In the years just before the dawn of the 20th Century, America was going through dramatic cultural, social, political and economic changes. The Industrial Revolution was reshaping the way Americans worked and played; an emerging "mass culture" was creating a "cultural upheaval" - as mentioned in the John F. Kasson book, Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century. This upheaval was driven in part by technological innovations (affordable books, magazines, photographs, lithographs, the invention of the telephone, phonograph) in communication, which opened the door to a new way of living - for a new generation of Americans it was a distinct departure from "genteel respectability" (Kasson, 6). This paper offers a close look at how U.S. families were learning to enjoy their leisure time in the 1890s, leisureliness being a luxury that citizens of the early and mid-19th Century, for the most part, were not able to experience. In this paper, the amusement parks of the late 19th Century will be reviewed - as to what they offered and how people responded to them - and also, the paper will cover the events of the times, important people of the times, as a way to put American leisure experiences into historical context.
Putting the 1890s into Historical Perspective
Meanwhile, as the "genteel middle-class cultural order" was crumbling (Kasson, 6) in the 1890s, there were fascinating developments and inventions which hastened dramatic cultural change in America (Bowling Green, 2000). In 1891: Thomas Edison invented the first motion picture camera; James Naismith invented basketball; Whitcomb L. Judson patented the zipper. In 1892: the first gasoline-powered auto was built by Frank and Charles Duryea (followed by Henry Ford's first car in 1893); The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was published (Arthur Conan Doyle); Carnegie Hall opened its doors. In 1893: Alexander Graham Bell's patent on the telephone expires, opening the door for other phones; Frank Lloyd Wright designs his first home. In 1894: the Income Tax becomes law; muckraking journalists expose corporate corruption. In 1895: Sears Roebuck launches mail order catalog business; Woodville Latham launches Panoptikan, a moving picture projector; Coney Island opens up. In 1896: James B. Connolly wins hop, skip, and jump event, 1st U.S. Olympic champion in 1500 years at revival of games in Athens; Koster and Bial's NYC music hall holds first public exhibition of moving pictures; "The Yellow Kid" is published (first comic strip) by New York World. In 1897: 1st subway opens in Boston; William James publishes collections of essays (the varieties of religious experience). In 1898: battleship Maine blown up in Havana harbor, followed by sensational newspaper accounts ("yellow journalism"), which inflame anti-Spain sentiment and lead to U.S. taking Cuba and the Philippines from Spain. In 1899:
John Dewey begins revolution in education with publication of the school and society; Edwin Markham publishes "man with a hoe," which becomes the most popular poem in American history to that point; economist Thornstein Veblen publishes the theory of the leisure class.
The Emergence of Amusement Parks
Speaking of the leisure class, what was it that stimulated the need for mass culture weekend amusement for these late 19th Century citizens? Was is just the fact that employers were giving workers half of Saturday - or if you were lucky, all of Saturday - off, and there was a resulting vacant time slot to fill? Was it that urban populations were growing into crowded settings so rapidly that people needed diversions and creative activities to keep from feuding with one another and to stay emotionally fresh after long hours of mundane industrial-related work? And was it that electric trolley systems offered easy access from cities to amusement parks? "Yes" is an appropriate answer to all three questions. And indeed, the development of practical uses for electricity had spurred the construction of amusement parks nationwide, in the 1890s and early 1900s.
Indeed, the emergence of electricity was hastened at the Chicago Columbian Exhibition of 1893. The exhibition featured one of the first demonstrations of mass electric lighting. Hence, amusement park developers quickly realized that new lighting at public parks would be a significant attraction in a time when electricity in American's homes was still very rare. And so, parks were ablaze after dark with large quantities of electric light bulbs, and people were drawn to them like moths to a flame. Indeed, the parks quickly earned the nickname of "White Cities," or "Fairylands." At that same 1893 Chicago Columbian Exhibition, George Ferris unveiled the original, initial Ferris wheel. It stood over 250 feet high. The history of the roller coaster reportedly goes much further back than the Ferris wheel. In the late 1600s, according to "History of Amusement Parks," the Russians produced a ride "which used a sled on which to ride, and a long, icy slide." This ride apparently evolved into the roller coaster. Meantime, an innovator named LaMarcus A. Thompson, created what he called, "The Switchback Gravity Pleasure Railway" at the end of the 1800s. This is given credit as the first roller coaster in America. However, a few years later, a person named Lina Beecher created America's first "vertical roller coaster" (in Toledo, Ohio) a few years after Thompson's device hit the amusement parks.
