A History of Leisure in the 20th Century

By Tim Lambert

During the 20th century, people had more and more leisure time. In 1900 the average working week was 54 hours. By the 1980s it was 39 hours. Furthermore, in 1900 most people had no paid holidays except bank holidays. In 1939 a new law said that everyone must have one week’s annual paid holiday. By the 1950s two weeks were common and by the 1980s most people had at least 4 weeks of annual holiday.

In 1900 Frank Hornby invented a toy called Meccano. In 1907 Robert Baden-Powell formed the boy scouts. In 1910 the girl guides were formed.

The first crossword was devised in 1913 by Arthur Wynne. Monopoly was introduced in 1935. It was followed Cluedo in 1949 and Twister in 1966. Rubik’s cube was invented in 1974 but it was launched internationally in 1980. Trivial Pursuit was introduced in 1982 and Pictionary followed in 1985.

Meanwhile, the first Grand Prix was held in 1906 and the first Le Mans 24 hour race was held in 1923. The famous basketball team the Harlem Globetrotters was founded in 1927.

The great age of cinema-going was the 1930s when most people went at least once and sometimes twice a week. Early films were black and white but in the 1930s the first colour films were made. (Although it was decades before all films were made in colour).

Radio broadcasting in Britain began in 1922 when the BBC was formed. By 1933 half the households in Britain had a radio.


Regular-definition television began in Britain in 1936 when the BBC began broadcasting. TV was suspended during World War II but it began again in 1946. TV first became common in the 1950s. A lot of people bought a TV set to watch the coronation of Elizabeth II and a survey at the end of that year showed that about one-quarter of households in Britain had one. By 1959 about two-thirds of homes had a TV. By 1964 the figure had reached 90% and TV had become the main form of entertainment – at the expense of cinema, which declined in popularity.

At first, there was only one TV channel but between 1955 and 1957 the ITV companies began broadcasting. BBC 2 began in 1964 and Channel 4 began in 1982.

In Britain BBC 2 began broadcasting in color in 1967, BBC 1 and ITV followed in 1969. Video recorders became common in the early 1980s. Many video hire shops opened at that time. At the end of the century, videos were replaced by DVDs.

Portable TVs became common in the 1980s and satellite broadcasting began in 1989. Satellite or cable TV became common in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, commercial television began in the USA in 1941. TV began in Australia in 1956. It began in New Zealand in 1960.

An old television

Personal computers became common in the 1980s. The internet became common in the 1990s and playing games online like Scrabble and Nine Men’s Morris became popular. Furthermore, in the late 20th century gardening became a very popular pastime. So did DIY.