Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York

Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York

Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York

Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York


What did young, independent women do for fun and how did they pay their way into New York City's turn-of-the-century pleasure places? "Cheap Amusements "is a fascinating discussion of young working women whose meager wages often fell short of bare subsistence and rarely allowed for entertainment expenses.

Kathy Peiss follows working women into saloons, dance halls, Coney Island amusement parks, social clubs, and nickelodeons to explore the culture of these young women between 1880 and 1920 as expressed in leisure activities. By examining the rituals and styles they adopted and placing that culture in the larger context of urban working-class life, she offers us a complex picture of the dynamics shaping a working woman's experience and consciousness at the turn-of-the-century. Not only does her analysis lead us to new insights into working-class culture, changing social relations between single men and women, and urban courtship, but it also gives us a fuller understanding of the cultural transformations that gave rise to the commercialization of leisure.

The early twentieth century witnessed the emergence of heterosocial companionship as a dominant ideology of gender, affirming mixed-sex patterns of social interaction, in contrast to the nineteenth century's segregated spheres. "Cheap Amusements "argues that a crucial part of the reorientation of American culture originated from below, specifically in the subculture of working women to be found in urban dance halls and amusement resorts.


Americans in the late nineteenth century perceived New York City's population as split into two classes, typified by the ostentatious mansions of Fifth Avenue and the squalid tenement slums of Mulberry Bend. Images of the elite "400" and the impoverished "other half," created by photographers and poets, cartoonists and crusaders, indelibly shape our understanding of the metropolis. Yet this picture oversimplifies the complex texture of Manhattan's culture, particularly that of its working-class inhabitants. the social worlds of the poverty-stricken day laborer, unionized craftsman, stylish young saleswoman, and boardinghouse keeper were often dissimilar, and diverged further according to ethnic and religious background. Patterns of working-class leisure were likewise kaleidoscopic: a neighborhood's facilities for recreation ranged from sparse to numerous; Old World celebrations and home-centered conviviality competed with commercial amusements; long hours of arduous labor left many without leisure, while others enjoyed the city's variegated nightlife.

As Jacob Riis graphically demonstrated, poverty was a pervasive fact of working-class life in turn-of-the-century New York, whose population was heavily dominated by immigrants and their children. in the 1880's, a majority of Manhattanites lived at the subsistence level, and the depression of the 1890's brought further hardship to the laboring poor. Already overcrowded working-class districts in lower Manhattan swelled with a massive influx of eastern . . .

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