28 January 2017

Coney Island - was the modern American mass-culture industry born here?

To find an American realm where fantasy was made material and the pleasure principle ruled, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford Cn say visitors should have visited their exhibition, Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008 in 2015. If not, I recommend the book of the same name, edited by Robin Jaffee Frank (Yale University Press, 2015)

The publishers wrote about the book: “A captivating look at Coney Island and its iconic place in the history of American art. Called America's playground, it is a world-famous resort and national cul­tural symbol that has inspired music, literature and films. This groundbreaking book is the first to look at the site's enduring status as inspiration for artists throughout the ages, from its in­ception as an elite seaside resort in the mid-C19th, to its evolution into an entertainment mecca for the masses.

How artists chose to portray Coney Island from 1861-2008 mirr­ored the aspirations and disappointments of the era. This dazzling catalogue highlighted 200+ images from Coney Island's history, incl­uding paintings, photographs, posters, films, architectural artefacts and carousel animals. An array of artists was represented, from George Bellows, William Merritt Chase and Joseph Stella to Diane Arbus and Weegee. Scholarly essays analysed Coney Island through its art as a place that reflected the collective soul of the nation”.

Yet was it always glamorous? I was visiting the USA in 1974 and asked my New York aunt and uncle to take me to Coney Island for the first time. “Oh no”, said my aunt, pulling herself up to her full 5’1. “Coney Island is where drunken sailors with tattoos lounge around, leering at girls who have sex before marriage”. My aunt was not going to expose her relatives to Sodom by the Sea!

"The Great Coney Island Water Carnival" lithograph
by Strobridge Lithographing Company, 1898
Cincinnati Art Museum

Coney Island was always a small strip of land in the very south western tip of Brooklyn, looking directly onto the Atlantic Ocean beach. The first glamorous hotel, Coney Island Hotel, opened for business in 1829. But there were no ferry lines until 1847, so the reader has to guess what the place looked like, from the bare sand dunes of the 1840s. Then use the photos and paintings to imagine the crowded action of the 1860s, the brothels and gambling dens of the inter-war era, to decline in the late C20th. Even the famous amusement park Astroland (1962-2008) closed, after decades of urban decline.

One of the most famous features was Luna Park that opened in 1903 and was a fantasy world with live camels and elephants. But an elephant accidentally killed a spectator, so the park owners wanted to cash in – they planned execute the animal in a huge public event, charging admission for the spectacle and for the ice-cream. Eventually it was cut back to invited guests and press only. And the owners agreed to use a more sure method of strangling the elephant with ropes tied to a steam-powered winch, with added poison and electrocution for fun. A small gallery in the Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland Exhibition was devoted to this 1904 elephant electrocution, filmed by the Edison Co.

Luna Park
opened 1903

The NY Review of Books loved the scenes from the one-reel Edison comedy Rube and Mandy at Coney Island (1903) which merged with Leo McKay’s painting of Steeplechase Park. This 1910 wooden cut-out cartoon of Mae West and Jimmy Durante, both of whom got their starts in Coney Island concert saloons, was hung oppos­ite a selection of Sunday pages by the master draughtsman Winsor McCay. His comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland was a great graphic expression of Edwardian Coney. Reference after reference!

Visitors could not help but note the visual tumult of Joseph Stella’s oil painting Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras (1913-1914), a gaudy whirl of abst­ract shapes. This cacophony of electric lights, gyrating dancers, and radiating steel beams of the Ferris wheel and roller coasters was Stella’s first subject after arriving in the USA from Italy. He must have felt dazed.

Dreamland (1904-11) was a refined and elegant amusement park with Venetian Canals and Swiss alpine countryside; alas it only lasted 7 years before being tragically destroyed by fire. Luna Park was an amusement centre that opened in 1903, about the same time as Dreamland. Fortunately it lasted much longer - until 1944 when fire destroyed it. This amazingly popular facility was never rebuilt.

After the war, when the Brooklyn Rapid Transit company had extended its street cars and subway lines to Coney Island, the boardwalk op­ened in 1921. Its cheap food stalls attracted thousands of people in summer, especially young families. But once the elegant fairyland of Dreamland had disappeared, Coney Island became rougher and tougher.

Pip and Flip (twins with microcephaly)
by Reginald Marsh, 1932
123 x 123 cm,
Brooklyn Museum Exhibition 

Coney Island was still hugely popular as a family resort during WW2, the very time when Europe was committing mass murder on an unthink­able scale. The entire area began its slow decline when the largest of the amusement areas, Luna Park, burned to the ground in the summer of 1944. Via Weegee’s stun­ning news photo of the ruins, the image of absolute devastation disturbed the exhibition’s final section. The old-fashioned postcards and the photos Weegee took of WW2 Coney Island crowd were from a vantage point on the Steeplechase Pier. But Steeplechase itself was closed in 1964 and was demolished a few years later by the real estate mogul Fred Trump (sic).

McNay Museum in San Antonio Tx, which showed the collection in mid 2016, clearly summarised Coney Island’s contribution: The modern American mass-culture industry was born at Coney Island!! Was that true? I am not an American, I don’t like the idea that mass culture is a product to be industrialised, and I have never visited Coney Island. Perhaps American readers will chime in.


Andrew said...

Like your uncle and aunt, I always thought Coney Island was a cheap, sleazy and bad taste. We nearly visited it two years ago, but it quite a distance and the weather was unpleasantly warm and humid. I really don't think we missed much. It certainly does have an interesting history and thanks for the glimpse into its origins and history.

