“Amusing the Million” Essay
Pre World War I, Coney Island proved itself to be an epicenter of a new, emerging American culture. In this time, American urban populations were quickly growing, immigrant populations were at a peak, and Americans were evolving into a society that allowed for “increased leisure time and spending power.”(Kasson, 7) Different than the previously advocated forms of structured, refined entertainment known to American culture, Coney Island offered a type of entertainment that was less thought provoking in nature, focusing on engaging the senses through whimsy and carefree ventures rather than exercising the mind. The amusement parks of Coney Island accomplished a major feat in an emerging society: they created escape for those who attended and served as a new form of American recreation. Coney capitalized on inciting emotions from their patrons and engaged their need to be free from their everyday lives. Innovative thinking and emerging technological advances of this era made Coney possible. Coney also introduced the idea of a new social order by providing a landscape for people of different classes, nationalities, and social statuses to interact. Coney Island fostered fundamental cultural changes in American society through its lack of rigidity and seriousness that was paramount of American cultural of this era.
At the turn of the century, the U.S. was facing a massive overhaul. Post Civil War and during reconstruction, the United States saw a rise in big businesses, and the “corporation” developed. Urban growth boomed, and technology advancements “allowed buildings to expand vertically to accommodate their surging populations.” (Tindall & Shi, 629) Between 1860 and 1920, immigration reached a peak, introducing many influences and ideals into American society. “In 1890, four out of five New Yorkers were foreign-born, a higher proportion than in any other city in the world. (Tindall & Shi, 635) The turn to a consumer-oriented way of life and increased leisure time contributed to American thirst for entertainment, and coupled with new developments of more inexpensive, faster, and accessible transportation, amusement parks were born. Coney Island and other amusement parks of this era contrasted greatly to earlier ideas of recreation. Many commented on the lack of rigidity and shift in behavior found on the island that was outside of the social norm. According to George Tilyou, founder of Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park, “we Americans want either to be thrilled or amused, and we are ready pay well for either sensation.” (Kasson, 58) Their brand of recreation was unorthodox as opposed to New York City’s Central Park and the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893. Both of these projects were set forth with common objectives of social reform and cohesion. In attempts to do so, Central Park focused on providing the tranquility of nature in the middle of a highly urbanized city, while the Columbian Exposition focused on showcasing what an the ideal Genteel city should would exemplify with its imperial architecture and elegantly-styled buildings. These environments harbored a type of social responsibility and order for those in attendance, and lacked the careless abandon that could be found at Coney Island. Through amusements previously un-introduced in American society, Coney captured the essence of an evolving national landscape. The introduction of the nickel trolley in 1895 made passage to the island relatively inexpensive, which made the accessibility open to the masses. Three major parks dominated the landscape of Coney Island: Steeplechase Park, Luna Park and Dreamland “formed the heart of the ‘New Coney Island.’” (Kasson, 54)
Steeplechase Park, founded by George Tilyou, was inspired by the concept of the first enclosed amusement park on Coney Island, Sea Lion Park. Named for its gravity-powered steeplechase race that enclosed the park, Steeplechase was...
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