Where Have All the Hobbies Gone?

July 12, 2008 at 7:05 am | Posted in Nonfiction | Leave a comment

(December 12, 2007)

I noticed something as I looked through The Unicycle Book, by Jack Wiley, and it got me to thinking.  If you’ve ever done a school report or looked for a library book on some sport, craft, or hobby, you may have found that all the reference books were published in the late 60s and early 70s.  Why do you suppose this is?

The Unicycle Book is a terrific example.  It’s fully loaded, with photos, diagrams, an appendix on how to build your own, and listings of resources for clubs and supplies.  It even has a brief history.  One of the first things that caught my eye, though, was the broad, beaming smiles of the people photographed on their unicycles.  This is understandable – the day I can pedal with one foot or ride in a parade, I’ll be smiling pretty wide too.  But I think there’s more to it than that.

These big, cheesy grins can be found in all hobby books of the period.  It’s charming – if a bit laughable, considering most of the finished products are so dated they’re probably widely available at a thrift store near you.  Are these happy faces just a relic, like those pictures from the early 90s of babies dressed up like flowers?

I think not.  See, the other thing I’ve observed is that there is a hobby book from the 60s or 70s on every leisure topic under the sun, except for web design.  It was an era of macrame and leather-stamping and home-made beaded headbands.  These folks probably figured out every possible way to use yarn, ceramics, and wooden beads.  Maybe we aren’t as fond of string art, owls, and mushrooms these days, but I think they knew something we’ve forgotten.  Namely, hobbies are fun, no matter how funky or useless the byproduct.

There’s something else to be found amongst all this wholesomeness – families.  I think we’re conditioned now to see the Brady Bunch, the Partridge Family, and all the “families” on board game boxes as, well, corny.  It’s possible, though, that there really was some true, mutually rewarding Togetherness going on.  Many of the demonstration photos in The Unicycle Book showed the author and his daughter doing tricks together.  Others showed entire families, all on a wheel each, beaming away.  I can tell you from dire, tailbone-jangling experience that just getting on a unicycle is not a skill to be learned in 5 minutes.  These families must have spent countless hours together just learning – and then, apparently, went on to perform at fairs and in parades and competitions.

Clubs are another thing.  Going by this book, in 1973 there must have been several thousand wheel enthusiasts in the US.  They had clubs.  They had races.  They had unicycle basketball teams!  An entire parochial school made it a requirement for every student to learn to ride.  One guy taught 500 neighborhood kids over a span of several years.  So where did all those wheels go?  A Google search on ‘unicycle club’ brought up a site that surprised me.  Rather than listing local clubs as I expected, the site asked, “tell us how to contact you.”  Anybody?  Hello?  Unicycle, is that you?  [sound of crickets chirping]

If I had finished Bowling Alone last year, I probably could tell you where the clubs went, at least.  (It was too depressing for me, and I’ve read The Population Bomb).  But I don’t think that book addresses the contraction of solitary pursuits.  What are people doing instead of riding unicycles and making puppet theatres?  I would sure hate to have to boil it down to “watching TV, playing video games, and eating snack food.”

Regardless, I’m on a quest for a cheesy smile of my own.


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