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Get Capitalists’ Grubby Hands Off Our Hobbies

Christian moralists long promoted hobbies as a way to occupy idle hands, bringing the work ethic into free time. Today hobbies risk turning into side hustles.

The Rise of the Hobby

The hobby as we know it today is intertwined with the history of capitalism. In his book Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America, historian Steven Gelber traces the changing meaning of the hobby. Whereas until 1880 it still referred to a “dangerous obsession,” thereafter it increasingly took on the exclusive meaning of “productive leisure.”

Originally, the word “hobby” referred to a small horse or pony. In the eighteenth century, it took on the meaning of a preoccupation, an obsession that is mostly trivial and comical. This is well-illustrated in the novel Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne’s comic masterpiece published in five installments between 1759 and 1767, which popularized the term “hobby horse.” The character Uncle Toby is obsessed with military strategy; the narrator, Tristram Shandy, reveals toward the end of the book that writing it was his hobby horse.

Only in the nineteenth century did the term gradually lose its equine connotation and start referring more and more to a group of leisure activities. The Industrial Revolution had already begun to drive urbanization and the disciplining of labor, and in this context, the workers’ movement fought for the eight-hour working day. Karl Marx called shortening working hours “the basic condition” for freedom. In increased leisure time, the working class sought relief from the pressures of work. But, as Gelber shows in his fascinating history, the upper classes saw increased leisure for the working class as a problem: idleness could lead to dangerous ideas, vice, or criminal activities. Reformers and moralists saw the solution in occupations that were decent and virtuous: hobbies.

At the turn of the century, sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote his classic The Theory of the Leisure Class. He argued that higher classes in society have always defined themselves by having economically unproductive occupations and pursuits (such as government, war, sports, and religion), while the lower classes are tied to manual labor. He coined the term “conspicuous leisure,” referring to the activities that serve to display social status. With the development of the leisure class, for example, hunting breaks down into two different activities: one as “a trade, carried on chiefly for gain,” and the second as a sport. According to Veblen, the lower classes would have imitated the pastimes for the upper classes, which can explain the rise of the hobby.