Professor Mark Carson
2 February 2015
Amusing the Millions
With the turn of the century rapidly approaching, a societal turn began to take place in America as well. John Kasson’s Amusing the Millions vibrantly reinforces Coney Island’s role in moving America away from a genteel, Victorian society towards a more vivacious and energetic one, which would ultimately pave the way for today’s society. Kasson accomplishes this by depicting Coney Island’s amusements as reflective of an emerging urban-industrial society, the elaborate use of technology and by also recognizing the similarities between the social structures of Coney Island as it compared to the cities, which, in turn, ushered in cultural changes to everyday life while still providing visitors with an escape from reality.
At the end of the nineteenth century, there were more working class people than ever before in America. As the demand for more industrialized products became greater, the need for workers also increased. While the upper class had various forms of entertainment, the middle and lower classes were not able to enjoy the same luxury. “For many middle-class writers, Coney represented a loss of deference to older genteel standards, a vulgar and disorderly pursuit of sensation rather than the cultivation of sensibility they stood for.” (Kasson, 108). People in the middle class wanted a form of entertainment that was not so rigid and uptight, but was also a good balance between fun and affordable. Because of strict work schedules during the week, people had a desire to break free on the weekends. More people began taking weekend trips out of town and cutting loose after the workweek. Coney Island served as the perfect gateway to this world of carefree excitement. “By the turn of the century commercial entertainments were sweeping the urban middle class and even penetrating the lives of working class . . . A wide range of attractions was increasingly available, offering in return for modest admission fees the pleasures of a partial holiday whenever one could take it, weekdays and Sundays, daytimes and evenings, many on a ‘continuous performance’ basis.” (Kasson, 37). Victorian traditions were being left at home on the weekends as visitors escaped to Coney Island’s elegant hotels. Hotels such as the Coney Island House allowed its visitors the sophistication of upper class vacationing with a middle class price tag. “The first hotel, Coney Island House, was built in 1829, and in the antebellum period the area slowly acquired a few restaurants, bathhouses, and barrooms, and a small side-wheel steamboat service linking the Island’s West End to New York14 . . . Coney lured wealthier customers eager for seaside seclusion . . . As early as the 1860s, Norton’s Point at the western end had become a haven for gamblers, confidence men, pickpockets, roughnecks, and prostitutes, who could ply their trades upon recreation seekers beyond the reach of New York and Brooklyn officials,” (Kasson, 29). While fleeing their every day lives to Coney Island visitors were continuously drawn in by the grandeur of the island’s magnificent hotels, such as The Elephant, “an immense sculpture made out of wood and covered with tin, with spiral staircases in its hind legs, a diorama and a cigar store in its front legs, a shopping mall and guest rooms in its body, and an observatory in its head.” (Kasson, 33), but what really made them keep coming back were the entrancing amusement park rides and carnival games.
Amusement park rides sprang about the technological advances that were taking place in the late nineteenth century. The world was becoming more technologically advanced and industrialized, and Coney Island was no stranger to the emerging times. Visitors to Coney Island craved the adrenaline rush from the rides and the gut-wrenching laughter from the games. One extremely enticing feat was “. . . the gigantic spare steel wheel designed...
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