Saturday, November 20, 2004

Amusing the Million
Amusing the Million is John Kasson’s 1978 account of American leisure pursuits at Coney Island around 100 years ago. Margie and I thought about visiting on one recent trip to the big city and were told to be careful, that just the trip out there on public transportation wasn’t safe. But at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was a luxury resort. So to read of it was really fascinating, to think of what it once had been, “commanding two miles of beach on the southwestern end of Long Island” (3). By the time Kasson had written his book, though, almost 30 years ago, it was down to “an area sixteen blocks long and two wide,” living “largely on the borrowed capital of its past.” Kasson examines in his narrative what happened culturally that made this place rise to such stature and fall so quickly. The story he tells is very interesting, and the factors that caused the rapid gentrification and de-gentrification of the place play important roles in my areas of interest in popular culture.

The amusement parks in Coney Island began to be popular before the turn of the century. Kasson says they “flourished” before WWI. It was a critical time in our history, he says, because it was “when the nation came of age as an urban-industrial society and its citizens eagerly but painfully adjusted to the new terms of American life” (3). Effectively, that meant hard work, but also leisure time, money to spend (if only a little), and most importantly, cheap public transportation to get to public amusements like Coney Island.

One important factor that contributed to the rise of the amusement park was the end of Victorian values. Nineteenth century America, in many respects, says Kasson, was more Victorian than England. It was a time of “a self-conscious elite of critics, ministers, educators and reformers […] who took it as their mission to discipline, refine, and instruct” the people around them (4). So it goes without saying that these sensibilities set the tone for the “mass culture.”

Then, “technological innovations permitted widespread dissemination of inexpensive books, periodicals, engravings, lithographs, photographs, and other mass reproductions” which Kasson calls “the beginnings of the communications revolution” (5). But though there was a general Victorian tone, it did not reach every aspect of the culture. The working classes, particularly, were left out of this “genteel cultural reform” (5). The reformers message did not reach the “new immigrant groups,” either. Also ignored were the newly rich from industry.

The result was that at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, entertainers like P.T. Barnum began to venture “beyond the pale of middle-class respectability” (6). It didn’t take long afterwards for other cultural groups to join in the fun.

Many cultural crossovers occurred. Kasson cites the “ragtime and cakewalk in the 1890s,” which happened when “Afro-American music and dance emerged out of black communities and the demimonde to be commercialized and transformed for white urban audiences” (7). Just think of how that paved the way for so many other crossovers from the black to the white community (I’m going to read more and write more about this in the new book Hip). Other such crossovers were “prizefighting, earlier confined to gentlemen’s clubs or working-class saloons” as well as “competitive athletics” (7). Furthermore “a new wave of popular literature broke with the genteel code of delicacy, domesticity, and decorum” (7). Kassom gives examples like London’s 1903 book, Call of the Wild, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1914 book, Tarzan of the Apes (7).

However Kasson says that the “most striking expression of the changing character of American culture” was “the new amusement parks” that were built right around the same time, not just at Coney Island but in Boston, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Atlanta, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, and San Francisco too (7). The interesting part of studying Coney Island’s history, says Kasson, is that doing so makes it not as much “an object of nostalgia” as “a harbinger of modernity” because it told more than just how we spent our leisure time; it foretold of “major changes in American manners and morals (8). Not only that, but what went on at Coney island “ultimately precipitated a debate that has continued up to our own time over the role and significance of popular amusement in a democracy” (9).

Kasson explains the importance of Coney Island by contrasting it with “two highly influential earlier models of urban recreation developed by genteel reformers in the second half of the nineteenth century, New York’s Central Park and Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893” (11). Both these previous projects were oriented toward entertaining people, but they also had designs on instructing “their users in lessons of aesthetic taste and social responsibility,” a goal that was in keeping with that nineteenth century reformer’s sense of responsibility to the public (11).

Frederick Law Olmstead, the developer of Central Park, was concerned about the overcrowding of the city. He thought that being closer to nature was an important antidote to the pathology of “contact without fellowship, congregation without community,” which he saw in “urban mass society” (12).

Similarly, Daniel Burnham’s development of the Columbian Exposition (for 46 million dollars!) was “the third greatest event of American history” (after the Revolution and the Civil War) (17). Its intent was “to elevate the city by its example of monumental grandeur” (18). The exposition was a model of a neoclassical cityscape, and more than 21 million visitors came to see it (21). Henry Adams wrote of it, calling it “the first expression of American thought as a unity” and William Dean Howells called it “a foretaste of Heaven” (22).

Kasson goes on to describe some of the other amusements of the time, but none of them surpassed what he calls “the undisputed capital of amusement at the turn of the century, Coney Island” (28). Visitors began to come to the Coney Island House (hotel) in the early nineteenth century, traveling by “small side-wheel steamboat service linking the Island’s West End to New York” (29). At first, Coney Island drew wealthy vacationers because it was hard to get there. But by the 1860s, “Norton’s Point at the western end had become a haven for gamblers, confidence men, pickpockets, roughnecks, and prostitutes, who could ply their trades upon recreation seekers beyond the reach of New York and Brooklyn officials” (29). But then the investors came. More steamboat and railway lines came and the development moved towards West Brighton, Brighton Beach, and Manhatton Beach. Railroad and Real Estate developer, Austin Corbin built the New York & Manhattan Beach Railway in 1877 (30-31).
That was significant because transport to the beach became easier—one “could travel in an hour from midtown Manhattan directly to […] stylish new hotels” of four stories (31). And as soon as the competition started, developers catered not just to the upper classes but also to the multitudes (32).

