In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Leisure in the British Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • Theories of Play
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • Databases

Atlantic History Leisure in the British Atlantic World
Natalie Zacek
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0342


Play and recreation are sometimes considered to be less significant elements of culture in general and of individual societies than aspects such as work, politics, religion, the arts, and domestic life, but archaeological excavations and textual sources alike indicate that leisure pastimes have been and remain ubiquitous in past and present human societies. Because the very term “play” implies an activity that is the province of children, or which, when applied to adults, is inherently frivolous, or, within some religious or cultural contexts, even sinful, the historical and sociological study of this concept is not as developed as those that relate to what are widely believed to be more important subjects in the study of individual or communal life of the past. Yet even societies as regimented with respect to daily life and as concerned with the proper use of time as that of Puritan New England have been revealed to have included forms of recreation for children and adults alike. The historiography of the early modern Atlantic world includes numerous monographs, journal articles, and other types of scholarly works that depict practices of play and recreation throughout the colonial Americas, and among people of European, African, Native American, and mixed heritage in rural and urban contexts alike. The sources that are listed in this article describe activities and sites of leisure that range from wrestling matches between enslaved men on Southern plantations to fishing trips undertaken by elite Philadelphia clubmen to civic festivities in colonial Peru, and they depict the importance of such activities both among those whose lives centered on labor (free or unfree) and among those who were able to dedicate themselves to the enjoyment of leisure.

Theories of Play

Nearly a century after its initial publication in 1938, the most influential study of the human relationship to play is Huizinga 2016. Caillois 1961 expands on this work through an emphasis on games, and Geertz 1972 teases out the hidden meanings that underlie seemingly light-hearted competitions. Csikszentmihalyi 1975 introduces the widely cited concept of “flow,” which can be reached through various types of work but especially through engagement in games and play. Elias and Dunning 1986 conceptualizes sports as a way in which individuals who normally feel constrained by societal rules can enjoy both intense excitement and its gratifying resolution.

  • Caillois, Roger. Man, Play, and Games. New York: Free Press, 1961.

    Though impressed and influenced by Huizinga 2016 (originally published in 1938), French sociologist Caillois criticizes this seminal work because, in his view, it fails to explore the topic of the description and classification of games and ignores bets and games of chance. To Caillois, economic interest is a crucial element of games and, thus, of play, without the study of which Huizinga’s concepts are incomplete.

  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: The Experience of Play in Work and Games. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1975.

    Introducing psychologist Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow,” a state of peak enjoyment and concentration, this volume describes situations in which adults are able to attain this transcendental sense of absorption in an activity. The “flow”-producing activities that are studied include rock-climbing, dancing, basketball, and chess.

  • Elias, Norbert, and Eric Dunning, eds. Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

    Part of sociologist Elias’s decades-long research project on the “civilizing process” in medieval and early modern Europe, this volume of essays examines episodes in the history of sport and advances the claim that, in “civilized” societies in which human behavior is subject to a high level of restraint, sports provide not merely an opportunity for leisure but a venue for an enjoyable degree of excitement and its equally pleasurable resolution.

  • Geertz, Clifford. “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” Daedalus 101.1 (Winter 1972): 1–37.

    Perhaps the most influential article in the historiography of play, Geertz’s essay is based on ethnographic fieldwork he carried out among cock-fight participants in Bali in the 1950s. The central concept is that of “deep play,” which Geertz describes as a situation in which the stakes of a particular contest become so high, not just in financial terms but in relation to an individual’s reputation, that the participants lose their rationality.

  • Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Kettering, OH: Angelico, 2016.

    Originally published in 1938. This work marks the beginning of serious academic investigation of the nature and meaning of play in human society. Appropriately for a work whose title translates in English to “man the player” or “the playing human,” it asserts that play is an activity that is not merely central to but essential for the development of human culture, an idea supported by examples drawn from societies across the globe.

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