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Amusing the Million
Coney Island: the name still resonates with a sense of excitement, the echo of an earlier age. Once commanding two miles of beach on the southwestern end of Long Island, the amusement center has seen its domain dwindle to an area sixteen blocks long and two wide. Coney now lives largely on the borrowed capital of its past. It wears an air of faded glory, making it a favorite subject of Sunday-supplement articles and anecdotal tributes. But despite the nostalgia Coney Island arouses, the historical context in which it established its enduring national reputation remains neglected. As a result, Coney's true significance has scarcely been grasped. The era of Coney Island's famous amusement parks began in 1895, and they flourished in the years before the First World War. Coney's heyday thus coincided with a critical period in American history, 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. Changing economic and social conditions helped to create the basis of a new mass culture which would gradually emerge in the first decades of the twentieth century. At the turn of the century this culture was still in the process of formation and not fully incorporated into the life of society as a whole. Its purest expressionat this time lay in the realm of commercial amusements, which were creating symbols of the new cultural order, helping to knit a heterogeneous audience into a cohesive whole. Nowhere were these symbols and their relationship to the new mass audience more clearly revealed than at turn-of-the-century Coney Island.
So major was the cultural upheaval Coney Island dramatized that it is difficult to recapture the age that went before it. Nineteenth-century America was governed by a strikingly coherent set of values, a culture in many respects more thoroughly "Victorian" than the England over which Victoria reigned. Beginning in the antebellum period, a selfconscious elite of critics, ministers, educators, and reformers, drawn principally from the Protestant middle class of the urban Northeast, had arisen to assume cultural leadership. In the wake of the disintegration of the old colonial gentry class, these genteel reformers took as their mission to discipline, refine, and instruct the turbulent urban-industrial democracy. American apostles of culture strenuously labored to inculcate the Victorian virtues of "character"moral integrity, self-control, sober earnestness, industriousnessamong the citizenry at large. Ideally, they believed, all activities both in work and in leisure should be ultimately constructive. Hard work improved the individual as well as society, curbing men's animal passions, which if unchecked would bring about social collapse. Leisure, too, should be spent not in idleness but in edifying activities. Under their auspices, poetry, fiction, the visual arts, and related pursuits were legitimized not "for art's sake" but for their moral and social utility.1
Throughout most of the nineteenth century this genteel culture occupied a position as the "official" culture which deviant individuals and groups might defy but not as yet displace. Genteel reformers founded museums, art galleries, libraries, symphonies, and other institutions which set the terms of formal cultural life and established the cultural tone that dominated public discussion. Of critical importance to their success as cultural arbiters was their ability to enlist the support of influential shapers of the nascent mass culture, who echoed their tone and carried their message to a broad audience. Thisalliance between "high" and "middle" culture, between members of the cultural elite and commercial tastemakers, made the hegemony of the genteel culture possible. A series of technological innovations permitted widespread dissemination of inexpensive books, periodicals, engravings, lithographs, photographs, and other mass reproductionsthe beginnings of the communications revolution which has so characterized our own time. As nineteenth-century cultural entrepreneurs sought to develop a vast new market, they popularized genteel values and conceptions of art. The editors of the leading popular magazines and monthlies, the new mass publishers, the most widely respected writers, lecturers, and artists participated in the commercialization of American culture; but in their public postures they resolutely directed their gazes above the coarse and vulgar realities of everyday life to the lofty realm of the ideal. In a mobile, culturally insecure nation, acquisition of reproduced objets d'art, familiarity with "uplifting" writers, and espousal of genteel values became badges of status and refinement.
Despite its considerable following, however, this genteel or "Victorian" culture by no means penetrated all aspects of American life. The United States in the nineteenth century contained a strikingly heterogeneous and diverse population with a variety of cultures and subcultures. Genteel cultural reformers never achieved the control they sought, a fact they readily acknowledged. To reconcile social change with order, industrial growth with stability, democracy with authority, was the extraordinary challenge they set themselves. From their perspective whatever gains they achieved appeared modest in the face of the immense problems that remained. Despite determined efforts, they particularly sensed their failure to exert a pervasive influence upon the urban working classes and new immigrant groups, both of whom clung as best they could to their own cultural forms and values. In the later nineteenth century, moreover, an assertive new economic elite arose with less intimate ties to the custodians of culture. While some genteel reformers successfully formed alliances with these figures, often they found their social position overshadowed by the nouveaux riches, their authority in eclipse. Resentfully,genteel spokesmen castigated the great industrialists as cultural barbarians, without education, refinement, responsibility, or restraint. By the end of the nineteenth century at both ends of the social scale, middle-class cultural arbiters felt the limits of their power.
