Crowds and Leisure: Thinking Comparatively across the 20th Century
Cross, Gary, Journal of Social History
The not-so-new social history movement that emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s was strongly identified with the first industrialization and its social consequences. Despite the fact that the 20th century is now history, social historians have been slow to develop conceptual frameworks for and empirical studies of distinct trends in that century. In part, of course, this reflects the intellectual conservatism in the training of historians (who all-too-often are copies of their advisors) and the fact that 20th century historiography remains primarily political and military due to the impact of the two world wars. But there remains a curious lack of interest in broader social trends that span the entire century. And, even today, despite all the changes of the last twenty years, few students would be encouraged to do the equivalent of what I did when I wrote in 1966 a term paper on Stalin's purge of music in 1948 for the European survey course.
Among the many social trends that this intellectual conservatism has obscured is the expansion and transformation of leisure in the long (uneven and inequitable) trend toward affluence in the 20th century. This reflects a traditional bias toward the "serious" study of production and power relations and the presumption that free time use is merely a reflection of those relations. And, when leisure became a topic of study, it is often cast in terms of class, ethnic, gender, or religious identities. This makes the content and transformations of free time serve as derivative arenas for the expressions of identities and conflicts formed or with consequences in the worlds of work, politics, and elsewhere. As Rudy Kushar notes, leisure and consumption cannot be reduced as Theodore Adorno once suggested to "afterimages of the work process." This perspective surely has dominated historical analyses of leisure--as manipulations of capital, reproductions of class conflict, and compensations for alienated labor. With the decline of Marxism and laborist perspectives since the late 80s, the historical study of leisure has lacked a trajectory.
One of our tasks as social historians should be to find fresh approaches to the study of free time. Given the perpetuation of narrow research models in training new historians and the continuing dominance of the terminology of a few French cultural sociologists, this is a difficult task. All this inhibits the development of deeper analysis of leisure behaviors themselves and especially social meanings of affluence (as it impacts family, interpersonal, natural, and material relations) and especially the development of historical models for interpreting changes in traditional notions of genteel and proletarian leisure in the second half of the 20th century.
This leads to another persistent gap in the literature. Despite frequent calls for comparative and cross-national studies, almost all research is still done within the limits of the nation state. (1) The still narrow training of new PhDs in single nations and periods has missed opportunities for cross-cultural comparisons and wider historical theming. While general theories of the "modernization" of crowds and leisure activities (like tourism) are valuable, affluence and the revolution in free time not only cannot be reduced to a single trajectory and endpoint, but it is only by comparing different responses to common technological and economic trends that we can separate the particular from the "general."
By reflecting on some of the ideas and findings generated by a new study that John Walton and I conducted concerning the changes in the meanings and behaviors of playful crowds in the U.S. and Britain across the 20th century at major resorts, theme parks, and heritage sites, I hope to raise some of the possibilities and difficulties of doing a comparative social history of 20th century pleasure crowds.
Coney Island and Blackpool: Contrasting Sites of Industrial Saturnalia
In our book, The Playful Crowd, we began with the simple thesis that broad patterns in the behaviors and contextual meanings of playful crowds dramatically change in the 20th century, and that these transformations require careful comparisons of early and later crowd sites. We tried to add nuance to this analysis by first comparing two pleasure sites that reached "maturity" in the early 20th century (Blackpool and Coney Island) and how they "declined." Then we explored two pleasure sites from the second half of the century: one, an obvious choice that we believed needs fresh interpretation, Disneyland and the second, a living museum at Beamish in County Durham (northeast England). Disney and Beamish represented not only interesting national differences, but also divergent paths toward "modernizing" the playful crowd for the increasingly affluent late 20th century.
Blackpool was the holiday destination first of the wage earners of England's Lancashire cotton towns and eventually of most of the British Isles; while Coney Island, just south and east of Manhattan, was the model of the popular American amusement resort/park for a half century. In 1910, Coney Island claimed 20 million visitors or 22 visits for every 100 Americans, a higher proportion than even Disney theme parks could claim 70 years later. (2) Blackpool's four million annual visitors at this time were 11 per cent of the population of England and Wales (though many stayed for a week rather than an afternoon as in Coney). (3) The two sites introduced permanent amusement parks in their countries: Blackpool's Pleasure Beach, and the evocative Coney Island trio of Luna Park, Steeplechase and Dreamland. The two seaside resorts combined popular modernity, mass consumption, and a new collective experience while offering also traditional entertainments from dioramas, firework spectacles, and music and dance halls to freak and girlie shows. They were sites of what we called "industrial saturnalia." Crowds there shared with their ancestors many saturnalian customs: food and drink in excess, social inversion, mockery, and a fascination with the supernatural and abnormal that provided psychological release for people who daily endured the rigors of scarcity, tedium, and the humiliation of authority. (4) While bourgeois Victorian values of solitude, nature, and family "self-worship" were widely propagated, even among the middle classes themselves, older saturnalian pleasures survived in gambling, ribald humor, and a tendency to bacchanalia that remained strong in 1900. (5)
Descendants of rowdy mummers and carnival revelers flocked to Blackpool and Coney Island, sharing much with their predecessors, but also modifying and adding to their play. In place of traditional aggressive games and the mocking of authority, they sought the physical thrill of rides, simulated encounters with floods and fires, and the playful ridicule of street cars. In addition to the fearful fascination with death and divine judgment in rides through Hell, the modern crowds were enchanted with and longed to experience "news" and distant places.
Much of both the continuity and change in the playful crowd relates to the modern experience of industrial work. The middle class sought escape from the crowd and distractions of urban space in genteel settings. By contrast, workers trapped in the life-long monotony of wage-earning and routine office work and under the thumb of employers sought a very different sort of release in vertigo, simulated violence, and the empowering experience of crowds free of any authority. As important, industrialism greatly accelerated change, radically extending and intensifying expectations at Coney and Blackpool. Through the creative use of new technology, these resorts produced new ways of liberating the individual from boredom in the speed and realism of new rides and spectacles. They offered the exciting encounter with continuous novelty that could fill sometimes lonely and empty lives if only briefly. Through the mysteries of modern machines and electric lighting, fantasy could become more real and intense than it had ever been before. And, thanks to trains and trollys, rising incomes, shorter workdays, Saturday half-holidays and even vacations in privileged trades, the Saturnalian experience could be freed from the rigid schedule of the festival calendar and enjoyed on a weekend, evening, or summer holiday. Though still fixed in place and limited in time, the new playful throng was, paradoxically, an expression of modern individualism and the immediacy of "relief" increasingly possible in the industrial era. Although as in traditional saturnalia controlled sexuality played a big role, Blackpool and Coney Island also gave adults permission to act like children, releasing psychological and physical tension and largely replacing the traditional Saturnalian rituals of mocking and turning the world upside down. This made these crowds more individualistic and, in the end, far less threatening to elites than the old festival gatherings had been.
