Saturday, November 27, 2004

Cheap Amusements: Working Women and
Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York
Kathy Peiss’s book is a nice complement to Amusing the Million, about which I spoke a week or so ago. It deals in greater depth with the topic of amusement, obviously, because it deals with the whole city, and not just with a resort town, and though it supposedly deals only with women, in doing so, the book has to discuss issues of children and husbands and families as well. Actually, Peiss even spends some time talking about Coney Island as well. But while I enjoyed Amusing the Million, I find Cheap Amusements on the whole a far more educative text. It does a better job of communicating what life was like at the time.

Peiss describes the class perceptions of New Yorkers at the turn of the (twentieth) century. She says that they would generally have seen the “population as split into two classes, typified by the ostentatious mansions of Fifth Avenue,” which still exist today, “and the squalid tenement slums of Mulberry Bend,” which now probably cost proportionally as much as those Fifth Avenue mansions” (11).

To look more closely at those on the lower end of the class scale, Peiss considered studies of income at the time. Between 1903 and 1909, these families of between four and six earned about $800 annually or $15 weekly. The same problems of very high urban rents and food existed then as do today, so these families had little disposable income (12). As a result, all the family members worked, including unmarried daughters.

So, these working families had little time for leisure. One researcher said, “In the evening they sit in front of the house,” and the furthest distance they traveled was to “the woman’s parents, who live across the way” (13). Those families who earned $17 or more every week made “inexpensive excursions and theater trips” as well as “occasional treats” such as a visit to “the amusement resorts at Coney Island or Fort George once or twice a summer” (13). Peiss says “as late as the First World War, working-class families spent only 2.4 percent of their earnings on amusements” (13).

But the truly interesting part of this discussion is what names the chapter, “The Homosocial World of Working-Class Amusements.” Citing the 1913 study of researcher George Bevan, Peiss explains the division of socialization at the time. Peiss explains, the “husband comes home at night, has his dinner, and goes out with the ‘men,’ or sits at home to read his paper. Even when unemployed [...] men never stayed home but went to play cards at the union hall” (16). Apparently, marriages were meant to be loveless affairs organized for the purposes of procreation (and of having life-long live-in cleaning and childrearing services, no doubt). So the husbands and wives both not only sought enjoyment but also were expected to seek recreation and enjoyment outside the home—separately.

Generally, working men went to the saloons. Their culture of the saloon was so endemic that the saloons practically took over. Peiss says, “Over ten thousand saloons were in business throughout greater New York in 1900.” Not only that, but “In the 15th Assembly District, for example, an area bounded by 43rd Street, 53rd Street, Eighth Avenue, and the Hudson River, almost one-half of the ninety-two street corners were occupied by saloons, and sixty-six taprooms were scattered along the blocks” (17). Considering how many fewer people lived there at the time, those numbers are staggering!

A whole subculture developed around what happened inside those saloons. Peiss cites a vice investigator who describes the way the bartender’s behavior might have “rivaled a vaudeville turn.” The investigator describes the bartender as a “hot headed Irishman” who squirted seltzer water on a patron who was passed out at the bar. In retribution, the inebriated patron later filled his mouth with beer and sprayed it at the bartender in a demonstration of “low comedy,” but with no “ill feeling” (20).

Another element of that subculture was the custom of treating. Peiss explains that “A kind of obligation of honor was created which required the individual to continue drinking until everyone in the group he was part of had the opportunity to treat everyone else” (21). No surprise that bars and bartenders were behind the formation of these large cohort groups.

While all this fun was going on, the wives did not have so much fun. They were limited to “sitting on the steps of the tenement gossiping; some lean out of the window with a pillow to keep their elbows from being scraped by the stone sills; others take walks to the parks” (22). If these women wanted to have the kind of fun their husbands were having, they were limited by problems with “inadequate plumbing in the tenements, poor municipal sanitation, and the inability to afford simple labor-saving technology” (22). One woman interviewed recalled using “a coal fire to heat her irons,” handling “iron pots in cooking,” chopping “wood in the cellar,” baking “her own bread,” and bearing “thirteen babies” (22). Good God! How did she even have time to conceive thirteen babies?

