6 Old Hobbies That Prove How Bored And Desperate People Used To Be

Time for a thrilling night watching paint dry
6 Old Hobbies That Prove How Bored And Desperate People Used To Be

Go back a few centuries, and many people never were bored, despite having few entertainment options. Mostly, they were too busy standing still to avoid starving to death to concern themselves with such luxuries as “fun.” 

Other people, however, wanted more. They were listless (they had no listicles), they hungered for recreation, and it was because of them that we wound up with Shakespeare, the Olympics and so very many sexual positions. They also came up with some hobbies that didn’t quite survive till today. Sympathize with these people who turned to these lamer pastimes. It’s all they had. 

Watching Paint Dry

When we quickly mentioned some art forms 13 seconds ago, we could, of course, have mentioned paintings. People toured collections of art back in the days of Rome, and people tour art museums today. In the 1800s, however, these exhibitions came with an extra bit of ceremony, one that’s now forgotten. It was called Varnishing Day. 

Varnish wood


No, not vanishing day. Varnishing Day. 

Once a museum hung paintings in a gallery, the pieces were complete, except for a protective layer of varnish. On Varnishing Day, painters would add that final layer of varnish, and people flocked in to watch this ritual. It’s hard to relate to this today, both because “watching paint dry” is the proverbial most boring thing ever and because “varnishing” doesn’t sound very attractive either — we want the unvarnished truth, darnit.

Most retrospectives on Varnishing Day mention one famous incident from 1832, which led one artist to say a rival had “been here and fired a gun.” No one really fired a gun; that was a dramatic description of the artist J.M.W. Turner flicking a sudden splash of red to his painting to add a buoy to the water. A final alteration like that actually would be quite exciting, compared to the more usual alternative, which involved just covering canvases in varnish and changing nothing. The equivalent today might be people watching a livestream of a server farm deploying code for a video game patch. 


J. M. W. Turner

Okay, people would totally watch that today. 

Though we called this tradition forgotten, a few places still do it. The Royal Academy of Arts has a “Varnishing Day” every summer at St. James in London. But they just call it that; they don’t really sit around and watch varnishing. It’s a more normal opening day for the exhibition, and they get a steel band to lead a parade, because people need real entertainment. 

Competitive Walking

Speaking of the proverbially boring, we call something that's routine and boring today “pedestrian.” At the end of the 19th century, however, pedestrianism was an actual spectator sport. It didn’t involve people leering at joggers (a popular pastime today) but rather watching people walk on an indoor track. Walk, not run. Walk and walk, for hours. 

pedestrian Edward Payson Weston

Library of Congress

This isn’t a man looking at paintings. Those are people looking at him.

The craze began with one guy: Edward Payson Weston. In 1860, he bet a friend that Abraham Lincoln would lose the upcoming presidential election, and when that didn’t happen, as a penalty, Weston had to walk from Boston to Washington in 10 days. People watched him make this trek, sometimes accompanying him for part of the way, like he was a low-speed Forrest Gump.

Having discovered that people liked watching walking as an endurance activity, Weston moved on to walking in arenas for paying customers. It became a competitive sport, with spectators seeing who could last the longest, walking for six days at a time, breaking only for three-hour naps. Six days was the maximum because everyone had to wrap things up for the Sabbath, naturally. To fortify themselves for these long and very slow races, walkers chewed on coca leaves (quite effective) or drank champagne (not at all effective). 

Pedestrian poster

via The Independent

We bet we could find people willing to do this for £1,000 even today.

The exhibitors livened up the event with refreshments, music and gambling. That makes this all sound not so different from sports events or circuses today, and in time, people realized they could hold competitions with refreshments, music and gambling but also have the athletes do something more exciting than just walking. As for Edward Weston, walking proved great for his health, and he survived right till the age of 90. He lived until a New York taxi hit him. He died as he lived: as a pedestrian. 

Super-Clothed Bathing

We’ve been swimming for longer than we’ve been human, and during the short period of the species when we’ve been civilized people who wear clothes in public, we’ve donned a wide variety of swimwear. Go back to ancient Rome, and the mosaics below showed two-piece bathing suits back then that look much more modern than what people wore in the early 20th century:

Piazza Armerina bikini mosaic

Piazza Armerina

Is that a beach ball? And dumbbells? 

Between this ancient dawn of the bikini and the golden age in which we now live, people still wanted to swim publicly, but such exposure was not permitted. Women had to wear clothes that covered them more thoroughly, and we’re not talking about just covering all skin, like some total-body swimsuits you can buy today. A swimming costume in the 17th century had to cover all of a woman’s skin but also couldn't stick to the skin and reveal her figure, in the way a wetsuit or burkini might. 

Women wore costumes of stiff yellow canvas. They were so loose (the costumes, not the women) that water filled them up, ballooning the suit around the body. A dress you’d wear on the street would mold to your body, but the “bathing gown” would not. A bathing gown was designed to inflate.

“Mermaids at Brighton” by William Heath

William Heath

Meanwhile, the corset on the one non-swimmer would today be called fetishwear.

It really doesn’t sound like much fun at all. We’d call this a chore, something people only did in an attempt at hygiene in the days before indoor bathing facilities, only it doesn’t sound like anyone necessarily emerged very clean. Everyone wore yellow canvas because if they wore white cloth, it would come out of the water yellow anyway. 

