Public Recreation and Social Morality, June 20, 1907

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Public Recreation and Social Morality

Jane Addams
Hull House, Chicago

Joseph Lee has skillfully pointed out that the inveterate propensity of a kitten to play with a cork during an entire summer, to bounce it up and down, to follow it under the furniture, to excitedly pounce upon it, -- is a clear and obvious preparation for the kitten's later business in life of catching mice; in short, that it is a kitten's business in life to play at mouse catching, and that everything else is incidental; that his mother, at least, well recognizes this, and that she therefore by deceptive movements of her tail and other devices continually eggs him on to more complicated and to more difficult play at mouse catching.

As Mr. Lee has made clear that the chief element of pleasure and education in this continued play of the kitten lies in its anticipatory quality, so I should like to invite your attention for a few moments to another underlying element in play which consists in its reminiscent quality; and illustrate, if I may, by this same kitten grown up into an adult cat, who lives in the midst of a city in which no mice are to be found, and who is, therefore, constantly obliged to feed himself upon canned mouse meat.

To such a cat living in a mouseless factory or an office nothing could give so much pleasure as the occasional use of his muscles along the traditional lines of mouse catching or in a game which skillfully simulated mouse catching and which, therefore made the same demand upon his alertness of eye and his readiness to spring which actual mouse catching had made upon his long line of ancestors. Such a game, or series of games, would give to the city cat a sense of rest, of recreation, of restored well being, of mental stimulation which nothing else in the wide world could possibly afford him. His experience would illustrate that the two leading qualities upon which play may be successfully founded are anticipation and reminiscence and that in point of fact, almost all plays exhibit a combination of both. As anticipation has been made the basis of educational play for children so a similar effort would reveal the possibility of making reminiscence a foundation for that public recreation which modern cities must provide if they would intelligently foster social morality.

We continually forget how new the modern city is, and how short the span of time in which we have assumed that we can eliminate from public life, public provision for recreation. The Greeks held their games an integral part of religion and patriotism; the Romans made provision through the circus and the pageant for public relaxation and entertainment; the [medieval] city not only provided tournaments for the edification of knights and ladies, but dances and routs for all of the people within its walls, and the church itself presented a drama in which no less a theme than the history of creation was put upon the stage and became a matter of thrilling interest.

But during these later centuries at the very time that the city has become distinctly industrial and daily labor is continually more monotonous and subdivided, we seem to have decided that no provision for public recreation is necessary. It would be interesting to trace how far this thoughtless conclusion is responsible for the vicious excitements and trivial  amusements which in a modern city so largely take the place formerly supplied by public recreation and manly sports. It would be illuminating to know the legitimate connection between lack of public facilities for decent pleasures and our present social immoralities.

It is needless to remind you that our present cities are largely composed of people who were born in the country, and who have come to town either as immigrants or as "country people." What happens to a man when he finds himself detached from his country experiences and permanently settled in a modern city? In the country he tilled his fields, harvested his crops and fed his children with [page 2] the proceeds, -- a perfectly simple and direct process between cause and effect, between the discharge of energy and its reward. But when he comes to town it is his chief business not to conquer his environment, but to subordinate himself to it, to fit his activities to the conditions in which he finds himself, -- to obey the foreman in his factory, to manipulate prepared material which is placed in his hands. The appeal to his eye is complicated and trivial, the use of his muscles is fussy and  monotonous, the relation between cause and effect is remote and obscure. The entire process is a reversal of his country experience. His business is no longer to subdue nature but to subordinate himself to man. What may be done to aid him in this process and to relieve it of its dullness and difficulty, to mitigate its strain and harshness? Mr. Patton, who has  recently pointed out the plight of this man says that the [theater] is almost the only place which serves "memory food." As such a man looks at the melodrama his longing for a more varied experience is in some measure satisfied. The elemental action which the stage presents, the old emotions of love and jealousy, of revenge and daring takes his thought back into deep and well worn channels in which his mind runs with a sense of rest afforded by nothing else. The cheap drama brings cause and effect, will power and action, once more into relation and gives the discouraged spectator the thrilling conviction that he may yet be master of his fate and not a mere subordinate in the huge industrial system which he does not understand. In so far as the illusion of the drama succeeds in putting a man back into ancestral and primitive emotions, it has a close relation to the function performed by play, but it is of course less valuable because the sense of participation is largely one of illusion, and while the effect upon the imagination is genuine, it does not provide the same combination of mental and physical recreation which well considered public games would afford. The [theater] serves "memory food" to the actual mental and emotional life, but  does not appeal to the "muscle memory" by strenuous action nor yet by rhythmic motion as games might do. But the [theater] in its ability to bring men together into a common mood and to unite them through a mutual interest in elemental experiences has many suggestions for those forms of public recreation which are founded on reminiscence, for oldest games are dramatic in the same restricted sense that the primitive drama was, as the similar and interchangeable use of the word "play" may indicate. We might illustrate by the "wild west show" in which the onlooking boy imagines himself an active participant. The scouts, the Indians, the bucking ponies are his real, intimate companions and occupy his entire mind. In contrast with this we have the omnipresent game of tag, which is, doubtless, also founded upon the chase. It gives the boy exercise and momentary echoes of the old excitement, but it is barren of suggestion and quickly degenerates into lawless horse-play. Between the two lie many games which are easily carried out in a park or athletic field, which would both fill the mind with imaginative material and satisfy the muscles with hard reminiscent activity.