So now, if there was any sort of recreation, the women were likely to have more work to do, such as preparing the food for the picnic or taking extra care that the children looked their most presentable for being shown off at the park. If the husband’s paycheck was to be used for leisure, it had to be after he used it for what he wanted. In other words, men would spend “the bulk of it on beer and liquor, tobacco, and movie and theater tickets” for themselves and then if anything was left over, the family could use it for things like food and clothing for the children and rent (23).

The next chapter, “Leisure and Labor,” deals with the origin of “Blue Monday,” the leisure time of employees who (as one employer said) took all day “Sunday for a gala day and not as a day of rest. They worked so hard having a good time [...] that they were ‘worn to a frazzle’ when Monday morning came” (34). Things became a little more economically stable here.

Between 1880 and 1920, unmarried women came to take over at least the women’s job market. Peiss says, “In 1900 four-fifths of the 343,000 wage-earning women in New York were single, and almost one-third were aged sixteen to twenty” (34). Whether these women worked to support themselves or their families, a majority of them worked. This is interesting because it was at this time that working “became an integral part of the transition from school to marriage” (35). The change in their work was a significant one, since in Victorian New York, working women mostly were “domestic servants, needlewomen, laundresses, and in other employments seemingly marginal to an industrial economy” (36). So, according to Peiss, even “as late as 1880, 40 percent of all New York working women were in domestic service” (36). Also, incidentally, women in domestic service had a much harder time going out at night and making their own choices in general about their leisure.

When women began to have jobs that supported the growing mercantile industry in New York, they had power in a way that they had not seen before. Peiss tells about saleswomen being able to use their sales skills both to increase revenues as well as to “manipulate managers, supervisors, and customers, enforcing work rules among the women to sell only so many goods each day and employing code words to warn co-workers of recalcitrant customers” (46). This demonstrates a kind of power that must have been impossible among domestic workers.

Similarly, Peiss describes cooperation among women bookbinders who “employed the notion of a ‘fair day’s work,’ controlling the output during each stint, while other factor hands orchestrated work stoppages and job actions over such issues as sexual harassment and pay cuts” (46). She also tells of waitresses who “worked out their resentment toward employers by pilfering pins and small objects, supplying themselves liberally with ice water and towels, and eating desserts ordered for imaginary customers” (46).

The “work cultures” of the women depended on where they worked as well as on their own cultural traditions. Women who were born in America tended to behave more like men at work “believing in self-education and uplift.” Peiss gives the example of a cigar factory where “female trade unionists would pay one of their members to read aloud while they worked: ‘First the newspaper is read, then some literary work’” (47). But also within a certain industry, the varying cultural and ethnic traditions might predict or give certain groups of women strength to behave a certain way or prevent them from behaving another way. For example, “Jewish waist-makers” were prepared to “organize and strike,” whereas “their more hesitant Italian workmates” were far less inclined to do so (47). Most important about all these phenomena was that the working women came to develop their own unique traditions, separate from those of their families and ethic groups. They mixed in social groups without regard for religion or ethnicity, which apparently did not happen otherwise (48).

When these women worked together, not only were they able to share their ethnic traditions, but also they were able to share “jokes, swearing, and sexual advice” (50). Peiss says they exchanged “obscenities and engaged in explicit discussion of lovers and husbands before work and during breaks,” behavior that was otherwise completely unusual (and unacceptable for women). Peiss explains that women could think about themselves in terms of sex and find out about sex. The ability to know and understand sex gave them power that they could not have known before. I never have thought about this so much before, but it seems more obvious than ever from this reading that forcing women to be “modest” about sex and not talk about it is a subtle way of maintaining their ignorance. I’m sure there has not been a vast world conspiracy to maintain feminine ignorance of sex, but the truth remains that if one is completely ignorant about sex and there’s a taboo against speaking of it or asking any questions, it’s easy to remain subjugated by it, to be raped and not complain, and to be held hostage by it. So what an amazingly powerful experience it was for these young women to work and on the sly to talk about what it meant to have sex. It happened that “this sexual knowledge gained in the workplace informed women’s relations with men in the world of leisure” (51).

