Six in 10 Americans started a new hobby during the pandemic, according to a survey last winter. This is presumably good news for essayists and academics who argue that “Americans need a hobby” and “Millennials don’t have hobbies,” and that “the hobby is dead” – having turned into the communications hustlean informal way to earn money while still working a regular job.
Hobbies occupy a sort of third space: They are not work, although they may demand many hours and much concentration, and they are not leisure, the “freedom provided by the cessation of activities,” as Merriam-Webster puts it. (They are part of what the Romans called otium.) They are “work” for enjoyment, not for pay.
The word hobby has an interesting history, and so does the concept of the hobby itself. Cultural attitudes have changed greatly about which ones are worth pursuing, and indeed whether having a hobby is desirable at all.
It is probably safe to say that when hobby was first used in the 15th century, most people didn’t have one, as it referred to a particular kind of horse. A hobby was a small horse that could “amble,” a particularly smooth, quick gait that was prized for long rides over terrible roads. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word is a shortened form of Hobbin, the archetypal name for a cart-horse, like Rover for a dog.
The hobby also had a part in medieval folk celebrations. Mummers and Morris dancers often include a person or two dressed up in horse costume, or pretending to ride a wooden stick with a horse’s head. Such hobbyhorses made popular children’s toys, too.
Since hobbyhorses were the domain of young children and pantomime actors, “riding one’s hobby-horse” or being “on one’s hobby” became an idiom for avidly pursuing an idea or activity that looks silly to others. Novelist Laurence Sterne popularized it in 1759 with “Tristram Shandy” whose characters are obsessed to the point of boring everyone around them with such things as battle reenactments and book collecting.
Hobbies were considered slightly embarrassing, though mostly harmless, through the 18th century. In the 19th century, though, they grew more socially acceptable as middle-class leisure time increased. It became de rigueur for both men and women to pursue activities that would have seemed strange or frivolous a century before.
In the early 20th century, according to historian Steven Gelber, hobbies “shed the old stigma of eccentricity” and came to be seen as a way to imbue life with meaning and dignity. With a hobby, people could choose their own goals and progress towards them.