Book Reports on Books You’ll Never Read #2

Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century by John F. Kasson

It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that Americans invented fun.  Strange to think of thousands of years of civilization without fun.  With urban industrialization, but no regulated forty-hour workweek, Americans were working like never before.  The idea of leisure was new but carried with it an amount of social responsibility; this era of American-Victorianism emphasized edifying activities for pastimes.  A removed genteel class sought to guide the general public in how their free time should be spent.  Recreational reformers pioneered ideas like “directed play” (i.e. organized exercise) along with the founding of museums, art galleries, symphonies, and libraries.  Best known of these reformers was environmental designer Frederick Law Olmstead who designed Central Park and Chicago’s White City.  However these designs like the City Beautiful movement were more for the genteel population than the working class desiring less intellectually or culturally demanding retreats.

Coney Island started as beach resort for the wealthy, but industrialization changed that as transportation became easier and the once placid resort livened.  Urban city-dwellers had great difficulty in escaping the stresses of inner-city life.  Thus the museums and libraries could serve as areas within the city that were still culturally separated.  But as rail, ferry, and subway lines kept stretching out and lowering in cost, they allowed people the opportunity to get away from the city for just a few pennies.  Those working six days a week could save a little money and steal away to Coney Island for a Sunday.

What Coney Island provided for over-worked lower classes was a place of loosened social mores, an alternative to the formality that work and the upper classes imposed.  “Amusing the Million” shows photographs of the period to provide examples of the dress and habits of New York City citizens of the day.  Paralleling the loosened mores of the people at Coney Island was their loosened clothes.  People could congregate on the beach in baggy, informal clothes that allowed their personalities to loosen as well.  Social mores loosened also as the three main theme parks in the community were some of the few places that young people could meet members of the opposite sex without a formal introduction or chaperone.  Young women from the city would spend just a nickel for the subway ride to Coney Island where they could almost certainly count on meeting a young man who would offer to treat her for the day.

“George C. Tilyou’s Steeplechase Park” by Reginald Marsh

“George C. Tilyou’s Steeplechase Park” by Reginald Marsh

John Kasson, the author, uses a great deal of photographs and illustrations to show the undercurrents of sexuality that had to go unwritten because of the attitudes of the day.  Photos by noted photographers of the day like Jacob Riis show reveling visitors smiling, hugging, and playing on the beach.  A painting like Reginald Marsh’s “George C. Tilyou’s Steeplechase Park” shows the sensuality of the park by squeezing the frame full of dozens of girls falling all over themselves in the attraction known as the “Human Whirlpool”.  Marsh’s work on this and other paintings set at the park is lusty and full of life, with the girls in sleeveless dress or shorts and laughing hard or appearing out of breath.  Other artists also tried to capture the phenomenon of social change going on at Coney Island.  Joseph Stella tried to capture it in a more abstract fashion in his “Battle of Lights, Mardi Gras, Coney Island” a swirl of color and shape that is meant to convey the emotional and sensational experience of the park.

Strangely, in an era that had as much economic free reign as the turn of the century, one of the major criticisms of Coney Island and the other amusement parks were the assertions that Coney Island was too commercial.  Reformers criticized it as a cultural backwash of hype, commercialism, and irresponsibility.  Steeplechase Park, one of the three main amusement parks at Coney Island, intentionally forged a spirit of recklessness.  One of the most popular attractions was a booth filled with imitation china dishes that patrons could smash for the heck of it.  Edward Tilyou, whose father George founded Steeplechase, called amusement parks “a gigantic laboratory of human nature” in which people “cut loose from repressions and restrictions, and act pretty much as they feel like acting—since everyone else is doing the same thing.”

“Battle of Lights, Mardi Gras, Coney Island” by Joseph Stella

“Battle of Lights, Mardi Gras, Coney Island” by Joseph Stella

“Amusing the Million” captures the exuberance of the era, which might very well have been the first truly exuberant era in history.  For urbanites in an overcrowded, poorly kempt city, Coney Island was a respite and relief with it’s bright lights, carnival shows, and mechanical rides designed to thrill.  Was this manufactured world so different?  Early roller coasters were built incredibly similar to miner’s coal cars, as the book points out.  Modern technology of that era was freed from the grip of efficiency and reengineered for the purpose of fun and amusement.  The shadow of fun was cast.  Fun for fun’s sake.  Certainly, amusement park owners made handsome profits, but it wasn’t resented the way the profits of the robber barons were, barons who made their money off of Coney Island vacationers 52 weeks a year.

Of the three parks, Steeplechase, Dreamland, and Luna Park, all but Steeplechase were eventually destroyed by fire.  Steeplechase Park was torn down in the 60’s and is the present site of a minor league baseball stadium.  While the area still has some minor attractions it is nothing like it’s peak in the early 1900’s.  Now it is much more a memory or a myth than an active destination.  Kasson ends the book by stating “Coney Island lost its distinctiveness by the very triumph of its values.”  Coney Island created an alternative universe to the stuffy, industrial city; eventually the rest of the world was brought closer to the spirit of Coney Island.

Nathan's Coney Island in 2000, photo by Barbara Mensch

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