The playful crowd at Coney and Blackpool, however, was not entirely working class, but an expression of jumbled tastes and interests that crossed class and gender lines. This was unusual in modern industrial society. Efforts in the 19th century to build bridges between the classes through clubs, libraries and church-based entertainments were mostly failures. More successful was the masculine social mixing in the gambling, drinking and whoring venues and at the racetracks and bare-knuckled boxing matches. But these were for male crowds and elsewhere in American and British society, class divisions in entertainments were still widening in the late nineteenth century, as bars became socially segregated and even the music halls divided up their audiences by price and therefore status. Coney and Blackpool created something new: not merely cross-class male pleasures, but the relaxed mingling of the "respectable" plebeian and the middle classes across gender lines.
Despite many similarities, Coney Island and Blackpool were very different, reflecting contrasts in geography, climate, political context, the tastes and needs of the crowds they attracted. In important ways, these differences were expressions of national divergence. Let me very briefly compare these sites and their crowds about 1900 as background to contrasting patterns of "decline" after 1920, Coney Island is nine miles east of Manhattan on the southern tip of Brooklyn while Blackpool was near a rapidly-expanding industrial area of Lancashire, but much further from large diverse population centers (like London and even Liverpool). And, while advances in road and rail transportation especially in the 1860s and 1870s allowed both seaside resorts to become sites of an extraordinary range of popular entertainments, their geographical settings produced by 1900 different social mixes. Investments in roads and rails from New York City built up especially Coney's central and eastern sections and created a diverse crowd of day visitors reflecting the wide range of immigrant working-class and native middle-class residents (with the western edge of Coney being reserved for upscale guests of the Manhattan and Oriental Hotels). (6) Different ethnic groups tended to gravitate to bathhouses and sections of the beach that they made their own. (7) And, after 1920, with the cheap subway reaching every working class corner of the Five Boroughs, the crowd became more down-market with far fewer middle-class visitors. (8)
After railroads were vastly expanded to Blackpool in 1874, (9) companies offered cheap fares for families of factory laborers, thus turning local wakes' week holidays into an extended holiday stay at Blackpool. These visitors were universally white, English-speaking, and mostly Protestant, who descended on Blackpool as virtually intact communities, taking vacation at the same time, hardly the sometimes volatile and often anonymous crowds of Coney.
As important were climatic differences: Coney Island's cold winters and hot summers made for a short, but very intense season and thus minimal investment in facilities. Wood and "staff" (a mix of gypsum, alumina, glycerin, and dextrin made stiff with fibers from burlap to create a plaster-like substitute for stone) were used even in the construction of hotels and "towers." (10) Blackpool's season was much longer and thus, in part, its buildings were far more substantial (including the steel and brick Tower of 1894, iron piers, and mammoth complexes, the Winter Garden and Alhambra). Second, far more than at Blackpool, the Coney beach was a focal point of crowds' desire for relief from summer heat. Due to Blackpool's summer rains and relatively cool temperatures, its beach gradually became less central to its identity. (11)
Both Coney and Blackpool drew upon a similar pot of entertainment traditions that appealed to a trans-Atlantic popular culture, even borrowing from each other. While amusement rides were developing in both countries by the late 1890s, in Britain they remained primarily on the traveling fairgrounds. Coney Island adopted the model of the "midways" that accompanied the "World's Fairs" of 1876, 1893, 1901, and 1904 to create the enclosed amusement park. George Tilyou's 1897 Steeplechase Park followed by Frederick Thompson and Skip Dundy's Luna Park of 1903 and William Reynolds' Dreamland of 1904 transformed Coney Island by creating permanent "midways." Luna Park and Dreamland created a dazzling architectural fantasy of towers, domes, and minarets, outlined by electric lights, giving these strange oriental shapes an even more mysterious and magical air at night. (12)
Thrill rides and relatively simple, but "fun" slides and whirling disks prevailed at Coney Island's Steeplechase's Pavilion. Many rides there were little more than adult-sized playground equipment. The trick staircase, Earthquake Floor, and House Upside Down appealed to a childlike delight in the unexpected. Although these rides might evoke "anxiety as in fear of falling and seasickness," as Edwin Slosson wrote in 1904, when the "sense of equilibrium" is merely "gently excited, [it] gives a sensation of pleasure." (13) At the same time, Luna Park and Dreamland claimed to provide uplift with their simulations of momentous events and distant sights, tours of hells, and views of the wonders of modern science ("saving" premature babies).
By contrast, Blackpool's main amusement park Pleasure Beach grew piecemeal on the southern edge of the resort town and to a degree in imitation of Coney Island. It lacked the themed character of Luna and Dreamland, but it went beyond the fairground by being built to last. While the Tower at Dreamland made of staff survived only until 1911 (when the park burnt to the ground), Pleasure Beach landmarks (the Casino and Hiram Maxim Captive Flying Machine) remained for decades. In this way Pleasure Beach followed the pattern of the Blackpool core, the Tower with many entertainments and vista and adjacent music and exhibition halls, as well as the piers. (14) Blackpool's architecture, with its rows of boardinghouses, lacked Coney's fantasy even though lavish interiors of pubs and theaters, and (and especially after 1925) the autumn electrical Illuminations, gave Blackpool a magical tinge. Still its architecture was less central to creating the mood than the crowd and entertainments themselves. (15)
An even more revealing divergence was the contrast in the role of simulated reality in the American and British resorts: Coney copied a long tradition of the diorama which drew viewers into an illusion of dramatic events and beautiful sites. In the 1900s, attractions replicated, in miniature, disasters like the Johnstown and Galveston floods of 1889 and 1900. (16) Frederic Thompson's Trip to the Moon gave passengers the illusion of space travel, combining popular views of space travel with children's storybook fantasy. Fighting the Flames reenacted a mock tenement fire to an audience who had reason to fear such a disaster in their own lives. Even more dramatic were the fantasy rides through hell (Hell's Gate).
