In working class neighborhoods at mid century, young men formed volunteer fire companies and fraternal societies whose primary activities were drinking and gambling. The more affluent and educated people viewed leisure time as an opportunity for self improvement and attended lectures by prominent figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and minster Henry Ward Beecher. Circuses began attracting thousands of spectators. Foot races, Horse races, and boat races began attracting thousands of spectators. Nearly 100,000 people attended a horse race at Union Track on Long Island.

So called blood sports were also a popular form of amusement. Cockfighting and dogfighting at saloons attracted excited crowds and frenzied betting. Prizefighting (also known as boxing) eventually displaced the animal contests. Imported from Britain, boxing surged into prominence at mid-century, and then, as now, proved popular with all social classes. The early contestants tended to be Irish or English immigrants, often sponsored by a neighborhood fire company, fraternal association, or street gang. Prizefighting, like many other professional sports, became a popular vehicle for the immigrant working poor to better their condition.

In the antebellum era, contestants fought with bare knuckles, and the results were brutal. A match ended only when a contestant could not continue. One such bout in 1842 lasted 119 rounds and ended when one fighter died in his corner. Such mortal matches prompted clergymen to condemn prizefighting, and several cities outlawed the practice, only to see it reappear as an underground activity.