Pursuing Play

Women’s Leisure in Small-Town Ontario, 1870–1914


Levelling the playing field

Life in the Canadian countryside at the turn of the twentieth century is often generalized as insular, backwards, and defined by drudgery. These assumptions are redressed in Rebecca Beausaert’s Pursuing Play, which highlights the complexity of small-town culture through a lively examination of women’s efforts to negotiate space for themselves and their leisure pursuits.

Amply illustrated, Pursuing Play draws on diaries, letters, newspapers, and census records to investigate women’s recreational activities in three southern Ontario towns—Dresden, Tillsonburg, and Elora—between 1870–1914. Though women’s recreational choices were restricted by pervasive ideas about propriety, Beausaert reveals how they increasingly spearheaded both formal and informal clubs, events, and social gatherings, and integrated them into their daily lives.

In telling the story of what small-town women did for fun while navigating social hierarchies, nurturing ties of kinship and friendship, and advancing community development, Pursuing Play adds a new dimension to Canadian histories of gender, leisure, and popular culture. Encompassing public and private pastimes, the growth of sports, the phenomenon of “armchair travelling,” and how easily recreation can slip from reputable to disreputable, this rich study uncovers how gender, class, and ethnicity shaped the nature and scope of women’s leisure in small-town Ontario and beyond.


“Interesting, original, thoroughly researched, and beautifully written, Beausaert’s book accords much-needed attention to many crucial fields of historical inquiry. Pursuing Play offers a nuanced and thoughtful analysis, paying unusually close attention to issues of race and class as they relate to small-town communities.”

Monda Halpern, Professor of History, Western University

About the Author

Rebecca Beausaert is an adjunct professor in the Department of History, University of Guelph, and co-founder and co-director of the “What Canada Ate” website.

Table of Contents

List of Tables

List of Figures


Chapter 1 Situating the Small Town: Dresden, Tillsonburg, and Elora from Foundations to 1914




Class and Social Stratification

Setting the Stage for Leisure: Late Nineteenth-Century Developments


Chapter 2 A Reconnaissance of Recreation: Leisure in Public Spaces


Public and Commercial Entertainments

Clubs and Societies


Chapter 3 Safeties, Skates, and Sleds: Sports and Physical Recreation for Women


Sleighing, Sledding, and Skating

Ladies and Lawns


Chapter 4 Crazy Teas and Christmas Trees: Leisure at Home

“Happy Homes Make Happy Hearts”

“True Hospitality”: Social Dining

Holy Days, Hallowe’en, and the Home


Chapter 5 Armchair Tourists: Fictitious Travel in Tillsonburg

Around the World in a Day

The Tillsonburg Ladies’ Travel Club


Chapter 6 Vacationers and “Staycationers”: Leisure Out of Doors

The Elite Vacationer

Just a Train Ride Away: Day Trippers, Excursionists, and “Staycationers”

“O, lovely Elora!”: Marketing the Small Town


Chapter 7 Bad Girls in the Country? When Leisure Slipped from Reputable to Disreputable

The Rural-Urban Dichotomy

Forging the Rural “Girl Problem”

Familial Regulation of Youth and Its Limits

Communal Censure from Informal Reprimands to Town and Municipal Bylaws

Sex and the Criminal Justice System