While the Pleasure Beach featured briefly similar simulations (mostly imported from the US), including the River Caves of the World and even the Monitor and the Merrimac, it did not adopt Coney's fascination with disaster or hell. The Pleasure Beach preferred the mechanical rides that upset their equilibrium or threw males and females together. (17) The reasons for this difference are surely national but necessarily speculative--an English emotional aversion to disaster themes (especially those too close to home) and a different religious sensibility that would have seen a "fun" ride through hell as a burlesque of religious belief rather than a reassuring (because playful) encounter with transcendent fears. (18) Similarly, the role of the freak show was relatively larger in America's Coney than in British Blackpool. In 1904, even the presumably upscale and genteel Dreamland Park opened Lilliputia, a "city" of midgets, who lived in a medieval half-sized ersatz Nuremberg. Its impresario was the showman Samuel Gumpertz who became famous for his shows that combined "native" villages and traditional human curiosities. (19) Blackpool too had its wax shows, Tussaud's classic Chamber of Horrors as well as the Museum of Anatomy featuring graphic displays of the affects of venereal diseases. Although housed on the "Golden Mile," between the Tower and Pleasure Beach, it was morally peripheral to the resort as a whole. (20) Again the more culturally homogeneous crowds of Blackpool were more interested in the pubs and dance halls than in freak shows.
Another point of contrast is the fact that whereas Blackpool's local government was able to bill itself as a tourist destination through specially-granted authority to advertise and otherwise promote itself, Coney Island was continuously at war with political forces to the north in Brooklyn and to the west in Manhattan. While Blackpool's case was unusual for Britain, the divisive politics and lack of public support for resort development was common in the U.S. The Island was never able to define itself and found itself repeatedly caught between the reformers' efforts to "clean up" the amusement zone and the pressures of commercial interests to maximize short-term profits. (21)
To be sure, by 1900, both Coney Island and Blackpool were divided into popular and elite sections: Coney's east end was home to genteel hotels (accessed by exclusive special purpose rail service) while at its center section (West Brighton) gathered a vast array of popular amusements. Blackpool similarly had north and south shore enclaves of up-market hotels and holiday lodgings while at the center near the Central Station was concentrated popular boarding houses and entertainments. However, Coney Island was unable to maintain a distinct social tone and class separation on the beach, while Blackpool was more successful. Coney Island was a site of a succession of socially-distinct crowds, much as was true in many American urban and suburban neighborhoods, whereas in Blackpool the class composition of the crowds seemed to remain relatively unchanging from the 1880s to the 1960s. Moreover, while genteel crowds abandoned the east end of Coney by the 1920s, relegating the resort to the nickel-paying subway throngs, Blackpool did not become a one-class resort. Government successfully defended the holiday areas for middle-class families. (22)
Finally, there was a sharp contrast in the way that elites understood and responded to the crowds of Coney and Blackpool. Especially in its glory years of the early 20th century, Coney Island crowds inspired unrelenting anxiety from middle-class intellectuals and reformers. Seen as exemplars of unrestrained hedonism and irrationality accelerated by affluence, Coney crowds were viewed also as manifestations of "boredom" and self-destructiveness that seemed to be released when workers had time free from work and other regular obligations. (23) As Lindsay Denison lamented at Coney Island (1905): "There is scarcely any variety of human flotsam and jetsam that is not represented in its permanent population.... Every defaulting cashier, every eloping couple, every man or woman harboring suicidal intent ... comes flocking to it from every part of the land." (24) Of course, not all intellectuals and middle-class reformers condemned the saturnalian crowd at Coney (and instead praised its raw expressiveness, basic decency, or potential to be morally elevated). (25) But American middle-class culture clearly defined itself against the playful crowd of Coney.
British elites were much more relaxed and tolerant of the Blackpool crowd, at least from the late nineteenth century. Commentaries might seem patronizing, but the crowd had certainly become an object of good-humored interest rather than fear. Here were families and workmates often from the same neighborhoods, recreating their communities at the seaside. Blackpool's most severe critics came from the organized working class where Non-Anglican Protestantism and romantic socialism joined to call for inspiring vacations with walks along rural lanes in cheerful groups. For such people Blackpool's commercial glitter represented false values and a waste of hard-earned money on tawdry amusements. (26)
Elite readings of the playful crowds of Coney Island and Blackpool do not so much explain those crowds as point to how the bourgeois outsider responded to industrial saturnalia. A revealing misunderstanding of middle-class reformers is shown when American James Huneker asked, "Why after the hot, narrow, noisy, dirty streets of the city, do these same people crowd into the narrower, hotter, noisier, dirtier, wooden alleys of Coney?" (27) Huneker assumed that urban working people would seek a leisure site that reflected his own longings for escape from the city and its polymorphous crowds. They should go to the countryside or quiet seaside with majestic and sublime vistas or even seek out a preindustrial setting where modernity and novelty were banished. While both British and American elites shared this genteel perspective, British intellectuals and more important authorities were much more tolerant of the industrial saturnalian tastes of their "plebs." (28)
Yet, despite middle-class American disdain for Coney crowds and a willingness to attempt to break them up, genteel holiday traditions in the U.S. fared more poorly than they did in the U.K. in the 20th century. As American historian Jon Sterngass shows, resort entrepreneurs were regularly torn between stressing quiet contemplation and trying to increase paying customers. This led to the decline of genteel locations like Saratoga Springs, Niagara Falls, and the east end of Coney Island. (29) But this did not mean the capitulation of genteel values, but a modification of them in a new kind of social setting and new pleasures. The playful crowd gradually was redefined insofar as impresarios reduced as much as possible the presumed negative elements of the plebeian pleasure crowd--the physical crush of people, the disorder and dirt, the competing appeals of barkers, and unpredictability of the throng. The key change was to transform the crowd into family clusters focused on children and child-like fantasies. This was a long process, beginning with mothers and children at the beach and by the mid-20s with baby contests, playgrounds and mini-rides for toddlers at seaside resorts, gradually displacing the older tradition of mostly-adult crowds at amusement parks and beaches. (30) Also emblematic of this change was the decline of the freak show, first in the cross-class venue of the urban "dime museums" soon after 1910 and, then after a period of "exile" in amusement parks and carnivals, even there. This did not mean the victory of the severely rational and humanistic goals of reformers. The wonder inspired by the liminal and bizarre seems to have shifted to the fantasy and excitement as seen through the (assumed) eyes of children. The freak was cutsified. It is no accident that the 1920s the children's ride, Pleasure Beach Express in Blackpool, used dwarfs as conductors. Over time, "little people" were taken from the world of the bizarre to the realm of the innocent. Snow White had her cute seven dwarfs in Disney's first feature length cartoon of 1937.