Hels said...


it is rather sad when a centre of pleasure, music, elegant hotels, clean beaches and good food ceases to attract the family market. As Dreamland was a refined and elegant amusement park with Venetian Canals and Swiss alpine countryside, Coney Island should have rebuilt it after the terrible fire of 1911. But the world moves on.

It reminds me of the splendid homes, gardens, beach, Luna Park and hotels of St Kilda in the late 19th century. By the inter-war period, those mansions were turned into cheap boarding houses and our mothers were worried about crime, prostitution and drug abuse.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, First of all, I wish I could attend the exhibition. The Wadsworth Atheneum is worth visiting just for its beautiful architecture designed by Alexander Jackson Davis and Ithiel Town. I think that I have mentioned it in one or two posts.

Certainly a large chunk of American popular culture resides with Coney Island and its attractions, which are encountered whenever one studies American culture or history. Luna Park spawned dozens of copies, and was the subject of John Philip Sousa's song "I've Made My Plans for the Summer." One Luna Park operated in Cleveland for decades, and I understand that Melbourne's is still in operation. The 1909 song "Meet me Tonight in Dreamland" may well have been written with Dreamland Park in mind--it certainly would have been well known at the song's appearance.

Still, American popular culture originated much earlier than this. All early visitors to America noted the Americans special traits, even in colonial times, and the P.T. Barnums, minstrel shows, Chautauquas, religious revival camps and seaside resorts all added their elements from an early stage. The enormous mid-19th century fairs and Peace Jubilees also contributed their share. Even the horrid institution of slavery meant that huge contributions to American culture took place, originating in Africa and the plantation system.

Student of History said...

We talked a lot about The Gilded Age in lectures but I suspect they were the refined years. Coney Island, even if it became popular at the same time, seemed more popular, more urban, more modernising.

Hels said...


I agree that the earlier the programmes appeared on the American horizon, the more impact they had on popular culture. The examples you give (PT Barnums, minstrel shows, Chautauquas, religious revival camps, seaside resorts, world fairs fairs and Peace Jubilees) certainly changed the lives of those Americans who had enough free time and income to educate and entertain themselves.

The same would be true for the second half of the 19th century in British countries - pleasure piers, lidos, bandstands in public parks, world fairs etc.

Hels said...


Right! I would normally refer to the Gilded Age in the USA as falling within 1870 to 1910.

The best years of Coney Island, when millions of visitors arrived each year, were probably from 1884-1930. Carousels and a roller coaster arrived in 1884, then beach bathhouses, clam bars, rides, games, freak shows, Sea-Lion Park, Luna Park etc.

mem said...

OMG well this proves that we have come a long way with regard to elephant execution at least . ! How appalling . That wasn't so long ago . The way things are going at the meoment we may get back to public execution . What do you think ?

Hels said...


do you remember when Ronald Ryan was the last man hanged in Australia in Feb 1967? I know he was found guilty of the shooting death of a prison officer during a prison escape from Pentridge, but Australia hadn't hanged anyone for years. Back in 1967 I thought that obscene part of our history was over :(

If we in this country ever thought of capital punishment again, I would hope there would be even more protesters on the streets than there were for Ronald Ryan.

mem said...

Oh Hels I do hope so . Its a bit hard to be optimistic or have faith in our fellow humans at the moment . So many people have such a poor grasp of history and what has been before . and what the dangers ahead might truly be .

Hels said...


We like to think of history as a perfectly linear progression from Iron Age brutality to the Enlightenment. Yet clearly it was never perfectly linear. The witchcraft trials in Germany, Scotland etc were a sudden retreat into anti-woman hatred that must have taken peoples' breath away. And slavery of blacks in the USA went on for ever and ever. What about Australia's savagery in locking asylum-seekers into barbed wired camps on rocky, barren islands.

I despair :(

Viola said...

Coney Island does sound fascinating, but I never got there either when I visited New York with my parents. I think that it was also because of it's bad reputation!

Hels said...


Coney Island used to have a wonderful reputation.... but it was inevitable that the facilities would change, tastes would change and the populations would change. However I do think my aunt, and your parents, were being just a wee bit precious :)

The Economist said...

Coney Island lies at the end of several subway lines, at the southern tip of Brooklyn, filled with the sordid charms of a place that has inspired more than its fair share of fast-talking fantasists. A 150' high Ferris wheel from 1920 still creaks in the sky, children squeal on dizzying rides and lurid, hand-painted signs advertise sideshows of snake-charmers and fire-eaters. Henry Miller wrote of Coney Island in his 1936 novel Black Spring: “Everything is sliding and crumbling. Everything glitters, totters, teeters, titters.” The beach lacks some of the razzle-dazzle it enjoyed at the start of the 20th century, when amusements sprawled farther in every direction, and three competing parks -Steeplechase, Dreamland and Luna — offered thrilling rides that let men and women clutch each other

Hels said...

thank you.

sordid charms, creaks, dizzying rides, lurid signs, crumbling and totters, razzle-dazzle!

Paul Bloomfield said...

For two centuries this low-lying island remained a sleepy farming community, until in the early 19th century entrepreneurs recognised the potential appeal of its long ocean frontage to leisure visitors. The construction of the Coney Island House Hotel in 1829, and the subsequent development of road, steamboat and railway access, fuelled a boom in holidaymakers from the nearby city, keen to enjoy the island's beaches and burgeoning entertainments. The Wonder Wheel, constructed 1918-20, is the centrepiece of the namesake amusement park on Coney Island.

Paul Bloomfield
Playground of New York
in World Histories, 7, Dec 2017

Hels said...


Thank you. Tourists are usually unaware that a place that is fully formed and operating in a fixed pattern today... was not always thus. From Dutch farming colonists, Coney Island seemed to have grown facility by facility, changing in its target population and its popularity.