There is no doubt that while men almost universally enjoy a renewal of the primitive processes of food getting, as the wide-spread pleasure in fishing and hunting can testify, they are also able in constructing their games upon the reminiscent basis to draw upon a varied and inexhaustible store of other human experiences. In point of fact, we have a multitude of games founded upon religious festivals, upon the [maneuver] of war, and of the chase, upon harvesting grain and treading the grapes, upon love making, upon trial by combat, upon the processes of primitive industry. It would not be impossible to revive and develop these historic games into a tremendous power for the very sort of recreation and refreshment which a man living in an industrial city most needs and of the sort which nothing else could afford him. The commingling of many nationalities in the average American city would not prove a disadvantage in this undertaking for every attempt at adaptation of the  primitive activities would bring the game nearer the universal type and therefore make more valuable its recreative quality. [page 3] The final game could not concern itself with the experiences of one nation as they varied from the experiences of another, but would perforce be drawn back to those experiences which were racial and unifying. The last form would bring the wearied muscles and brain nearest to the real play gratification. These public games would also perform a social function in revealing men to each other, for it is in moments of pleasure, of emotional expansion that men do this most readily. Play, beyond any other human activity fulfills this function of revelation of character and is therefore most useful in modern cities which are full of devices for keeping men apart and holding them ignorant of each other. Public recreation would also reveal the old and young to each other and bring them together upon some other basis than that of dull work. Perhaps never before have the pleasures of the young and mature become so definitely separated as in the modern city. The public dance halls, filled with frivolous and vapid young people in a feverish search for pleasure are but a sorry substitute for the immemorial dances on the village green in which all of the older people of the village participated. Chaperonage was not then a social duty, but natural and inevitable, and the whole courtship period was naturally guarded by the conventions and restraint which were taken as a matter of course and had developed through years of publicity and simple propriety. The modern city is content, however, to turn over all the public provision for dancing to the proprietors of "halls," who deliberately use it as a snare to vice and at the best make money from this insatiable desire on the part of young people. We have no sense of responsibility in regard to their pleasures and continually forget that amusement is stronger than vice and that it alone can stifle the lust for it. We see all about us much vice which is merely a love for pleasure "gone wrong," the illicit expression of what might have been not only normal and recreative pleasure, but an instrument in the advance of a higher social morality. We cannot imagine a young athlete who is rushing to join his baseball team, willing to stop long enough in a saloon that he may taste the full variety of drinks in order to detect the one that is "doctored," although that is a common source of excitement now. We cannot imagine a boy who by walking three blocks can secure far himself the delicious sensation to be found in a swimming pool preferring to play craps in a foul and stuffy alley, even with the unnatural excitement which gambling offers. The spectacle of young people wandering up and down the public streets, giggling and shouting and pushing each other off the pavement, is but a sorry substitute for the charm and beauty which the period of courtship might bring into a city if it were treated with dignity and decorum. The only marvel is that this stupid attempt to put the fine old wine of traditional country life into the new bottle of the modern town does not lead to disaster oftener than it does, and that the wine so long remains pure and sparkling. The wonder is that human nature exhibits so little unnatural vice and petty crime. The restless, bounding boy, on the one hand, and the young people whose love of pleasure is continually starved are the only ones who persistently refuse to conform to the conditions of modern city life, and it is largely through our efforts to minimize the dangers for them and to give some reasonable outlet for their insatiable love of amusement and diversion, that we are at last approaching the subject of public recreation in its relation to social morality. Those few cities in the United States which spend more money for juvenile reform than for public education are deservedly held in disrepute and yet every city in the United States spends a hundredfold more money for juvenile reform than is spent in providing means for public recreation and none of us, as yet, sees the folly and shame of such a procedure.

We have not yet collected the data which the South Side parks of Chicago might afford to demonstrate how far the means for public recreation provided by them, is reducing delinquency, but some of us have little doubt what the figures will finally show.