The new middle-class sensibilities that Disney exploited were much more evident in the United States than in Britain. Genteel values and gatherings more easily coexisted with industrial saturnalia in Britain and thus the pressures for a new kind of more middle-class playful crowd were less evident. There was a decline of the formality and ritual of class codes in both the US and Britain. But in Britain, the longing to affirm heritage in various guises ('natural', rural, aristocratic, industrial) remained in postwar popular innovations like the Beamish Museum as well as in more established, upscale institutions like the National Trust. This impulse re-emerged in the descendents of the improving trade unionists and romantic socialists as well as of the nostalgic aristocracy and genteel bourgeoisie. At Beamish, as well as at "stately homes" like Chatsworth, the noise, novelty, and artificiality of the saturnalian crowd was banished, while the encounter with the beautiful natural setting and the recollection of a lost heritage flourished. (31) Thus, the flight from industrial saturnalia took several paths and the consequences of that response had distinct implications for its historic embodiments at Coney Island and Blackpool.
The Contrasting Fates of Blackpool and Coney Island
All of these contrasts should provide clues as to why the fates of Coney and Blackpool were so different (as well as show the futility of generalized explanations of the decline of Victorian industrial saturnalia). While the entertainment zones of Coney Island were in decline by the 1910s despite the huge crowds that its beaches attracted until the end of the 1950s, Blackpool flourished, strategically reinvented itself with new modernistic buildings at Pleasure Beach in the 1930s and appealed to new crowds (especially gays) in the 1990s.
Underlying these adaptations was the fact that Blackpool remained a stable, if largely predictable regional entertainment center, a northern Piccadilly Circus, drawing crowds by relatively long-distant train for often week-long vacations. By contrast, Coney Island with its accessibility to millions of day trippers became a summer seaside sideshow to America's most important urban entertainment center in New York. Physically and architecturally, it was much more like an extensive circus or fair grounds than a Times Square.
But the differences were deeper than the accidents of geography or even climate. They reflect national divergences. Most obvious were the affects of contrasting roles of public authority and reformers in the two countries. On the edge of the city and dependent upon it, Coney Island lacked urban sponsors. First, the resort was the political plaything of the adjacent village of Gravesend. Then, after it was annexed by Brooklyn and then became part of New York City in the 1890s, Coney Island continued to lack political clout. But the problem went deeper than local politics: the site was perpetually torn between the interests of middle-class reformers who tried to make the resort into a Central Park by the Sea and the Nickel Empire of plebeian crowds dependent on the five-cent subway and hot dogs with their unrefined tastes. (32) After the failure of reformers to build a public park over a blighted commercial zone in the 1890s, energy shifted toward a public boardwalk and unrestricted access to the beach. Opened in 1923, Coney's boardwalk was to be an uplifting promenade for respectable families, but it did little to improve the entertainment district inland. After 1920 with new easy access via subway, the Coney Island amusement district shifted subtly to a more youth-focused and down-market crowd. A boom in amusement technology, beginning with the Wonder Wheel of 1920 and following on with five big new roller coasters during the decade brought a shift toward the thrill ride over the old dioramas and other performance attractions.
These changes only heightened the conflict. Robert Moses, famous New York parks and highway planner, was a perfect representative of the middle-class critique of Coney's industrial saturnalia. From 1924, he opened new beaches with road access along the Long Island shore, but failed to provide public transportation facilities to any beaches other than Coney Island, in effect herding the masses without cars to Coney. (33) In the 1930s, he launched a personal crusade against the raunchy frivolities of Coney (beach hawkers, e.g.).
By contrast, Blackpool had much more effective political support, allowing it to adjust to changing middle-class tastes with municipal promotion of a leafy park, extension of northern and southern middle-class zones (when Coney's shrank), outdoor pool, promenade extensions, and upscale housing but without compromising the old amusement zone. In sharp contrast to Coney, Blackpool conducted a vast modernization in the 1930s including the updating of the Pleasure Beach with Art Deco architecture and the "world's greatest Woolworth's" opposite Central Station. (34) This parallel development of middle- and working-class amenities well illustrates Blackpool's contrast with Coney's dilemma.
But the key to the decline of Coney as compared to Blackpool was the very different impact of the car culture in the two countries. At Coney Island, the automobile was an earlier and much greater challenge: Even while the "natural" was promoted alongside the commercial at Coney, the automobile made alternatives to the crowded Island increasingly accessible in the 1920s for those who could afford it. The overpasses above the new highways to new beaches were deliberately made too low for buses to pass under, and requests for railroad connections, with their democratic implications, were firmly denied. (35) As a result, Coney became a far more proletarian place--the destination of youth and families too poor to own cars. Increased racial tension was inevitable as poor whites and blacks clashed after World War II.
