Coney Island and Victorian Culture

Published: 2021-09-06 20:20:11
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Category: Victorian Era

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Coney Island at the turn of the century was a bustling and growing place. People of all classes traveled from New York City as well as other parts of the world to take part in the famous amusements that helped to loosen the tight corsets of Victorian gentility. Inspired by the Columbian Exposition in 1893 George Tilyou began to build a park on Coney Island beginning with the Ferris Wheel similar to that featured at the exposition which was designed by the Pennsylvania Steel Company. By 1895 Tilyou opened Steeplechase Park and began to fill it with acts and side shows thus inspired by his travels a few years prior.
While concentrating on the appeal to all walks of life Tilyou acquired A Ride to The Moon from Fredric Thompson and Elmer Dundy who built the ride specifically for the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. A short season later in 1902 Thompson and Dundy left Steeplechase to create Luna Park taking the amusement with them. Playing off the most popular sport on Coney Island, Tilyou obtained a mechanical horse race that took riders on a thirty second ride around a track complete with hills and sharp turns.
Other attractions added to the park included the Human Roulette Wheel which threw riders in all directions and Earthquake Stairs which jostled climbers and challenged them to descend a shaking stair case. These attractions as well as the wild side shows caused people to throw off all conventionality and made them rub elbows with other classes while having unrestricted fun. While Steeplechase drew visitors to the peninsula it also increased in the popularity of swimming or bathing as it was referred to in Victorian speak.
People on a hot New York day adventured to Steeple Chase and the beach by various means of transportation. Donning the latest in bathing fashions people enjoyed more unrestricted fun regardless of any class system in the water. Although Victorians looked down their noses at the amusements and public bathing, people still flocked to the beaches and splashed in the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Ruckus rides and the ability to socialize appealed to the younger generations looking to toss off the oppressive garbs of Victorian gentility and just have plain unrestrictive fun.
In 1907 tragedy struck Steeplechase as fire ravaged the park leaving a smoking ruin. In the efforts to still turn a dollar Tilyou charged admission to the ruins of the once great park. During the rebuilding, Luna Park benefited from the loss and treated guests to a modern park with rides to thrill everyone. The “old-fashionedness” of Steeplechase was challenged as Luna Park, the most modern of it’s time dazzled park goers with electric lights and tall white towers bathed in bright bulbs.
This enabled the park to operate at night. But still people remained loyal to the original amusement park they knew so well even though built anew from smoldering ruins. George Tilyou sadly passed away in 1914 after seeing his park through another fire in 1911 which claimed Dreamland. Luckily enough the winds shifted and spared his park from a second disaster. By 1914 the amusement park began to fall out of favor. The once well loved and most visited park suffered a loss in the visitors during the hot New York summers.
Steeplechase continued to operate and help people socialize and essentially come out of the tight bonds of gentility by offering a carefree time with out restrictions. Then on New Year’s Eve 1964 the last light was turned off for the final time at the ill fated old fashioned park. Luna Park on the other hand was not as popular as the original park but provided new wonders for those curious and daring enough to seek it out. Created after the Beaux-Arts movement of the time Thompson an erratic architect began to design the park as a world where someone could be lost in fantasy.
By opening day on May 16th 1903 Luna Park opened its doors to the wonderment of many people seeking out entertainment and new amusements to help them shed the conventionality of the structured Victorian world. Here we can clearly see where still Steeplechase was cherished like a child hugs a ragged teddy bear but the new adventure which was named Luna was embraced for its latest technologies that Steeplechase clearly was lacking. With over 1 million lights, long distance telephone service, telegraph and radio services Luna Park became a city with in a city.
With Thompson and Dundy’s success in creating illusion rides for the park guests they still relied on others as well. When they left the employment of Tilyou after the 1902 season they brought their famed “Ride to the Moon” amusement with them. Counting on its fame from Steeplechase park and the illustrious past of being featured at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901 the creators hoped it would bring the crowds in. With more and more people seeking a day at the park and on the beach both parks helped make Coney Island known world wide and soon became a top tourist destination.
At a time when high society still held restrictions of how men and women should act in public in high regards, more and more people used these parks as a way to shed the restrictions of society and seek titillating amusements and fill curiosities each other had that Victorian culture had suppressed over the years with rules and barriers against those who dared to go against the prim and proper societies. Technology in these times were changing and what better place to display these but at amusement parks and expositions.
