Vancouver Barracks Amusement Room (1881)

Old Army soldiers, for the most part, spent most of their duty time drilling, performing guard duty, completing menial tasks, such as chopping wood, hauling water, etc.  Often, however, diverse recreational activities were lacking during off-duty hours.  Boredom, therefore, seriously affected discipline and morale.  In order to stave off negative behavior, the army attempted to establish and promote various forms of healthy amusement, such as establishing post libraries.

The following is a description of the library and “amusement” room at Vancouver Barracks, Washington Territory sent to all installations in Military Division of the Pacific, which included the entire west coast.  Captain John A. Kress prepared the brief, yet detailed, descriptive report after completing an inspection of the Vancouver Barracks.  The division commander no doubt intended the circular as a positive example of recreational activities for soldiers under his command. 

Whereas many articles by Old Army Records have to draw from several sources to complete a narrative; this one is unique.  The description below is essentially Kress’ own words.  I added the headings and simplified some of the descriptors for ease of reading.  For example, room dimensions use the foot symbol instead of spelling out the word.  Also, I listed the property present in the room; Kress summarized the items in a paragraph.  Nevertheless, the narrative is Kress’ voice.

Colonel Henry A. Morrow, 21st Infantry, approved the opening of the Vancouver Barracks amusement room and library
Colonel Henry A. Morrow, shown here as commander of the 24th Michigan Infantry during the Civil War, approved the Vancouver Barracks amusement room and library. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
“I…find it so interesting upon the welfare of the enlisted men”

In the early 1880s, the Vancouver Barracks served as headquarters for the 21st Infantry.  Two captains, Evan Miles and George M. Downey, recommended the establishment of the recreation room for which their regimental commander, Colonel Henry A. Morrow, approved.  The facility opened on December 1, 1880 and, according to Kress, gave “uninterrupted satisfaction since that date.”  Kress’ full description follows (his words are italicized).

Games of All Sorts

A room over the guard-house is occupied.  It is 30’ x 40’, 10’ high, with an additional projection at one end 5’ x 15’, containing a lunch counter; and back of this a small room 8’ x 10’ for a cook stove and bed for the librarian.  The large room contains two billiard tables, rented at $8 per month; around the sides are placed eleven small card tables, with two chairs at each table, and means for playing small games, such as chess, checkers, backgammon, dominoes, cards, etc.

Vancouver Barracks guardhouse
An undated view of the guardhouse. Courtesy of the National Park Service.
Tongue Sandwiches and Cigars

In one corner of the room is a writing desk, with pens, ink, paper, and envelopes; the men pay five cents per game for billiards, and five cents for a sandwich and a cup of coffee; no charge is made for playing any of the small games, or for writing materials.  Each sandwich consists of bread with butter and meat between – either cold boiled ham, tongue, beef, or sardines, or cheese; milk and white sugar are provided for the coffee.  Cigars are sold at five cents each.  The lunch can be obtained at any time between 8 and 10 P.M.

In order to extend the privileges of the room to the class which never has any ready money, and to facilitate making change, a supply of five cent tickets is furnished to each Company Commander, and kept by the First Sergeant for issue to any man who wants them, to be paid for on the following pay day.

The post library and reading room is in an adjoining room, which is also used as court martial room.  The prices, as stated above, have been sufficient to pay all the expenses, except for fuel and rent of room, which were furnished by the government.

Vancouver Barracks, circa. 1875.
The Vancouver Barracks library and amusement hall occupied the second story of the guardhouse, which fronted the parade ground. Vancouver Barracks Map. circa 1875. Courtesy Clark County Historical Museum Research Library.
Varied Attendance

During ten months – while four companies and the band were stationed at the post – the average nightly attendance at 9 P.M. was 36 the entire garrison averaging about 175 enlisted men.

Card playing and cigar smoking was not unique to Vancouver Barracks. Civil War soldiers also enjoyed those amusements.
Cigar smoking and card playing, both popular at Vancouver Barracks, were common forms of recreation throughout the 19th century. Here two unidentified Union soldiers smoke while holding cards during the Civil War. Courtesy Library of Congress.

During the past two months, with five companies and the band (about 225 men), the average nightly attendance from 6 to 9 P.M. has been 26.  During the two periods named the average nightly sale of lunches was 37 and 31 respectively; of cigars 32 and 37; of games of billiards, 15 and 12.

The room pays $10 per month extra to the post librarian for care and attendance.  He makes the coffee and sandwiches, and has all the care of the room, under one of the Company Commanders, who have charge alternately, each for a month.  Books of purchases, sales and attendance, are kept accurately and in detail.

The diminished attendance during the past two months is ascribed in part to inability to get a good quality of cigar; but, principally, to the better lights furnished in the barracks, and the fact that the enlisted men of two of the companies have subscribed to a number of papers and periodicals for use in the barracks.

Supporting the Local Economy

The room now has $100 cash on hand, and the following-named property:

The articles first purchased were obtained on credit, assisted by a loan of $17.50 [about $440.00 today] from the post fund.  Bread is purchased from the post bakery; cigars from merchants; milk and butter from farmers; oil from the Quartermaster; meats, sugar, cheese, etc. from the Subsistence Department.

Finding Your Connection to Old Army Amusement

Companies E, F, G, H, and K, 21st Infantry, as well as the regimental staff and band, formed part of the Vancouver Barracks garrison in the late 1881. Are you searching for more information on a soldier who served in the 21st Infantry?  Want to know more about recreation activities enjoyed by the Old Army?  Feel free to query us for more information on all aspects of the 19th century army life.


Unpublished Sources
Circulars and General Orders, Military Division of the Pacific.
Regimental Returns, 21st Infantry.





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