Story: Domestic recreation and hobbies

Page 1. Opportunities for leisure

All images & media in this story

People enrich their daily lives by participating in recreational activities and hobbies. Many of these are carried out in the home. Time, gender and income have all influenced the extent to which people have been able to engage in recreational activities.


In the 19th century New Zealand was well known for the movement promoting eight hours to work, eight to play and eight to sleep, led by Wellington carpenter Samuel Parnell, who first refused to work more than eight hours a day in 1840.

At that time an eight-hour working day, and therefore more leisure time when work was over, was only possible if workers were united and bosses agreeable. Many New Zealanders worked much longer hours.

In the 1870s the time New Zealanders spent at work began to be regulated, starting with legislation that limited the working hours of women factory workers. Gradually more leisure time was allowed for. The 40-hour working week became law in 1936, and for many this created a free weekend and more regular opportunities for domestic recreations and hobbies.

‘Over the tea cups’

The popular magazine New Zealand woman’s weekly had a page called ‘Over the tea cups’ from its first publication in 1932. Readers sent in short stories about amusing incidents in their lives, sharing them in the same way they would if a friend was visiting for a cuppa and a chat.


For much of the 19th and 20th centuries women were busy with child-rearing and household chores at all hours and had to snatch opportunities for rest and recreation when they could. Men’s work time and free time was more clearly demarcated, although men who worked long hours had little spare time.

Women’s hobbies tended to be those that contributed to the family economy, such as sewing and knitting. Recreation might also include chatting with a neighbour over the fence or sharing a cup of tea.

Women from wealthy families were exceptions to this pattern. They often had servants, which freed them up to spend time reading books, playing musical instruments, doing fancywork (decorative needlework) and having afternoon tea with friends.

Life-stage also made a difference to leisure time. Women with school-age children had some spare time during school hours, but only if they were housewives – this time was not available for working women. Leisure opportunities diversified for both women and men when children left home.

Women’s work and leisure time became more separate as they increasingly entered the workforce in the late 20th century. Marrying later and having smaller families contributed too. Nonetheless in the 1990s and early 2000s surveys showed that women did almost twice as much household work as men and over twice as much childcare, both of which limited recreational time.


The opportunities for recreation and the types of activities indulged in were influenced by how much money people had.

In 2013 men still earned more than women, and they had been able to earn independent incomes for much longer. Housewives were historically dependent on their husbands’ generosity in dispensing spending money, while working men were able to spend part of their incomes on recreational activities away from the home, such as drinking in a pub.

Higher income earners had more disposable income than lower income earners to spend on recreational activities and hobbies that required money. They could also ‘buy’ more leisure time, for example by paying others to do chores. Long working hours could, however, negate this.

Some low-income earners worked multiple jobs and unsociable hours, leaving them with little time or opportunity for recreation and hobbies.

Recording recreation and hobby time

The first leisure surveys were carried out in the 1970s. Information on domestic recreation and hobbies for periods before this can be gleaned from a range of sources, such as personal correspondence, newspapers, magazines and oral histories.

Statistics New Zealand conducted the first Time Use Survey in 1998/99. This was repeated in 2009/10. It provided data on time spent on hobbies, reading and writing, listening to music and radio and consumption of mass media such as television.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Domestic recreation and hobbies - Opportunities for leisure', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 February 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 Sep 2013