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How to Spend Winter Evenings

Sam MooreBack in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Scientific American magazine seems to have been all in a dither worrying about how its many readers may have been wasting their leisure time. In spite of the strong possibility that most folks in those pre-40 hour a week times most likely had precious little spare time, and ignoring the human inclination to rest a little when one has the chance, S.A. regaled folks with ideas for improving their scarce off hours.

In the Nov. 14, 1857, issue appeared the following advice:

“The season when King Frost enchains our country in his icy grasp, and throws his white mantle over the earth, will soon be upon us and we must begin to think what we shall do with ourselves in those long winter evenings, when there is no comfort but at the fireside, or in sitting close around the stove. Those evenings contain many precious hours that ought not to be, as they too often are, wasted and lost. Reader, we will propose a scheme to you whereby you will find them pass pleasantly and profitably; and when spring again comes, with its gladsome sounds and beauteous vegetation, you will be happier and better for the winter that has passed.

“Our advice, then, is to learn to do something. No matter what; to draw, to paint, to put together machinery, to read or speak a language that at present you do not know; invent something in your own line of business that is wanted, and determine to make it by the spring. Learn something, read a useful book every evening, if only for an hour; but do whatever you determine regularly and punctually, and you will be surprised how much knowledge you will have acquired in a short time. Do not idle away the precious moments in foolish conversation and story paper nonsense, although they are both very good in their place; but try and master a branch of science—each one of you knows which you like the best, and which is best suited to your habits and capabilities—and should you meet with difficulties in the way, as no doubt many will, write to us, and we will give you the best aid and advice that it is in our power to dispense.

“At any rate, set earnestly to work, and learn to do something, and who knows but that there may be among the subscribers to the Scientific American an embryo Newton, Herschel, Morse or Watt. If such there should be, this advice may tend to develop his genius, and the world will eventually thank us for having advised our readers not to neglect their winter evenings.”

Then, 12 years later, on Nov. 27, 1869, the magazine again asked: “What will you do with your Evenings this Winter?” This time the query was aimed directly at young men.

“Winter is fast approaching. Already it has sent out its skirmishers, in the form of stinging winds, and bitter snow squalls. With it will come long evenings of leisure. Young men, what do you intend to do with these evenings? There are a thousand inducements to squander them. The gaily lighted billiard-room opens its doors and invites you to enter. The theater and the ball solicit you. All sorts of similar temptations allure you to spend your time and money; and many of you will be drawn into extravagant expenditure, by these, in themselves, innocent amusements. Another and worse class of temptations will beset you. The drinking saloon, the house of ill-fame, will invite you to enter, and with delusive excitements seek to blind your moral perceptions and lead you to ruin.

“What are you going to do with these precious evenings? Will you throw away their golden opportunities, and take upon you a burden of vain regret for the years that are to come? Do you not see their value, if improved? There are thousands of young mechanics who will see these words, and will, some of them, perhaps, resolve that this winter shall not be spent as was the last. This winter shall be devoted to neglected arithmetic, algebra, or book-keeping. They will seize the coming leisure to perfect their knowledge of drawing, or to complete their perusal of some scientific, historical, or literary work begun long ago, but still unfinished. They know the value of time and they will no longer squander it.

“Alas! How few of these wise resolutions will be kept. Yet we are hopeful that some will be influenced by our exhortation to use their time in a more profitable manner than do the majority of pleasure-loving young men. The means of self-improvement are now so widely diffused that no one seeking knowledge can fail to obtain them, and while we do not counsel the utter renunciation of innocent amusements, it is always wisdom to subordinate these things to higher purposes. Young mechanics, and young men of whatever occupation you may be, you may refer your future success or failure to the way in which you employ this winter's leisure. Then what will you do with your evenings?”

Then, a few weeks later the Jan. 1, 1870, issue of Scientific American contained this short item:

“One of our subscribers residing in Maine has read our article "How to Spend the Winter Evenings," and writes to us that up in his section they have no trouble on that score. As soon as the day's work is over the inhabitants commence the job of trying to get their rooms warm, and as soon as a comfortable temperature is reached it is time to go to bed.”

Ah, “the good old days.”

– Sam Moore

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