Coney Island's problems intensified in the post-war decades, coming to a head in the mid-1960s with the closure of Steeplechase, the last of the great amusement parks, together with the spread of redevelopment blight and the emergence of gang violence and racial tensions. This was part of a wider pattern of decline among blue-collar northeastern resorts (like Atlantic City) in the US as the more seductive climates of Florida and California became increasingly accessible. (36)
In Britain, where the automobile remained long accessible only to the relatively well-to-do, most travelers to Blackpool took the train. Different social strata congregated within walking distance of the train stations, sharing some amenities even while lodging in distinct zones near the center. (37) It was not until the 1960s that the wider spread of a new car-based leisure culture and developing competition from the sunny southwest of England and then from the Mediterranean, began to challenge Blackpool's dominance. But this process was slow, and only at the end of the century did it face a serious crisis and even then local government innovated in partnership with business to reinvent Blackpool. One appeal was to post-tourists who savored the ironies of its artificiality in knowing ways while enjoying the sense of nostalgia and kitsch that some were associating with the whole Blackpool experience (thus preserving its character in an era of globalization). (38)
Far more than Blackpool, Coney had flourished on novelty, but in doing so it eventually made itself obsolete. Caught between the jaws of corporate disinterest and down-market crowds, it no longer had the resources to deliver innovation. Instead, the "new" appeared elsewhere along the parkways of Long Island and the Jersey Shore, and, with air travel more distant sites like Las Vegas and Disney World that promised not only sparkling novelty, but a warm respite from New York winters. Coney's fate reflected a common American readiness to abandon once innovative enterprises in the amusement as well as manufacturing sectors. (39)
There was still another (albeit related) difference that helps explain the contrasting fates of Blackpool and Coney--the playful crowds themselves and what they suggest about differences in British and American culture and social classes. For decades Blackpool's throngs were created around a simple repetitive, even nostalgic theme--coming back year after year. This repetition was more than a continuation of the ancient annual rural trek to the village or regional fair--part of a seasonal cycle, running from festival to festival. Instead, it was a key element in the modern life cycle, a habit of youth renewed annually as one aged as part of an on-going culture of memory fed upon renewal. Blackpool was the gathering place for a cross-generational and relatively stable working-class culture that lasted for over a century. Blackpool and its largely Victorian culture of memory and renewal reflected the stability and relative homogeneity of the northern English working class.
By contrast, the American crowd at Coney was in a continuous state of change and of migration. In the 1950s, forty or sixty year olds who had visited Coney Island at the age of twenty felt little need or desire to return. This may have been because Coney Island had become as early as 1900 a site of teens and young adults on a day's adventure. It already depended on a generationally-defined crowd that eventually was no longer able to recruit a new generation. This became even more so by the 1920s with the shift from the dioramas and scenic railroads that had once appealed to adults with cultural roots in the dime museum to the raw excitement of the giant roller coasters that attracted a daring crowd of youth. This pattern is hardly unique to Coney or even the seaside resort; it happened to many amusement parks built around 1900 as well as to roller skating rinks and dance halls at different points in twentieth-century America.
Reinforcing these generational cycles in the U.S. was the fact of social mobility across class and space. By the 1920s and 1930s, older, now more middle-class Italian Americans, for example, had no desire to return to the loud, fast-paced, and to their altered eyes, cheap and tawdry site of their working-class youth in 1900. The change of Coney Island crowds was the same as that of the America of immigrants who moved from the city into the suburb. The people forgot the old playground of Coney Island just as they forgot the old neighborhood in Brooklyn or the Lower East Side. Immigrants followed the W.A.S.P.s out of Coney Island just as immigrants imitated the residential migration of the rich and middle-class native-born from the city outward to the suburb. Coney was not a life-long annual pilgrimage, but a place one outgrew. By contrast, for much of the twentieth century, Blackpool was a life-long tourist destination because it never had the reputation of an exclusive site of youth and, even more, because Britain saw a much slower migration out of the working classes.
Disney and Beamish: Two Alternative Paths to the Affluent Playful Crowd
Understanding the character and fate of the early playful crowd was only part of our concern. In many ways the more innovative task was to suggest what has largely replaced industrial saturnalia of Coney Island and to a less extent, Blackpool. To do this we compared two distinct pleasure sites that emerged and developed in the second half of the century, the American Disneyland and the British Beamish Outdoor Museum. As the first modern theme park opened in 1955, Disneyland hardly needs justification. Beamish, however, is scarcely known outside of the UK and attracts in a year Disneyland's gate in a good week (about 400,000 to 10 million annually who go to Disneyland). The merit in comparing them is that it reveals much about differing approaches to the crowd experience in the U.S. and Britain. Although we are neither saying that Disney is America nor that Beamish represents Britain, both sites represent distinct national responses to modernity and the crowd.
Disneyland was shaped by its Southern California setting with its optimistic culture of its Midwestern migrants, the film industry, and automobile and suburbia. Disney expected it to be a new kind of pleasure park, free from the dirt and danger of the carnival world of freaks, barkers, and thrill rides, and designed for the baby-boomer families of middle America. It certainly reflected the middle-class critique of Coney Island--replacing the freak with the cute cartoon character; the cheesy competition of the stalls with themed attractions and staff who were people like the visitors, clean cut, "normal," and middle-class. (40)
But Disney's appeal to middle-class sensibilities was not purely negative. From the beginning, Disneyland rejected the old cluster of mechanical rides and circus sideshows, for carefully reproduced and mechanized sets from his movies. Still, Disney creations had much in common with Coney's scenic railroads and dioramas like the Trip to the Moon or disaster reenactments like Fighting the Flames. In imitation of the Coney Island amusement parks, Disneyland blended the emotional "release" of fantasy and abandon with claims of uplift, in fact, reviving traditions of the genteel diorama, and thereby making the California park acceptable to suburban consumers in an era of seedy amusement parks. His didacticism, however, was tempered with school childish romance and science fiction fantasy. For example, Disney's simulations of the Rivers of America and Tom Sawyer's island, his Jungle Cruise, and the Rocket to the Moon appealed to a storybook imagining of places where the lines between fiction and fact were purposely blurred. (41)
Even more significant, Disney made no attempt to revive genteel ideals of the sublime, but created a new kind of playful crowd that would be acceptable to the middle classes. The crowd, more than the "fun", was problematic for middle-class Americans when they encountered (or imagined) Coney Island. Disney not only cleaned up the pleasure site, but reconstituted the playful crowd by inviting its individual members to focus on their family units, especially on the wondrous innocence of their children. Adults as parents related both to the delights of their children and to their own "inner child." In turn, the young enjoyed parents and other grown-ups who temporarily abandoned their authoritative and serious roles as adults to glory in the childlike and children. And, as has been often noted, Disneyland's buildings and attractions continually provided cues for cross-generational focus on family and wondrous innocence. (42) Disney blended a fantasy of America in 1900 (turned into a nostalgic playground) with a transformation of a real 1900-era playground at Coney Island into a form acceptable in 1955 America. (43)
In the 1950s, this fantasy was no longer just or even particularly for the young, but for the old, waxing nostalgic about the worlds of their youth. Disney recognized this in the most essential construction of Disney's original 1955 park, Main Street U.S.A. While Disney once claimed that Disneyland was to be for children to see where Mickey lived, it was only in 1993 that Toontown opened for kids to play in their cartoon world. Instead Disneyland was about Disney's own childhood, and Main Street U.S.A. was a mood tunnel that was to lead visitors into Disney's own childish dream world. American nostalgia was not about returning to an ancestral village (relatively few had one in the U.S.). Rather, going home meant "returning" to a romantic idea, one easily blended and idealized in an all-white, all-American Main Street U.S.A., a 1950s romance about the beginning of the twentieth century that continues to represent nostalgia a half century later. (44) Yet Main Street U.S.A. was hardly a replica of small-town America, but was instead a blow up of a child's play set, itself an object of adult nostalgia.