Meanwhile, a look at some of America's amusement parks from the era of the 1890s will provide pertinent background for this paper's theme.
Paragon Park, Boston
During the late nineteenth century, a number of resort areas developed in the Boston area, providing fun and recreation for its residents. In fact, in the late 1800s, Nantasket, or Hull, was considered the premier resort in New England; it bragged of being the "largest summer hotel in the nation." Nantasket featured rides (merry-go-rounds), modest roller coasters, and other attractions. Also, elegant amusement parks were developed at Revere, Norumbega and Nantasket Beach. At one point, there were more than a dozen wooden carved carousels in the Boston metropolitan area, all within ferry or trolley distance. However, the advent of the automobile allowed Bostonians easy driving to Cape Cod and northern New England; hence, one by one, merry-go-rounds faded from the scene.
Revere Beach Reservation, Boston
While the automobile took the luster away from amusement parks in the city of Boston, the railroad - the Boston, Revere Beach and Lynn Railroad - became the largest single factor in the development and growth of Revere Beach Reservation, five miles north of Boston. In 1895, the Massachusetts legislature ordered the "taking" of nearly three miles of private seacoast land on what is now Revere Beach Reservation. It featured the "Cyclone Roller Coaster," the "Hippodrome Rough Riders" (a "magnificent electric carousel, an old-fashioned merry-go-round" which filled a building nearly 80 feet square, the "Fun House," and "Derby Racers" (roller coasters).
Along the boardwalk in Atlantic City, in 1899, popular amusement piers began popping up. Visitors enjoyed walking out over the Atlantic Ocean on these long piers. The more popular piers were named "Million Dollar," "Steel," "Iron"; people from Philadelphia, New York, and other booming urban environments flocked to Atlantic City. Some exhibits were called "Diving Horse," and "Dr. Couney's Premature Infant Exhibit." One major amusement was the regularly held marathon dance contests, held out on the piers.
Ponce de Leon Park, Piedmont Park - Atlanta
Ponce de Leon Park was built in 1888, just three years after Coney Island was completed. It featured a Ferris wheel, swinging rides in little cars hanging from a tall steel structure, carnival side shows. Piedmont Park was designed by George Forsyth Johnson in 1887 when he did the landscaping for the grounds for the 1887 Piedmont Exposition. Originally there was a racetrack and amusement activities in the park, then it was redesigned the park in 1895 for the Cotton States and International Exposition, creating the park lake.
Forest Park Highlands - St. Louis
Started as a beer garden, and then an amusement park, Forest Park Highlands first opened as the Highlands Cottage Restaurant in 1896. To attract a wider audience, they installed a horse-drawn merry-go-round. The St. Louis Republic newspaper, of May 23, 1897, carries a small notice stating that Forest Park Highlands ("the finest and largest open-air enterprise in the West") featured "10 new and novel features including a scenic railway." One of the best parts of the park was that admission to the grounds was free. However, on the stage of Col. John D. Hopkins' Vaudeville Theater one could enjoy the comedy of Marie Dressler for just 10 cents in the gallery, 20 cents in the balcony, or 30 cents downstairs.
Coney Island History
New York's Central Park provided a plethora of activities for big city folks in the Big Apple in 1858 - horseback riding, boating in the summer, skating in the winter, and amusements for tiny children. Frederick Law Olmsted developed the park, and he could not possibly have forecast that by 1871, ten million people a year (and 30,000 a day) would be…