Younger Victorians embraced these changes and viewed them as a move toward the future. We can clearly see where walls were broken down between classes while all walks of life frolicked on the beaches of Coney Island, screamed on the same rides, and traveled faster than they ever had in their lives. Luna Park and Steeplechase side by side were wonderful examples of old an new. While people still embraced the old curious onlookers sought out attractions that displayed futuristic gadgets.
By the creation of the final park Dreamland in 1904 tourism and the shedding of Victorian genteel ways were in full swing. Dreamland brought more pleasure seekers to the peninsula and more bathers to the sea shore. The park was built by William Reynolds who is best known for his crooked dealings with Tammany Hall. Dreamland became the park to rival the other 2 on the peninsula. It is said that the park would be anything unlike the modern world has seen. The main tower of Dreamland had a beacon that shined out to sea and confused many ships coming into port.
The amusement park sparkled as guests promenaded through the many attractions and thrill rides. With Dreamland promising amusement in a more dignified way the creators tried to offer Culture to those who visited the park. Providing a grand ballroom and upscale restaurants from around the world Dreamland attempted to cater to the upper class leaving lower classes to attend the older less dignified parks. The developers still provided rides and attractions that rivaled the other parks and even stole ideas from them as well.
Americans were fascinated by disasters. Fighting the Flames was a good example of this as New Yorkers were most familiar with tenements catching fire and many people dying. People could identify with this ride. As tenement style buildings covered in asbestos were set ablaze, firefighters came to the rescue of the tenants who jumped to their safety in huge nets below. With rides like Shoot the Chutes guests at Dreamland were still treated to rides that caused them to throw off all conventionalities. Dreamland with its intentions to preserve all that is roper and dignified still provided outrageous outlets that caused people to smile and scream like they never had before. Sideshows still prevailed like Bostock’s Circus and Captain Bonavita’s Lion Show. They treated guests to clowns, wild animals, and daring stunts which caused people to gasp and look on in awe. Dreamland gave people a look at the world in their own backyard. Rides like Touring the Alps which provided riders with a simulated ride through the Alps complete with blasts of cold air to the Japanese Tea Room which gave people a look at cultures foreign to their own.
The achievements of creating an atmosphere of wonderment and awe like that of the previous expositions held in Chicago and Buffalo, Reynolds achieved ultimate success in helping people question their hum drum ways and rules that bound them tightly. On May 27 1911 the wonderment that was known as Dreamland came to an end when it burned to the ground. Complaints by the fire departments that fought the flames were low water pressure. It was said that Reynolds built the park so fast that he built over fire hydrants.
The mistakes and rush to greed cost him his park only seven short years later. The fire although sparing because of the winds did not leave Thompson’s railway alone. Sadly but fortunately that was one of a few external victims of the fire caused by greed. Fred Thompson found General Manager Samuel Gumpertz staring blankly at the ruins. Reynolds decided not to rebuild the park and Gumpertz opened a freak show in a large tent. This was the beginning of the end of Coney Island, the most famous playground of the early 20th century.
Luna Park and Steeplechase continued to operate through many changes of attractions. The 1920’s ushered in rides like The Wonder Wheel and The Cyclone. It is joked immigrants who came to this country saw The Wonder Wheel first before seeing the Statue of Liberty. Still The Wonder Wheel is a wonderful example of freedom through good times and laughter and the shedding of old ways to a new life. By the close of the season of 1946 Luna Park could no longer afford to keep its gates open to the dwindling visitors.
That which was new and exciting became old and worn out. Steeplechase continued to operate and pride itself of being risen from the ashes still provided visitors with aging and familiar rides. By the opening of Astro Park in 1962 this began to spell the end of the turn of the century amusements. At the stroke of midnight New Years Eve 1964 the last light was turned out on the oldest amusement park of the time leaving behind a legacy of fun and a little known waltz written for the opening of Dreamland entitled “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland”.
By looking at the amusement parks of the early 20th century we can clearly see where proper Victorians were given the opportunity to shed the constrictions of a culture that forced them into a protected part of society. Here creators of parks provided a person all types of amusements and bathing which for proper Victorians swimming with people of the opposite sex was just scandalous. Many of the older generations still held fast to their convictions of manners and proper ways. In many ways Coney Island was a petrie dish for societies and cultures.
Could they truly leave behind the tight corsets and stiff collars to have fun with all folks of all classes with out concern for class stratification due to wealth, power or even dress? The writer of this believes yes. This was a place where society began to leave behind their constrictions and just have plain fun. Therefore unmaking Victorian culture as it was known.

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