Curiously, innovation was less a theme in Disney than at Coney Island. In part, this was because Disney used reinforced concrete and fiberglass instead of wood and "staff" to construct his fantasy world, making it almost as durable as Blackpool's pleasure palaces. More important, Disneyland appealed to a distinct late modern need for bonding generations by combining nostalgia and "timeless" cuteness. Rides and other attractions did not get "old" because oldsters expected to return to their pasts at Disneyland and visual cues throughout the park reinforced this romantic feeling about a fantasy past. At the same time, adults "passed" on to the next generation these same sites and experiences, which, for the very young, were truly new. Their "newness" was supposed to be enjoyed, not simply as novelty, but as "timeless" wonder, that same look and presumably feel of delight shown on the five-year old's face in 2000 as was on the face of her parent 25 years before. Nostalgia and the eternally cute reinforced one another.
Disney also transformed the industrial saturnalia of Coney making it acceptable to a newly affluent American middle class of the mid-20th century. Disney preserved much of the playfulness of Coney without its "outdated" wonder--freaks and supernatural themes--the public display of which middle-class Americans had rejected by 1950. The carnival culture of freaks and circus took cartoon forms in Disney that appealed to the old need for "turning the world upside down," but were liberated from premodern sensibilities by the creation of wondrous innocence.
All this was a reflection of some rather distinct American patterns and trends that emerged gradually in the half century before Disneyland. Walt Disney drew upon a Victorian legacy of characters and stories with which Americans identified and which ultimately became substitutes for traditional and religious figures and narratives. Historians of American consumer culture have long noted the central element of imaginative narrative and graphic fantasy in promoting new products. (45) This was hardly unique to the United States (e.g. Japan), but Americans learned especially well how to associate emotions and satisfactions with the stories and characters of the mass media and especially of Disney. From the late 1890s, the American entertainment media developed an exceptionally icon-rich culture--especially in story form that ranged from comic strips and storybooks to movies and radio/TV programs. Disney's success grew out of and flourished in this fantasy world--first when he created his own menagerie of fantastic characters for cartoons, movies, and comic books and then when he placed them in Disneyland. (46)
Disney and his apologists have long insisted that this formulation of the playful crowd is unique and revolutionary. However, the cultural distance between the Coney Island immigrant crowd of 1900 and the scrubbed W.A.S.P.ish Disneyland crowd of 1955 was not as great as most suppose. The mistake is made in comparing the decadent Coney Island of 1955 with the new Disneyland. The "original" Coney Island of 1900-1910 was a cross-class cultural mix just as was Disney in the 1950s. Only after 1920 did Coney go down-market. Both were part of an American "mass" culture. Disney's attractions and crowds were different from old Coney's, but they also shared an aesthetic of playfulness quite foreign to the genteel and improving cultural heritage of the late Victorian bourgeoisie. This cultural and social connection between the two can be explained by the fact that the genteel sublime in American middle-class culture (except on the boardwalks) largely had died by the 1920s to be replaced partially by a more playful, but still respectable, aesthetic to which Disney appealed and in which the "original" Coney shared elements. The key was that Disney (and American popular commercial efforts in general) learned how to make middle-class culture fun by selectively imitating Coney. This was possible because the "original" Coney Island of 1900-1910 had been a cross-class cultural mix with its up-lifting towers and thrill rides. As seen in the success of American films and much else, what distinguished American popular commercial culture from Britain was the cross-class appeal, drawing on icons and stories that stretched across the "mass" of Americans. (47)
The British Beamish Outdoor Museum like other heritage sites and living museums was also a challenge to the pleasure aesthetic of industrial saturnalia. Founded in 1971 by Frank Atkinson in an attempt to preserve the lived world of work and community of the industrial northeast of England, Beamish, like its model Artur Hazelius's reconstruction of preindustrial Swedish life at Skansen near Stockholm (1891), represented a quest for preserving a world threatened by late industrial modernity. (48) Yet Beamish was also an attempt to accommodate the play-seeking culture of the late twentieth century.
Beamish walked the tightrope between theme park and museum, especially after about 1982 when it shifted emphasis from the history of technology to social and popular cultural life in an effort to reach wider audiences by appealing to nostalgia and imagination. Still, the site remained an outdoor museum, not an amusement park: Its reproduction of village and work life of 1913 at the high point of the development of the industrial Northeast as well as its reconstruction of farm and early railroad communities of 1825 set a didactic tone. Beamish tried to immerse the visitor in the lifeworlds of 1825 and 1913, not fantasy nostalgia of Main Street USA and movie sets. The closest that Beamish came to the Disney model was the market town street of 1913, with its Co-operative store painstakingly dismantled and reconstructed from a nearby town, an improbable candy factory, an automobile and cycle works, a livery stable, a row of respectable houses (including a dentist) and, of course, a pub. In comparison to Disneyland, the most striking character of Beamish is the fact that it evokes the pace and relative simplicity of the past rather than the sensual intensity of the present. The Beamish site is large (300 acres as compared to the roughly 80 acres of Disneyland) and within this vast green space are six exhibits, widely separated from one another in a square. The middle is an open field; there is no central tower or other focal point except an old wagon at the entrance. The point is to give visitors a feel for a time when music was not continuously blaring and wondrous sights were rare. The relative emptiness of the site is intended to encourage family conversation as groups walk from attraction to attraction over relatively long distances. Here, nostalgia was less fantastic than in Disneyland, in part because Beamish was about really "going home," a reconstructed ancestral village familiar to many visitors in Britain (but not the U.S.). Beamish evokes the pace and relative simplicity of the past rather than the sensual intensity of the present, especially as expressed in modern amusement parks. (49) Many British have long enjoyed Disneyland, Disney World, and Disneyland Paris and their infatuation with things Disney date from the early 1930s. But the British never created anything much like Disney.