Nonetheless, that didn’t stop anyone from paying them less than their male counterparts. Peiss reports that New York’s working women “typically earned below the ‘living wage,’ estimated by economists to be nine or ten dollars a week in 1910” (52). And work started early. While we have such a thing as an adolescence now, 100 years later, at the time, there wasn’t much of a teenage-dom in 1900, when people at that age had to work to support their families (56). Even so, these young people found time for socializing in a way that their parents never had. Social clubs began to be the rage, and dressing up became a point of pride. Peiss says that for “newly arrived immigrants, changing one’s clothes was the first step in securing a new status as an American” (63). Further, if one didn’t have a nice outfit to wear for going out, it was better to stay home than to wear something that was less than the best.

For women, fashionable outfits might have been “a chinchilla coat, a beaded wedding dress, a straw hat with a willow plume” (64). It was often more important to women to be “stunningly attired at the movies, balls, or entertainments” than it was to have serviceable clothes for work (65). Another popular culture trend at the time was “romance novels such as Woven on Fate’s Loom, in which wealthy heroes and long-suffering young heroines underwent the turns of fortune,” so much so that it became fashionable to “adopt storybook names that connoted wealth and romance, such as Henrietta Manners and Rose Fortune” (65).

Romance was difficult for these young working people, most of whom either lived in tenements with their families or in single-sex boarding houses that were chaperoned. As a result, “privacy could only be had in public,” so the young people could only have their privacy in “the streets, clubs, and halls in order to nurture intimate relationships” (72).

The freedom to date went along with cultural tensions in immigrant families, between the new world liberalism and the old world conservatism. The “emergent consumer culture” in response offered advice, for example, “about personal appearance” in “the working class dailies” such as “facial hair ‘makes a bad impression’’ to eliminate it, women should ‘go immediately to your druggist and for one dollar buy Wonderstone’” (72).

The biggest fad of all for single working women was dancing. Peiss says that in “the 1910s, over five hundred public dance halls opened their doors each evening throughout greater New York” (79). At the same time, a survey of girls showed that 90% knew how to dance.

Remarkably, most immigrant groups viewed these dances as safe and respectable places for their daughters. The one exception was Italians (91). Various groups collaborated in an organization called “the racket” to put on dances, where as many as eight hundred dancers would attend at a time (92). The popularity of dancing of course caused the number dancehalls to grow. By 1910, there were 195 dancehalls in New York, some of which could hold as many as 1200 people (93).

Though the dancehalls began as respectable to the working class families, eventually the middle class began to see tem as indecent, citing incidents where woman were dragged away into “white slavery,” incidents which can be corroborated, says Peiss (98).

So that not too much fun could be had, dance halls had chaperones who had to patrol and make sure not too much frottage was occurring. They allowed the waltz and the two-step, and they dictated proper positioning: “the waltz meant that ‘each dancer will be looking over the other’s right shoulder,’ not directly into each other’s eyes’” (101).

Another popular dance existed, called spieling, which was a parody of the waltz, but it was “a dance out of control, its centrifugal tendencies unchecked by proper dance training or internalized restraint. Instead the wild spinning of couples promoted a charged atmosphere of physical excitement” (101).

Tough dancing was the next fad; it “conventionalized” body contact. Peiss describes it like this: “couples stand very close together, the girl with her hands around the man’s neck, the man with both his arms around the girl or on her hips; their cheeks are pressed close together, their bodies touch each other” (102). Then the dancers shook their bodies in “boisterous animal imitations that ridiculed middle-class ideals of grace and refinement,” which “not only permitted physical contact” but also “celebrated it.” Tough dancing was a “suggestion of sexual intercourse” (102). Evidently this sort of dance was shocking to the public and the response was divided by class. More respectable dancehalls gave instructions like “Do not rag these dances” (103).

Interestingly, though, the dance craze did change the previously homosocial leisure patterns permanently since they did away with the need for “proper introductions” and began the “widespread practice of ‘picking up’ unknown women or men in amusement resorts or the streets [as] an accepted means of gaining companionship for an evening’s entertainment” (106). It was here that women began to drink and smoke (though smoking wasn’t entirely accepted as of 1910). “Game girls” played in “kissing rituals” as well (108).

