Nature, Culture, and Work: Consumption and Politics in Outdoor Labor and Leisure

AHA Session 140
Labor and Working Class History Association 3
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Nassau Suite A (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Lawrence B. Glickman, Cornell University

Session Abstract

Outdoor work and recreation are both deeply embedded in and yet often absent from histories of labor, consumption, and politics. This is partly because of the tension between labor and leisure that has long been central to outdoor recreation. The emergence of outdoor recreation culture in the late nineteenth century corresponded with the rise of a managerial middle class that freed affluent Americans from daily physical toil and an evolution of modes in transportation that minimized the need to walk long distances on a daily basis.  This allowed upper-middle-class urbanites to re-envision activities once thought of as labor—such as donning a heavy pack to climb a mountain or swinging an ax to clear a trail—as pleasurable leisure activities.  Of course, to the majority of Americans working on farms, standing in mills, caring for households and otherwise physically toiling on a daily basis, the idea of gratuitous labor seemed unappealing. This roundtable and the ensuing discussion will suggest how these tensions played out in twentieth century outdoor recreation and labor alike.

While scholars such as Susan Schrepfer and Lawrence Lipin have considered the gender and class dimensions of outdoor recreation and labor, respectively, there remain a number of historiographically rich trajectories for research the challenge the ways we think about work and play.  For example, how did the context of wilderness recreation break down traditional gender roles and allow women to lead summit expeditions and men to thrive as service workers?  How did the role of male guides privilege the knowledge of working-class men in ways impossible in traditional twentieth-century work places? How has outdoor recreation created a new set of service workers? And how has their relationship with the environment distinguished their class identity and labor politics from other service workers today? This roundtable aims to begin a discussion of these questions rooted in the panelists’ ongoing research.  Doing so offers the chance to see environmental history expansively, as human interactions with wild rivers and desolate mountains reveal stories about the history of work, gender, race, and consumption. 

 “Nature, Culture, and Work” focuses on the cultural impacts of nature practices. The result is a panel conversation that explores how environmental history approaches can contribute to histories of labor, consumption, and politics.  As a result, panelists also explore the relationship between nature experiences and industrialization and capitalism. Outdoor recreation may seem an odd place to explore the normative practices of consumer capitalism, but in fact thinking of wilderness as a gendered and classed consumer experience brings out the ironies of getting back to primitive nature in a modern world.  Environmental historians have long seen nature as a hybrid landscape and explored both its material and cultural histories. To this approach, we now add: What gender, class and economic structures do work and play out of doors reveal?  Indeed, it is worth exploring a hybrid culture of outdoor recreation with one foot in the work-a-day world and the other in an idealized natural world.

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