So now the capacity of these places became enormous. The hotels and restaurants were “designed to accommodate guests by the thousands;” Kasson says, “the fact that their advertised capacities may be inflated merely confirms their orientation toward quantity” (33). So in 1879 the restaurant at The Sea Beach Palace said it could seat 15,000 at once and have 10,000 overnight hotel guests. The West Brighton said its restaurant could feed 8,000 in a day. The Ocean Pavilion promised it was the largest with hotel rooms for 20,000 guests and a ballroom for 3,000. According to Kasson, “Of an estimated 60,000 visitors to Coney Island on a warm Sunday in 1878, 50,000 spent their time and money at West Brighton” (33). The numbers here are stunning, particularly for more than 100 years ago. How did the infrastructure—the transportation system—handle it?

Kasson describes another hotel built in the shape of an elephant, which had spiral stairways in its legs and a shopping mall in its body alongside the guestrooms. He says, “a trip to the Elephant Hotel quickly became an essential part of the Coney Island visitor’s itinerary, and the phrase ‘seeing the elephant,’ often accompanied by a broad wink, became a euphemism for illicit pleasures” (33).

Now, as for what people did when they were at the beach, Kasson lists “innumerable saloons, variety shows, bands, shooting galleries, sideshows, catchpenny games, food vendors, crayon portraits, photographers, fortune tellers, as well as con men, whores, and thugs of old” (34). It’s not surprising that the games became corrupt and the place itself became known as “Sodom by the Sea” (34). A local politician, John Y. McKane, apparently was a corrupting influence and eventually went to prison.

Following McKane’s influence, a businessman George C. Tilyou developed Captain Paul Boyton’s Sea Lion Park, to try to “redeem Coney Island’s corrupt image” (34). He also developed Shoot the Chutes and Steeplechase Park, and then another developer bought Sea Lion Park and turned it into Luna Park (which was followed by the opening of a competitor, Dreamland (34). The important lesson in these resorts was that “vice does not pay as well as decency” (35).

Now, as I mentioned before, one of the contributing factors to the explosion of visitors to Coney Island was the ease of transportation. “The cheapest fare to the resort in the early 1890s had been forty cents, fifty for a steamer; but improvements in rapid transit beginning with the nickel trolley ride to Coney in 1895 forced these prices down and brought the excursion within the means of the great multitude” (37). When they build the bridges and tunnels, that made it take even less time to get there, which made it even more a possibility for lower classes (who had less leisure time) to get there.

The crowds were interesting at the time because they were so diverse. At the time, it was unusual for the classes to mix. Further, the style of dress was shockingly informal for the time. Kasson points out that when we see pictures now, the dress looks formal, but for the time, the dress was relaxed (38).

The diversity also reflected the immigrant population, which had grown dramatically around the turn of the century: “by over 400,000 in each of the last two decades of the nineteenth century” so that by “the turn of the century, immigrants constituted a majority of the adults both in Manhattan and in Brooklyn” (39). That is pretty astounding! But what’s more is that the numbers increased “by an additional 942,000 in the first decade of the twentieth century and roughly another 400,000 by 1920” (39). So all these immigrants went to Coney Island as well.

An interesting fact about Coney Island is that it was here that people began to collect and send postcards of their trip (40). That wasn’t the only newness about the place, though. People’s behavior changed. It was written at the time that “Coney Island has a code of conduct which is all her own” (41). The rules were “loose” and, as Kasson says, “it broke down the sense of rigidity that dominated so much of the life of American cities at the turn of the century and lessened personal restraints” (41). In part, some of the rule changes were scripted by the resorts themselves.

For example, “Various amusements contrived to lift women’s skirts and reveal their legs and underclothing, while numerous others provided opportunities for physical contact,” like the roller-coasters and other scary rides that would cause women to throw their arms around their dates (42-43). Men and women are shown embracing in pictures, a taboo at the time elsewhere. Kasson contrasts Coney Island photos of the time with pictures of the Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue, demonstrating the rigid, uptight postures and dress of the people in the city with the relaxed postures and dress of the people on Coney Island (43-44).

Kasson goes on to discuss more about the nature of the entertainment there. He talks about the “freaks of nature” as well as the “freaks of culture” (53). This is where we see the advertisement for Jolly Trixy and Princess Wee Wee, an advertisement that is at once hilarious and very sad (as sideshow ads often are) (52-53). I scanned in the ad to show the text and will try to post it here.

I love the part that says “Holy Smoke She’s Fat She’s Awful Fat” as well as “She’s So Fat that it Takes 7 Men to Hug Her.” That’s hilarious. But when you think of the poor woman who had to endure the jeers, it isn’t very funny at all.

More on this later, where Kasson speaks in greater detail about developer George Tilyou.

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