Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Entertainment History of Thomas Jefferson

When our society thinks of entertainment we talk about movies, music, and games. All of these can be accessed on a mobile device which also happens to be what I'm writing this blog entry from. In the United States entertainment has dominated our culture and every aspect of our lives. People feel they have to be entertained at all times. But how did we get to this point, the obvious culprit we might point to is technology. But rather it is the path with which we got there. For this I always think back to the founding fathers. How did they experience it. What forms of entertainment kept them occupied on a regular basis, what did they enjoy doing in their spare time and why. We know that many in the mid to late eighteenth century enjoyed reading on a regular basis. Classical books from history, European philosophy, Biblical commentaries were on most everyone's bookshelves in early America. We also know that plays were performed in major cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Cato, for instance, was a very popular play in the United States. It is a story of the preservation of democracy. The story references Cato of Ancient Rome and his heroic efforts to stop the tyranny of Julius Caesar. These I might consider are obvious forms of entertainment like the Kindle and television are for us today. But what else entertained these founding fathers?  

Thomas Jefferson was a man that loved to explore what this world had to offer. He was always reading and experimenting and learning as much as he could. Knowledge was the most important thing to him and he dedicated his life to that pursuit. It would be no surprise then to think that Jefferson would have the most extensive experience when it came to enjoying the entertainment of the world. The following is a list found in Jefferson's memoranda records and I think you'll be somewhat surprised:

  • 1771 - Paid for hearing the musical glasses, 3 shillings (is this an invention or a musical?)
  • 1771 - Paid for seeing the alligator, 1 shillings (I can only assume this was an episode of swamp people)
  • 1772 - Paid for seeing puppet show, 2 shillings (Kermit the Frog really has staying power)
  • 1783 - Paid for 2 tickets to see balloon, 15 shillings (Jefferson witnessed the first ever recorded manned balloon flight in Paris, France. The balloon reached a height of roughly 500 feet.)
  • 1786 - Paid for seeing figure of King of Prussia, 12 frances (is this a wax museum?)
  • 1786 - Paid for seeing a learned pig, 1 shilling (I would pay a lot of money for this one)

So this is where we got started. From here we got our UFC fighting, reality television, and professional sports. Two things I find interesting about this list. The first is how few things over a 15 year span Jefferson recorded paying to go see. If it was a list from our memoranda we would have six things in the first two days.  The second thing I find interesting is how simple some of these things are. For instance the idea of seeing an alligator or a pig. Obviously living in a era where transportation outside your county was extremely rare, individuals would go to great links to bring the experience of the world to your door step. When you think about it, it really is not too much different then today. Our avenues of entertainment are meant to bring the world to our doorstep, i.e. smartphones, computers, game consoles, etc. They are meant to allow us to experience what this world has to offer. Entertainment seems to have come a long way however the purpose behind it has not changed a whole lot. 

(Csida, American Entertainment: A Unique History of Popular Show Business, p. 26, 1978)

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