How Regency People Passed Their Time
Regency people filled their free time with a variety of public and private amusements. Such amusements offered Regency people a mild form of exercise or allowed them to restore themselves after mental or physical exhaustion, as well as diffuse and share knowledge. In addition, in some instances, these activities provided jobs to individuals who might otherwise not be able to earn a living.
Among the public activities Regency people regularly enjoyed were games and tournaments, games of chance, lectures, rural festivals, and theatrical representations.
- Games and Tournaments: Games and tournaments first began with the Greek Olympic Games. During medieval times, they became tournaments of chivalry, and, by Regency times, these events were usually somehow related to improving health or elevating the mind.
- Games of Chance: The passion for games of chance was said to be “attended with much mischief, both to the gamesters themselves, and to society.” This resulted in the passage of laws to reduce the vice, but such laws did little to discourage the practice. One person, summed up games of chance by saying that they introduced to the lowest “orders, idleness, theft, and debauchery; and among the higher have occasioned, the sudden desolation and ruin of ancient and respectable families, and an abandoned prostitution of every principle of honour and virtue, which has too often ended in suicide.” Games of chance were played by both sexes and included such games as Bacaarat, Whist, and Hazard. Some of the popular places for these games of chances were such gentlemen’s clubs such as Boodles, Brooks, and White’s.
- Lectures: One of the easiest ways to diffuse and share knowledge was through lectures that ranged from topics about the sciences to poetry to religion. It was claimed that “there surely cannot be a more unexceptional mode of spending a leisure hour, than in listening to the ingenious discourses of those, who explain … some important branch of knowledge.”
- Rural Festivals: These were sometimes known as fairs and included music, games, and contests. For the most part, festivals or fairs were held for commercial purposes, although they also encouraged agricultural and allowed farmers to share information and tips with one another. Another benefit of festivals was that it allowed friendships to form or to be strengthened. Common events involved such things such as pig running where a pig’s tail was cut short, soaped, and greased. Then the pig was turned out in a pen to be caught. The person who successfully caught the pig and held it overhead, then won the pig. There was also tup running, a game similar to pig running but with a ram. Lastly, one of the more common events was horse racing, which allowed gambling even though horse races were initially established to improve the speed of horses.
- Theatrical Representations: Some people thought theatrical representations helped with the principles of morality, while others found them a “source of infinite mischief.” Attending the theatre was also cited as not being a healthy activity. According to one source, this was because “going to the theatre and returning from it, is generally attended with great difficulty, and exposure to cold; and the air that is breathed in a crowded playhouse, where a great number of lights are likewise burning, cannot be wholesome.”
When not spending time in a public way, there were private amusements that could be enjoyed at home or at the homes of friends. One person described the benefits of private amusements stating that they “deceive the cares, sweeten the toils, and smooth the ruggedness of life.” Private amusements included board games, cards, conversation, dancing, drawing, music, parlor games, and reading.
- Board Games: Board games included chess, cribbage, backgammon, draughts, etc. Chess in particular was considered to be a game of “reflection and composure” and was said to be well suited for gentlemen.
- Cards: Cards could be played for fun or for profit. When played for profit, one person claimed it usually resulted in the “ruin of numbers of unfortunate gamesters.” Among the more popular card games for profit was Whist.
- Conversation: Conversation was suggested to be more worthwhile than cards or any game of chance. Conversation was said to be one way to help young people learn reasoning skills, and besides providing entertainment, conversations reduced listlessness and created happier dispositions.
- Dancing: Although there were also public assemblies and formal balls, many dances were held at a person’s home during the winter months when it was too cold to enjoy the outdoors. Dances allowed for cheerful company and provided a mild form of exercise to participants. However, supposedly, there were also unhealthy dangers and the hazard of “pernicious consequences, occasioning spitting of blood, consumption of the lungs, and inflammatory disorders [if a room was overheated where the dance was held].” Some of the favorite dances of the time were jigs, the country dance, the cotillion, the scotch reel, and the waltz, which appeared around 1810. Jane Austen, her sister Cassandra, and their cousin Eliza de Feuillide were known to attended all sorts of balls and dances.
- Drawing: This was considered a “polite” accomplishment and all young people of both sexes were advised to take up drawing. It was claimed to be particularly enjoyable for travelers as they could spend many hours “celebrating the landscape.” It was also said to aid Regency minds scientifically when “complicated machines, engines, &c. [were drawn] with accuracy.”
- Music: Most people liked music and many hours could be spent enjoying this innocent pleasure. Another reason music was popular was because it reputedly diverted gamblers from games of chance and prevented other tempting indulgences. Eliza de Feuillide was among the many Regency people who was an accomplished musician. She played the pianoforte but other instruments such as the harp, flute, or violin were also popular at this time. Gentlemen also often formed amateur singing groups and entertained in men’s clubs or taverns.
- Parlor Games: These were played by adults with friends and relatives. Parlor games could be mental and physically stimulating and included such games as Spillkins — an early version of Jack Straw or American pick up sticks — Blind Mans Bluff, Riddles, Rebuses, and Charades.
- Reading: Of all the amusements, reading was claimed to be the most valuable because it encouraged mental stimulation and allowed for people to reflect on important subjects.
-  Sinclair, Sir John, The Code of Health and Longevity, 1818, p. 558.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 557.
-  Ibid. p. 556.
-  Ibid., p. 1.
-  Ibid., p. 557.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
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