The men, as mentioned before, had rituals of treating drinks. But women weren’t financially able to pay for others’ drinks. Peiss says instead they “offered sexual favors of varying degrees” (109). One reformer at the time pointed out that “working girls held themselves responsible for failing to finagle men’s invitations, believing that ‘it is not only her misfortune, but her fault; she should be more attractive’” (109). There didn’t seem to be much support or understanding for women perceived to be loose, nonetheless. But the women knew they had to put out. One researcher tells of a girl who couldn’t make a relationship last more than a few dates until a friend at work told her “Don’t yeh know there ain’t no feller goin’ t’spend coin on yeh for nothin’? Yeh gotta be a good Indian, Kid—we all gotta!” (112). It sounds like a rat’s nest; we talk about a double-message now, but how about a triple or a quadruple message that these women had to navigate?

Next Peiss has a whole chapter on the Coney Island Excursion. I won’t say too much about it so that I won’t repeat what I said on the Kasson book, but a few tidbits add to what Kasson said. For example, Peiss talks about the efforts Coney Island parks made to overcome the period when the resort had become a place of con games and criminals. Goerge Tilyou advertised to the middle classes specifically, and he warned his vaudeville performers specifically with a sign that said:

Performers playing in this house are requested not to use any Vulgarity or Slang in their act and to kindly omit the words Damn or Liar or any saying not fit for Ladies or children to hear … Our audiences are mostly ladies and children and what we want is only Polite Vaudeville. (129)

One interesting part of the warning message is the fact that the word “liar” is considered to be enough of a curse word that it was inadvisable to say it in front of women and children.

Peiss also describes exhibits of “baby incubators and re-enactments of naval battles and tenement fires” which “served the middle-class public’s interest in scientific advances and newspaper events” (131). I guess that the average person didn’t have television or even really radio, and movies were barely starting, so these exhibits were really thrilling.

My mention of movies is a good segue to the next chapter, “Cheap Theater and the Nickel Dumps.” At the beginning, Peiss describes a Vitagraph film, The Veiled Beauty, where a veiled woman is chased by “mashers” and ultimately saved by her suitor, who takes her to dinner, where, when she lifts her veil, he sees her “ugly and horrifying face.” It is fascinating to me to learn that “In 1907, when this movie was made, an audience composed primarily of working-class women and men would have laughed heartily at the masher’s misfortune and the young woman’s deception, delighting at this comic vignette of treating, heterosocial relations, and urban leisure” (139). These were themes of early silent movies.

Because of the emerging female working class, there began to be a female audience for movies and vaudeville. In fact, Peiss says, “much of the patronage for variety and vaudeville cam from tenement dwellers” and from “working class audiences” (143) and the women of these audiences tended to avoid other types of theater available to them because they tended to be associated with saloons and prostitutions (143).

Soon enough, though, “nickel madness” was a fad that “swept the city,” which meant that “nickelodeons” were built all over Manhattan and working class audiences could see movies regularly. Early movies were, according to Peiss, as crowded as tenements, with “aisles completely blocked by standing spectators,” and with such horrible smells that “attendants went through the room with an atomizer spraying perfumery on the crowd” (149). Also, though, they were casual enough, that mothers did not have to dress up, which meant that many mothers could finally leave the house, since they often had to sacrifice “their own wardrobes to ensure that their husbands and children were properly clothed” (150).

Various researchers have noted a connection between the plots of early films and the diverse audiences. Since so many wide varieties of people were watching these early films, filmmakers often showed “ordinary people and everyday street scenes” that a wide audience could relate to (154). Scholar Lewis Jacobs said, for example, that “before 1908, film comedies always featured ‘a common man or woman’ as the protagonist and sympathized with the poor against the wealthy because ‘the audience and filmmakers alike were of this class’” (154). Similarly, these early filmmakers tended to align themselves against “middleclass morality and manners” (157). So, says Peiss, “While the Victorian woman was idealized and celebrated in the famous films of D.W. Griffith, she received more ambiguous treatment in the mass of films cranked out for the working class audience” (157).

The last chapter in Peiss’s Cheap Amusements is “Reforming Women’s Recreation,” the premise of which is that during the Gilded Age, women in the higher social classes started to believe they needed to reform the way working class women socialized. They did so by forming social clubs and organizations like the Y.W.C.A. These clubs tended to have a membership of working women, but the roles of officers tended to be held by women of middle- and upper-classes, which ultimately caused resentment (168).

Ultimately, the leisure pursuits of working class women ended with marriage and children. They no longer had time for fun because they spent 100% of their effort and energy cooking, cleaning, and managing children. It must have been a rude awakening to experience a burst of freedom only to go into a life of slavery.

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