Still more distressing, they soon discovered a rebellion among their very own children as well. A distinctly new generation came of age around the turn of the century, impatient with the intellectual and emotional restraints, stifled by the insulating comforts of genteel middle-class existence. Many of this generation's leading minds hungered to immerse themselves in issues and experience outside the categories of genteel respectabilityin the lives of the urban working class and ethnic minorities, in muckraking journalism of business and politics, in artistic realism and modernism, in feminism, education, and other fields. The limitations of genteel culture as an approach to a sprawling urban-industrial democracy appeared exposed as never before.2
Slowly at first in the late nineteenth century, then quickly as the twentieth century advanced, the genteel middle-class cultural order crumbled. And the entrepreneurs of mass culture, who had previously helped solidify the authority of genteel values, discovered new opportunities outside its confines. Hitherto, relatively few major commercial entertainers openly ventured beyond the pale of middle-class respectability. Popular impresarios such as P. T. Barnum learned to master the rhetoric of moral elevation, scientific instruction, and cultural refinement in presenting their attractionsfrom the Feejee Mermaid to the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind. But by the turn of the century the managers of mass culture sensed new markets both within the urban middle class and spilling beyond its borders to "high society" and the largely untapped working class, all eager to respond to amusement in a less earnest cultural mood: more vigorous, exuberant, daring, sensual, uninhibited, and irreverent. As a result, American mass culture embraced activities which had previously existed only on the margins of American life.
Examples of this transformation abound. Beginning with ragtime and the cakewalk in the 1890s, Afro-American music and danceemerged out of black communities and the demimonde to be commercialized and transformed for white urban audiences. Vigorous, violent sports such as prizefighting, earlier confined to gentlemen's clubs or working-class saloons, gained increased popular acceptance; and competitive athletics in general attracted large new followings both on college campuses and on professional playing fields. At the turn of the century a new wave of popular literature broke with the genteel code of delicacy, domesticity, and decorum, in such celebrations of masculine toughness and violence as Owen Wister's The Virginian (1902), Jack London's The Call of the Wild (1903), and Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes (1914). And the movies in the space of a few years moved from penny arcades, billiard parlors, and crude storefront "nickelodeons" in working-class and immigrant neighborhoods to captivate an immense audience by the time of the First World War.3
The most striking expression of the changing character of American culture, however, lies in the new amusement parks that were developed at the turn of the century. Made possible by swelling urban populations and an increase in leisure time and spending power and spurred by the development of electric trolley systems that allowed inexpensive excursions from the city, amusement parks rapidly proliferated throughout the country. Boston's Paragon Park and Revere Beach, Philadelphia's Willow Grove and nearby Atlantic City, Atlanta's Ponce de Leon Park, Cleveland's Euclid Beach, Chicago's Cheltenham Beach, Riverview, and White City, St. Louis's Forest Park Highlands, Denver's Manhattan Beach, San Francisco's The Chutesthese and others large and small became meccas for a public eagerly seeking recreation. Dominating them all in size, scope, and fame was New York's Coney Island.
Amusement parks at Coney Island and elsewhere gathered together a variety of popular attractions and pastimes, all of which reflected the changing cultural mood. These might include bathing facilities, band pavilions, dance halls, vaudeville theaters, and circus attractions. The amassing of these varied entertainments, however, was not what made the parks most remarkable. Their special distinctionlay in the new mechanical amusements and exotic settings they provided and the response these sparked among huge crowds of pleasure seekers. In most entertainments of the period the public remained in the position of spectatorsat baseball, football, and boxing contests, at vaudeville, variety, and movie theaters. At Coney Island and other amusement parks, by contrast, audience and activity frequently merged. Drawing upon a broad, heterogeneous urban public, amusement parks stirred them into activity. Customers participated intimately in the spectacle about them. The relationship between entertainment and the cultural needs of the audience was far more striking than in spectator pastimes. Amusement parks emerged as laboratories of the new mass culture, providing settings and attractions that immediately affected behavior. Their creators and managers pioneered a new cultural institution that challenged prevailing notions of public conduct and social order, of wholesome amusement, of democratic artof all the institutions and values of the genteel culture. Amusement complexes such as Coney Island thus shed light on the cultural transition and the struggle for moral, social, and aesthetic authority that occurred in the United States at the turn of the century.
Previous accounts of Coney Island have failed to grasp its larger significance. Much of the writing has been in the vein of "The Night They Burned the Old Nostalgia Down," elegiac accounts that concentrate on Coney Island's internal history and treat it as a curiosity, an independent principality of play. But considered from a broader cultural perspective, Coney's features take on new importance. As one looks closely at turn-of-the-century photographs, they shed their quaint aspect to disclose the meaning they held for participants. When read carefully, old magazine accounts of visits to the Island raise far more serious issues than one would at first suppose from their often jocular tone. Explored afresh in this way, Coney Island no longer appears an object of nostalgia; rather it emerges as a harbinger of modernity. The popular resort quickly became a symbol not only of fun and frolic but also of major changes in American manners and morals.
Coney thus offers a case study of the growing cultural revolt against genteel standards of taste and conduct that would swell to a climax in the 1920s. The new amusement parks and their patrons attracted the attention of a variety of critics, artists, and reformers. In studying Coney Island these observers felt themselves confronting in intensified form the face of a new mass culture. They pondered the complexion of this emergent culture and wondered what rules and restraints would replace those which were being swept away. 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. The story of the resort illuminates the character of the mass culture that would soon dominate American life.
Copyright © 1978 by John F. Kasson