All this points to a very different sensibility that spanned significant elements of the "respectable" British middle and working class. The playful crowd of Coney, updated in Disneyland, was not possible in Britain because the important aspects of genteel culture of 1900 survived the advent of the mass consumer culture that emerged in the U.S. The British middle class visited central Blackpool and made no effort to transform it; but that middle class kept itself apart on the northern and southern shores. Blackpool could not be "Disneyfied" for the same reason that it survived while a vigorous Coney Island died because the middle class did not try to "reform" it into an uplifting seashore or a middle-class version of a fun place. The plebeian crowd still served as a continuous target of the high-minded scold as a symbol of the manipulated leisure of the working class. This attitude passed on to the creators of Beamish. There was no possibility of even an unacknowledged borrowing from Blackpool at Beamish as there was from Coney at Disneyland. As an anti-Blackpool, Beamish was starkly anti-commercial and anti-tacky, but also anti-play in the Disney sense of the word. If bourgeois indulgence of plebeian Blackpool assured its survival over Coney, British social and cultural divisions explain Beamish.
But the heart of the difference between the American Disneyland and the British Beamish Museum is really not commercialism or even their divergent approaches to "fun," but rather their different uses of nostalgia and childhood. It is significant that there are many parallels between Coney and Disney, but fewer between Blackpool and Beamish. In part this is because nostalgia and middle-class sensibilities in Britain took on very different forms than they did in the United States. Beamish, like Disney, romanticized early twentieth century social life, but based it on careful reconstruction and research of historical sites and technology. The model for Beamish was certainly not a fantasy of a child's memory much less a romance of Edwardian Blackpool. No one had to recreate Blackpool as Disney "recreated" Main Street U.S.A. or more recently a Coney romance in Disney's Paradise Pier. Old Blackpool is still there! Moreover, Beamish is as much an anti-Blackpool as it is an anti-Disneyland. Beamish tries to evoke a nostalgia not for a late Victorian play world but an industrial past and brings crowds back to a simpler and even "tougher" times, inducing elders to recall to their young both the pride of crafts and the struggles of the past. Of course, Americans had their own versions of this quest to recover the "real" past (Colonial Williamsburg, for example). But Colonial Williamsburg was a distant world, wrapped in patriotism and seen through the lens of a "colonial" decorative style. Americans haven't tried to recover the recent industrial past, even a romanticized mill town like Homestead or coal town like Nanty Glow.
Disney and Beamish not only had different understandings of nostalgia, but of the role of the child in today's playful crowd. The English followed and even imitated Disney's exploitation of the cute. Pleasure Beach built a cartoon based kiddie park ("Bingle and Bob") as early as 1927 and, later in 1960 in flattery of the American innovations, constructed a complex of children's rides called Candy Land and in 1992, Bradley Beaver Creek. Still, these were imitations and never as central to the park nor any way as successful as what Disney made. By the 1970s, Pleasure Beach conceded "ownership" of the Disney formula to the Americans and revitalized the amusement park with new thrill rides to attract a teen and young adult crowd. There were real limits to the Americanization of the British amusement park.
Beamish's view of the child was as radically different from Disney's as was its conception of nostalgia. And, here the contrast between the British and American views comes out in full relief. Whereas the child at Disneyland served to evoke wonder and to make the playful crowd less threatening, the child at Beamish was to be the recipient of heritage and to elevate the crowd to an educational purpose. At Beamish, the purpose was always to use enjoyment as a means to educate, an attempt to provide children with an alternative to the commercialized overly comfortable and artificially stimulating world of their contemporary experience. Beamish drew on a well-established strand of middle class culture--recreation as self-improving and educational. Based presumably upon accurate recreations of the past, it tried to pull the child and adult alike from their fragmented, uprooted, hedonistic, and overexcited lives back to an appreciation of a close-knit, natural world of honest work and local traditions. The child was not supposed to evoke wonder for the adult as in Disney, but to guarantee the memory of a valued way of life or at least an "appreciation" of it. While some miners, textile machine operators, and their descendents escaped their work-a-day lives by embracing the industrial saturnalia of Blackpool, their descendents at Beamish were fascinated by representations of earlier working lives in the mine or on the farm. The alternative to the potentially dangerous pleasures of the hedonistic crowd was the thoughtful, though enjoyable, engagement of the crowd that learns, especially if at its center is the enlightened (not wondrous) child. Beamish did not adapt the plebeian crowd of Blackpool to a middle-class guest for "wondrous innocence" of the late twentieth century as had Disney, but instead combined the self-improving culture of Victorian "rational recreation" with the family-oriented popular pleasures of contemporary Europe.
Despite its residual appeals to patriotism, heritage, and progress, Disneyland can best be characterized as a commercial saturnalia. In ways an update of the earlier industrial saturnalia, Disneyland is both an affirmation of consumer culture as well as an escape from its daily form. It rejected the barkers and the cheap huckstering of the old Coney, but its unrelenting merchandizing was as unrelenting as anything that Coney or Blackpool ever tolerated. Still, by its celebration of childhood wonder, Disneyland was different. It was an answer to the banality and boredom of suburban consumer society, recalling in playful delight an era of coherent and human-scale space before the contemporary era of the freeway, mall, and sidewalk-less suburban residential street when smalltown main streets were still vibrant. Even more, Disneyland returned the jaded affluent adult to the wonder of first delights as the child within or with the adult grinned at the sight of Mickey Mouse. The enchanted child renewed the sated consumer. Disney created a saturnalia for the age of suburban consumption. The vacation effect was no longer mostly a release from the routines of the workplace and neighborhood. It had become a recovery of the purity of consumption pleasure long lost to the modern middle-class adult in boredom and obsession, through the wondrous response of the child (or nostalgic adult). Disney's consumerist saturnalia was as appropriate for his time as had been the industrial saturnalia at Luna Park in 1910. Whereas the British Beamish Museum was a modern alternative to saturnalia, America's Disney was an update.
