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Coney Island Its Manners and Morals

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A World of Want; Coney Island Its Manners and Morals

At the beginning of the twentieth century America was empowering itself through mass industrialization and its role as a dominant power in the world. Urban American was able to participate in recreation activities outside the home; leisure time became imaginable for the first time. Production in America was skyrocketing, people in were able to save their money so they could take vacations to the beach or slip down to the amusement park on a Sunday afternoon. In the early 1920’s Coney Island was able to bring together a nation that was torn apart because of class conflict, and expand commonalities between classes. Coney Island America’s first amusement park represented an arrival of a new set of American values, and the beginning of mass consumerism.

Prior to Coney Island there were few places in cities for people to recreate, the two most prominent models of urban recreation were New York’s Central Park and the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Both were designed not for the pleasure for the visitor but to instruct them, and to” inspire them with a respect for cultural standards” (Kasson 11). The defining idea behind Chicago’s White City was to let the classical architecture refine the people; have them experience a new kind of sophistication that many industrious cities in America did not have. However it was not the architecture that visitors were flocking by the thousands to see. It was the Midway a part of the exhibition that was put in as a “concession to public taste” (Kasson 23). The Midway was the start of a cultural shift in America; it brought all things exotic within reach. The Midway let visitors a different way to live it was something new and titillating. This new part of the White City was only a small part at first, but the more public interest grew the more the Midway was able to expand. America was largely still under the Victoria ideals of what was socially acceptable and what was not. For example according to traditional courting traditions at the time Coney Island was opened there would have to be a chaperone present. At places like Coney Island and the Midway young men and women were able to express themselves more openly and in a way they had never been able to do before. “Coney Island provided an area in which visitors were temporarily freed from normative demands” (Kasson 41).

One word that could capture the essence of Coney Island in its prime would be astonishment. Journalists reveled in the controlled chaos that crowds created, critics like Maxim Gorky thought this idea of amusement was “the new opiate of the people” (Kasson 109). Many visitors of Coney Island agreed with the idea that a crowd had its own mentality people become “masked by their anonymity, people feel free to give rein to the expression of their feelings” (Kasson 97). Seemingly liberal thinkers of the time such as James Gibbons Huneker regarded Coney as a disgrace to our civilization. Many saw amusement as a regression of what they considered to be proper entertainment. The Victorian values that were prevalent in society at the time were challenged in every aspect from the message that Coney Island was sending out across the world. At Coney Island you put your preservations aside and became a complete lunatic yourself. It allowed people to get control, and gave them something to look forward to and something rewarding to do when they got the chance.

In the early twentieth century males were the most dominant force in society while women were often not even give the opportunity to succeed. However within the realm of Coney Island the gender roles were equalized. The ideas that Coney Island represented set the stage for traditional values to be pushed aside and let new way of thinking break through into American society. Many of the exhibits on Coney Island were seen as immoral such as “Little Egypt” in this type of dancing was seen as “extremely ungraceful and almost shockingly disgusting” (Kasson 26). It was brought front and center that Coney was created purely for the people’s enjoyment, unwinding and letting loose was exactly why people came to Coney. Both of the main parks at Coney Steeplechase and Luna park had included ballrooms for dancing to “cater to the new craze for more sensual, intimate dancing” conservatives had serious qualms about this, it encouraged hotly contested behavior between men and women.

With the rapid industrialization of America there were significant challenges such as creating a socially acceptable form of urban recreation. With factory workers putting in approximately sixteen to eighteen hour days in the factory six and seven days a week an afternoon off was like gold. “Instruments of production and efficiency were transformed into objects of amusement, and life around them lifted from dull routine to exhilarating pageantry” (Kasson 73). Carts that were used to carry miners into the mines were altered for visitors and became thrill seeking rides so when many people went back to work they were able to see dull tasks through the lighthearted lens of the fun the experienced at Coney Island.

I n Coney Island’s prime there was nothing normal or expected that came out of the establishment. Coney pushed the limits of the Victorian social mores and the idea that nothing was out of reach for any American. Critics of Coney Island called it a “dumping ground of the cosmos” (Kasson 97) it forever changed the framework of American manners. Through the mass success that Coney Island experiences it was also their successes that lead to its ultimate decline in popularity. Innovators around the world came to America because of Coney Island and by the late 1920’s they could no longer keep up to the standard that they themselves had set.

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