Quarantine has upended many people’s days, derailing established routines in favor of new ones. For some, this means waking up later than usual and eschewing regular showers; many are filling their all-too-ample amounts of empty time by scheduling Zoom dance parties with everyone they’ve ever met and learning how to make kombucha. Others, however, are retooling the productivity imperative to something a little more old-fashioned, even downright Victorian.
The New York Times reports that some are handling this indoor kid time by turning to activities that don’t require staring into the abyss of a phone, a television, or a computer, instead retreating to the leisure-time pursuits of the Victorian era, like flower-pressing, scrapbooking, and, incredibly, making instruments and then learning to play them all at once. Lucy O’Farrelly, a furloughed production assistant in Los Angeles, has taken up scrapbooking: “You’re just sticking stuff down and whatever happens, happens. It’s relaxing,” she told the Times. “We’re sort of going back in time a bit. I’m definitely here for it.”
Flower-pressing feels pretty low-stakes, though it does require access to both flowers and a press; scrapbooking is easy enough, though relatively pointless. The argument in favor of these old-fashioned hobbies is that they are not meant to be productive—that they are hobbies and nothing more. That pointlessness, I suppose, is the point of these endeavors, though there’s something about the fetishization of Victorian-era leisure pursuits right now that feels like it’s just one step away from a dedicated Instagram account to your new “hobby” that is actually just your new lifestyle. Consider the tale of Tom CJ Brown, interviewed for this piece, who made his “dream” of learning to play Clair de Lune on the harp a reality by, uh, making the harp himself and then putting it on Instagram.
“I definitely knew that I wanted something that I could do that didn’t feel a lot like work,” said Mr. Brown. “I was just like, ‘I think I need something that will take a lot of time,’ and I wanted something that was completely nondigital.”
YouTube tutorials on harp-playing abound, and a local woman in his neighborhood was even offering classes on Zoom. But first he’d need the instrument. Daunted by even secondhand prices, Mr. Brown decided he would build the harp himself. On Etsy, he found the $159 Fireside Folk Harp kit, a 22-string instrument with a cardboard soundbox and many slow steps toward assembly.
“It just felt like an opportunity to see incremental progress,” said Mr. Brown, who documented the project on Instagram. “Putting layers of paint on a piece of wood. Literally watching paint dry: this is the perfect thing.”
The point of the harp, per Brown’s testimony to the Times, was to do a low-stakes activity that doesn’t feel like “work.” However, a brief perusal of the aforementioned Instagram account proves that this hobby has now turned into something slightly more productive.
I’m not arguing against the pursuit of old-timey hobbies in uncertain times, as I have recently started embroidery for precisely the reasons described by these other individuals. The difference, though, is that embroidery for me is the equivalent of watching television for nine hours, but without the deleterious effects. The time that elapses while embroidering something stupid on a tea towel is time that I will never get back, but it’s also time that I didn’t have to think about passing—the greatest gift of all.