Implications for Social History Research
This comparative century-long approach allowed us to develop a broad set of arguments that were grounded in specific, but reasonably representative historical contexts. John Walton and I were able to highlight real contrasts in the expression of what we call the industrial saturnalia of predominantly working class or, at least, non-genteel pleasure places between the US and Britain. We showed interesting examples of why and how Coney and Blackpool experienced very different fates in the 20th century, allowing us to focus on a number of contrasting inputs: the impact of automobility, state, social composition of crowds, middle-class attitudes toward these playful crowds, and other national/cultural values. This hardly provides the "precision" of factor analysis or step-wise multiple regressions but it allows for at least a discussion of a range of factors.
We also elucidated contrasting responses of elites to these crowds and very different approaches toward reconstituting the idea of playful crowds that draw on different elements of the critique of industrial saturnalia in and through Disney and Beamish. We offer a thesis about late modern sensibilities that are rooted in the complexities of social behaviors and power contexts rather than in the exceptional text and that can be explored and tested elsewhere.
Doing comparative history poses many problems, of course. But let me close with some of the "practical" issues that perhaps have dissuaded some historians from compounding their specialties and skills in a true collaboration (not simply the loose bundle of texts that appear in almost all anthologies). First, John Walton and I did not always agree. I tended to see the critique of the playful crowd of 1900 as a cross-national bourgeois response. John insisted on British exceptionalism here, pointing out the comparative rarity of British bourgeois attacks on Blackpool in the 20th century. John tended to see Disney as part of a broader analysis of American consumer culture--fostering a passive, bowdlerized culture that succumbed to middle brow sensibilities in eviscerating the vitality, however crude, of old Coney Island. I demanded that Disney be recognized as a supersensual experience that copied much from Coney while also adapting selected aspects of the genteel critique of industrial saturnalia and creating a genuinely new understanding of the playful crowd around the "wondrous" child. Secondly, John and I wrote in different English languages and narrative styles.
We happily were able to resolve our differences both intellectually and stylistically. John's claim that "outsider" understandings of Blackpool were far more tolerant (if sometimes patronizing) than was true in Coney Island improved the project by adding a critical element to explaining the relative success of Blackpool in reproducing itself for multiple generations just as the opposite was true in America's Coney Island.
My insistence on a "new" interpretation of Disney made the contrast between the American and British middle-class "modernizations" of the playful crowd more cogent. Disney represented an attempt to adapt elements of industrial saturnalia while Beamish was an expression of an older form of rational recreation (modified with late modern sensibilities for nostalgia). This puts the British "toleration" for Blackpool in a somewhat new light insofar as a relatively unreformed Blackpool could co-exist with a Beamish. By contrast Coney Island "died" but was resurrected in many ways in Disney. These differences say a lot about class and culture, but also the autonomous leisure site.
We resolved our style differences in more prosaic ways: John graciously sacrificing the subtle expressiveness of British English for relatively terse and colorless American. This takes a lot of mutual respect and flexibility, traits sometimes in short supply among academics. A strong outline, clear division of labor, a real ability to give and take, and a healthy sense of humor are required for collaborations.
But the benefits are worth the back and forth of email attachments and the occasional irritation at what your collaborator has done to your prose or argued in his. We have breached the walls of national history and have offered at least some suggestions about how to imagine the transformation of consuming crowds in the 20th century.
Department of History
University Park, PA 16802
Thanks to John Walton, University of Central Lancashire, for his contribution to this essay.
1. Note Susan Strasser, Charles McGovern, Matthias Judt, eds., Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century (Washington, 1998); Susan Pedersen, Family, Dependence, and the Origins of the Welfare State: Britain and France, 1914-1945 (Cambridge, 1993).
2. David Nasaw, Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements (New York, 1993), 95.
3. J.K. Walton, "The Social Development of Blackpool 1788-1914", Ph.D. dissertation, Lancaster University, 1974, 263.
4. R.W. Malcolmson, Popular Recreations in English Society 1700-1850 (Cambridge, 1973); David Underdown, Revel, Riot and Rebellion: Popular Politics in England 1603-1660 (Oxford, 1985).
5. Martin Hewitt (ed.), Unrespectable Recreations (Leeds, 2001); Mike Huggins, Flat Racing and British Society 1790-1914 (London, 1999).
6. Between 1867 and 1880, five railroads were constructed specifically to facilitate tourism. Brian Cudahy, How We Got to Coney Island: The Development of Mass Transportation in Brooklyn and Kings County (New York, 2002), chs. 5 and 6.
7. Joseph Heller, Now and Then (London, 1998), 32-3, 44; H.S, Ashbee, "A Sunday at Coney Island" (London, 1882: reprinted from Temple Bar).
8. Michael Immerso, Coney Island: The People's Playground (New Brunswick, 2002), 155-6; Charles Denson, Coney Island: Lost and Found (Berkeley, 2002), ch. 2; Walton, "Social Development," ch.5.
9. Walton, "Social Development," 240-58; Robert Poole, The Lancashire Wakes Holidays (Preston, UK, 1994).
10. Oliver Pilat and Jo Ranson, Sodom by the Sea, An Affectionate History of Coney Island (Garden City, N.Y., 1941), 144-46. Woody Register, Kid of Coney Island: Fred Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements (New York, 2001), 92, 132-33.
11. Walton, "Social Development of Blackpool," chs. 6 and 9.
12. Frederic Thompson, "Amusement Architecture," Architectural Review 16, 7 (July 1909): 88; Thompson, "The Summer Show," Independent 62 (6 July 1907), 14-61. John Kasson, Amusing the Million (New York, 1978), 63; Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: a Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (New York, 1994), 234.
13. Kasson, Amusing the Million, 59, 60; Edwin Slosson, "Amusement Business," Independent 57 (21 July 1904): 136; History of Coney Island: Lists of Photographs by Main Attractions (New York, 1904), 36-37; Judith Adams, The American Amusement Park Industry: A History of Technology and Thrills (Boston, 1991), 45.
14. P. Bennett,