a video game or keep a public Instagram tracking your evolution as a jean jacket

bedazzler and the ability to track makes the progress you make feel more concrete

and satisfying especially since you can compare it with others so the 21st

three hobby is marked by technology tracking progress and innate competition

as people look to improve and also to find meaning in their lives outside of

their nine-to-five so what do you think anything to add - how hobbies have

always been tied to work have any links or social media handles to site tracking

the progress of your own personal passion that you want to share with your

fellow edge knots and me drop all of that info down below so I can creep

around on your cool pages and if you like origin of everything be sure to

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Instagram and Twitter that's it for this episode and I'll see you guys here next

time

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