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.





Old Army Libraries: Publications Overview

“When the sentinel on the rampart announced the arrival of the mail boat today, a happy feeling came over me…so that I found it difficult to restrain my impatience while anxiously waiting for the orderly with the mail.”  Penned by a lieutenant serving on recruiting duty at Fort Wood in New York Harbor, these words no doubt echoed the sentiments of many Old Army soldiers.  Officers and enlisted men in the 19th century welcomed letters from family and friends.  However, mail often included books and periodicals.  Together correspondence and published works offered a brief reprieve from onerous army duty.  By the end of the 19th century army libraries contained thousands of publications.

Old Army Libraries

From an early date, army regulations provided for reading material for U.S. soldiers.  Provisions for army libraries appeared in the 1821 army regulations.  Article 41, Paragraph 14, for example, stipulated that proceeds from the post fund could be used for the “ purchase of books, &c. for a library, one section of which, to be adapted to the wants of the enlisted men.”  Post funds supplied army libraries with reading material throughout most of the 19th century.  Revenue generated from sutler taxes or savings accrued by not using the daily flour ration subsidized the post fund.

Military installations large and small had libraries.  The library for Fort Preble, a small artillery garrison located on the Atlantic shore in Maine, was located in a small frame building also occupied by four staff officers.  In 1875, the Surgeon General reported that the Fort Duncan, Texas, “post library consists of about one hundred and seventy volumes of miscellaneous books, which are kept in two hospital tents situated on the parade-ground a short distance southeast of the hospital, and used as library and reading-room; the latter is open to the garrison from guard­ mount until tattoo. Semi-daily and weekly papers are received. There are also two literary societies at the post, composed of members of the two cavalry companies.”

In 1886, the Adjutant General decreed that these items became public property attached to the respective post.  However, a year later army headquarters specified that neither newspapers nor periodicals could be purchased with post funds.  Rather subscriptions for these publications could be made from an allotment made to each company by the Quartermaster Department. By 1897, the Secretary of War reported a cumulative number of 51,498 volumes of books in libraries at 74 military posts.

…a judicious selection of interesting and instructive books…

Numerous benevolent aide societies and fraternal organizations also contributed reading material to army libraries.  Many of those organizations were faith or temperance based and, accordingly, most of their reading material reflected those tenents.  These groups included the American Bible Society, National Temperance Society, YMCA, and the U.S. Military Post Library Association (USMPLA).  Established in 1861, the aim of the USMPLA was to “establish libraries and reading rooms in all military posts and stations, and it call[ed] upon all benevolent and philanthropic persons to aid it in th[e] free distribution of proper reading material.”  By 1876, the USMPLA provided military installations throughout the nation with 4,672 volumes, 80,000 religious papers, 178,000 secular papers, 9,875 magazines, and 7,000 publications of the association.  The organization also facilitated the establishment of 13 literary and debating societies and 19 reading clubs.

Newspapers and magazines were also common.  Not surprisingly, common periodicals, including Army and Navy Journal, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and Harper’s Weekly, were widely distributed.  However, other weekly papers including Puck, Harper’s Franklin Square Library, and the Cincinnati Graphic were also distributed.  Puck was a very popular magazine known for its satirical cartoons.  In 1882, the weekly ranked second to the Army and Navy Register for distribution to military posts.

So what publications were available at specific posts?  Numerous period documents list the publications, and occasionally who checked them out, at individual posts.  The following are two examples.

Puck was a weekly magazine characterized by satirical cartoons. Several Old Army libraries received subscriptions to the periodical.
Examples From Old Army Libraries

In October 1866, a post council of administration, convened at Fort Bowie, Arizona Territory, authorized 2nd Lieutenant John R. Eschenburg, 14th Infantry, to purchase 10 books and a one-year subscription to the Sacramento Weekly Union, all for $10.00.  Books purchased included The Works of Washington Irving, including the short story titled Wolfert’s Roost, Macaria, or the Altars of Sacrifice a novel by Augusta Jane Evans, and one volume of the three-volume history titled History of the Dominion of the Arabs in Spain translated into English by Mrs. Jonathon Foster.

A council of administration at Fort Fetterman in present Wyoming authorized the purchase of a wider selection of books.  They included:

History of Charles XII, King of Sweden
John Lothrop Motley’s History of the Rise of Dutch Republic (ca. 1858)
John Lothrop Motley’s History of the United Netherlands (ca. 1860)
George Bancroft’s History of the United States (ca. 1860)
David Hume’s History of England (ca. 1826)
Antoine Henri de Jomini’s The Art of War (ca. 1862)

“Shakespear’s Complete”, probably one of various editions of William Shakespeare’s poems titled The Complete Works of Shakespeare…
“Byron’s Complete”, probably one of various editions of Lord George Gordon Byron titled The Complete Works of Lord Byron…
“Scott’s Complete Peotical Works”, probably one of various editions titled The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott…
“Burns Complete Poetical Works”, probably one of various editions titled The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Burns…

“Shakespear and His Friends”, probably Shakespeare and His Friends or “The Golden Age” of Merry England by Robert Folkestone Williams (various editions)
“Sir Walter Scotts (complete)”, a set of novels written by Scott

A council of administration, convened at Fort Fetterman in 1868, authorized the purchase of several books, including History of the Netherlands, for the post library.
A Diverse and Worldly View?

Interestingly, the Fort Fetterman list includes several books related to Scandinavian history.  I wonder if these books reflect the high number of soldiers born in that region?  The few books listed in the Bowie and Fetterman libraries suggest that the Old Army attempted to offer a diverse and thoughtful view of world.  Whether the rank and file actually read and appreciated these works is a question worthy of further investigation.  What are your thoughts?  Leave a comment or contact us directly.


Published Sources
Annual Report of the Secretary of War (1882, 1883, 1888, 1897)
Annual Report of the U.S. Military Post Library Association, 1870-1871 (1871)
General Orders and Circulars, Adjutant General’s Office (1886, 1887)
General Regulations for the Army (1821)
Public Libraries in the United States of America, Part I (1876)
Outline Description of the Posts in the Military Division of the Missouri Commanded by Lieutenant General P. H. Sheridan (1876)
Outline Description of U.S. Military Posts and Stations in the Year 1871 (1872)
The Publisher’s Weekly, No. 230, June 10, 1876.
Report on the Hygiene of the United States Army (Billings 1875)

Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
Orders and other documents, Fort Fetterman, Dakota Territory and Camp/ Fort Bowie, Arizona Territory

Unpublished Sources
Isaac d’Isay letter to Alida d’Isay (dated Fort Wood, New York Harbor, July 3, 1867); author’s collection