Elite I Spy

Let’s return now to the topic of paintings. When people weren’t viewing paintings in public galleries, with the goal of inhaling fumes, they were displaying paintings in their homes, and people saw them through private showings. You’d maybe get the chance to gather around with all your friends and stare at some painting positively filled with tiny details. At this point, the viewing would become a game, in which everyone competed to find as many Easter eggs as they could. 

Netherlandish Proverbs

Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Ten points for each bare butt that you spot.

The above painting, for example, contains more than a hundred illustrations of Dutch idioms. Look close, and you’ll see someone with the world spinning on their finger, someone swimming against the current and someone armed to the teeth. You’ll also find someone yawning against the oven, someone letting geese be geese and someone shitting on gallows, none of which mean anything much in English but all of which were well-known sayings in Dutch.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder made a dozen different versions of this painting, all slightly different, so several different people who owned private collections would all get to show off their own version to their friends. Here’s a second of his paintings with stuff to find, Children’s Games:

Children’s Games

Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Fewer bare butts in this one but probably still a few.

Now, this sounds like a fun time for everyone. Who today doesn’t like playing Where’s Waldo? The difference is, in today’s world of mass communications and the easy reproduction of images, if you like one Where’s Waldo picture, you can buy a whole book of them, then another, then another. Then you can buy some unrelated books of pictures and spend hours looking at each of them, and you can find many other picture puzzles on the web for free. 

Back in 1559? If you were lucky enough to get your hands on one Bruegel paintings, you probably were never going to get another. Your guests could count on you forcing them to play I Spy with your one exact picture every time they'd come visit you for the next several years. 

Feeding Trash to Bears

Good news for bear fans: Yellowstone has a lot more grizzles today than it did 50 years ago. It might have 10 times as many now as then, though scientists can’t get exact numbers and in fact mostly want to leave the bears alone. Go back a further 50, 100 years in the past, and the area had far more bears than even today. And we hadn’t quite formalized best practices for how to peek at them.

Today, in national parks, we have a line of advice that’s almost a slogan: “Don’t feed the bears.” Feeding bears makes them less able to feed themselves in the future and may well push them to maul people in the future, starting with you. Beginning in 1890, however, Yellowstone put on a show where people gathered to specifically watch bears get fed:

Feeding Yellowstone bears

National Parks Service

For context, “lunch counters” were a thing that used to exist. 

Visitors sat in bleachers to watch the bears go down on buckets of goodies. And what did we feed these bears back then? That’s where these bear shows went from “inadvisable, but cool” to gross. Rangers just brought in pails of unsorted human garbage. Bears are omnivorous, so whatever was in that garbage, the bears would find something to eat.

Feeding them anything is a bad idea, but if you must feed them for our entertainment, this was surely less kind than feeding them pure honey and less entertaining than feeding them live martyrs. The garbage was collected from a dump on Yellowstone, which was kept in operation right until the 1970s — when it was finally closed, due to bears having learned to constantly seek it out. 

Yellowstone bears eating


Smellier than the average bear

Today, though you can still go to Yellowstone to see bears, half the fun comes from listening to word from trackers and alternating between likely spots as you embark on a search. Some people say the past was full of adventure and today, we just sit back and absorb readymade entertainment through our eyeballs, but sometimes, progress works the other way. 

Watching a Man Jump into a Bottle

In 1749, an ad appeared in London, promoting an upcoming performance at Haymarket Theatre. The unnamed performer, said the ad, would guess the identity of any audience member who arrived wearing a mask. He would take a walking stick from some audience member and play it like a musical instrument. Finally — and most impressive of all — he would jump into a bottle, one sized to contain just a quart of wine. He would fully fit himself in this bottle, audience members could pick up the bottle and examine it, and the bottled performer would now sing. 

Now, this sounds like fine entertainment — if someone could actually do it, but of course they couldn’t; this had to be a joke. On seeing this, maybe you’d be interested in tuning in later to hear how it all turned out, when the conjurer inevitably failed to perform as promised. We trust, however, that you wouldn’t bother paying for the privilege of witnessing the nonevent in person.

Londoners in 1749 paid. They filled the entire theatre. The cheapest seats cost two shillings, which was perhaps a week’s rent for a working man. Top seats were seven shillings and sixpence, which was enough to buy 60 bottles of beer at a bar. 

bottle conjurer

B. Dickinson

Why, with that money, you could put SIXTY men in bottles

When the day came, no performer presented himself, and we still aren’t certain who organized the hoax (it was the Duke of Montagu, says one theory). The theatre owner came onstage and said everyone would be receiving refunds. That was not enough to appease the crowd. 

The audience now became a mob. One person threw a lit candle to the stage — having brought a candle, presumably, for this exact contingency — setting the building on fire. Other people ripped up the theatre’s seats and took them to build a bonfire outside. The place’s curtain, they hoisted up like a flag

bottle conjurer riot

Lewis Walpole Library

The hoax could not be undone. There was no putting that genie back in the bottle. 

Some people rose from their seats and joined the fray so quickly that they left behind their wigs and their swords. One nobleman tried kicking a box into the orchestra pit, and he fell in, hurting his chin, but there were otherwise no injuries. The original performance failed, and the very fact that anyone bothered showing up reflected poorly on them all. But the aftermath sounds like a riot, so when push came to shove, people back then really did know how to have a good time. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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