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City Life 1880-1920: Home

City Life, 1880--1920

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  • Turn of the Century
  • Gilded Age (1877-1893)
  • Late Victoria era (ends 1901)
  • American Victoriansim
  • Edwardian Period (1901-1914)
  • Progrssive Era (1880s-1920s)



The Tenements

"There were nine in the family: husband, wife, an aged grandmother, and six children; honest, hard-working Germans, scrupulously neat, but poor. All nine lived in two rooms, one about ten feet square that served as parlor, bedroom, and eating-room, the other a small hall-room made into a kitchen. The rent was seven dollars and a half a month, more than a week’s wages for the husband and father, who was the only bread-winner in the family. That day the mother had thrown herself out of the window, and was carried up from the street dead." --from How the Other Half Lives

Corrupt Governments

"In the late 1860s, William M. Tweed was the New York City's political boss. His headquarters, located on East 14th Street, was known as Tammany Hall. He wore a diamond, orchestrated elections, controlled the city's mayor, and rewarded political supporters. His primary source of funds came from the bribes and kickbacks that he demanded in exchange of city contracts."


"Political bosses also served the welfare needs of immigrants. They offered jobs, food, fuel, and clothing to the new immigrants and the destitute poor. Political machines also served as a ladder of social mobility for ethnic groups blocked from other means of rising in society."  --from Digital History

Progressive Era and Gilded Age Web Links

The San Francisco Earthquake

Amusement Parks



From ABC-CLIO's Daily Life through History website

amusement parks

In the 1980s and 1990s, it became apparent that theme parks such as Disney World and Six Flags could not replace America's traditional amusement parks. Turn-of-the 20th-century thrill rides like Shoot-the-Chutes, Bobsled, and Virginia Reel were installed in some theme parks, while others developed areas designed to recreate the look and feel of a traditional park. Disney World's Boardwalk of food and game concessions, modeled on Coney Island, is a prime example of this trend. Americans have rediscovered traditional amusement parks and the culture they generated.

The modern amusement park was born in New York's Coney Island at the turn of the 20th century. At that time, Coney's West Brighton section housed the largest collection of entertainments in the world. In an area only 12 blocks wide and two blocks deep, there were hundreds of amusement stands, restaurants, saloons, sandwich counters, sideshows, mechanical rides, pavilions, bathhouses, and so on. West Brighton also achieved notoriety for its cheap hotels, brothels, gambling dens, fakir booths, and girlie shows. Coney's reputation for immorality, vulgarity, vice, crime, and public disorder stimulated reform efforts to "clean up" the area.

Local businessmen and showmen, eager to capitalize on American workers' increased leisure time and spending power, were able to satisfy both the demands of reformers and reap huge profits. They fenced in hitherto independent rides, sideshows, and games, excluded gambling and prostitution, charged admission, and employed guards to keep the riffraff out. The new "amusement parks" as they were called, catered primarily to a middle-class clientele, enjoyed great popularity, and contributed to Coney's moral and cultural renaissance.

The development of Coney Island exceeded that of other resorts since it could be reached by a larger population in less time at a lower price. In the late 19th century, a new dimension was added to outdoor amusement as technological advances brought about the construction of various mechanical devices. The most impressive of these were built at or moved to Coney Island because, even at five or 10 cents a ride, the profit potential was enormous.

For example, the Sawyer Observatory from the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, a 300-foot iron tower with two steam elevators, was reerected there. In 1884, the Switchback Railway, America's first roller coaster, was introduced at Coney Island, attracting 10,000 patrons on opening day alone. Built during the next decade were the Shoot-the-Chutes, the first large-scale water amusement ride; the Flip Flap, the first vertical looping roller coaster; and a Ferris Wheel half the size of the one at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

In the 1890s, other amusement devices, albeit not as grand, popped up in nearly every city, large and small, that was served by electricity. The traction companies responsible for streetcar lines often paid a flat monthly fee for the electricity to operate the trolleys. To reduce their costs and to induce the public to ride streetcars on Saturdays and Sundays, many companies placed mechanical rides and attractions at the end of a trolley line, usually near a body of water. The term trolley park thus entered the vocabulary. At Coney Island, the nickel trolley brought this seaside resort within reach of New York's multitudes.

The first of Coney Island's amusement parks was Sea Lion Park, built in 1895 by Paul Boyton on a large plot of land that enclosed various aquatic exhibitions, water rides, trained animal acts, and a ballroom. In 1897, George C. Tilyou opened Steeplechase, named for the mechanical racetrack with eight wooden horses that circled the 15-acre park. In his park, Tilyou designed and introduced a number of mechanical rides, fun houses, gaming devices, and sideshow practices—amusement ideas and innovations that can be seen at any of today's parks and that look to be just as popular now as a century ago.

Tilyou was also instrumental in bringing back to Coney Island and incorporating into Steeplechase novel and interesting entertainment attractions developed by other showmen. One such initiative resulted in the creation of yet another amusement park. In 1901, Tilyou visited the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York and was captivated by an illusion ride named A Trip to the Moon, conceived by Frederick A. Thompson and operated in partnership with Elmer S. Dundy. The following year, the financially successful ride was presented at Steeplechase on a concession basis and continued to draw large crowds.

After the 1902 season, Thompson and Dundy broke with Tilyou over a contract dispute and built a rival park. They bought Boyton's unsuccessful Sea Lion Park, razed most of the attractions, and in 1903 created Luna Park, named for Dundy's sister and not, as most people thought, for their famous illusion ride. Luna's impressive success—with its emphasis on cultural themes, building design, spectacle, and ambiance—spawned the construction of Dreamland, the last of the Coney Island amusement parks, right across the street on 15 acres of oceanfront property. Dreamland, built by politicians and not by showmen, copied and expanded Luna's original ideas, stressed architectural grandeur, and was dubbed the "Gibraltar of the Amusement World."

Steeplechase is considered the prototype of modern amusement parks. Its amusement formula was based on different principles than either Luna Park or Dreamland. Advertised as "the Funny Place," Steeplechase had no exotic villages, reenactments of natural disasters, architectural styles, or thematic forms. Tilyou built and patented his own mechanical devices in Steeplechase—the Human Roulette Wheel, Earthquake Floor, Razzle-Dazzle, Blow Hole, Electric Seat, and dozens more.

Tilyou also appealed to a more working-class audience, had decidedly sexual overtones in many rapid-motion rides (Wedding Ring, Barrel of Love, Dew Drop), and offered less well-to-do patrons a convenient way of temporarily breaking with Victorian standards. The pattern forged at Steeplechase (mechanical rides, a midway, sideshows, fun houses, audience participation, voyeurism, interaction with strangers) was applied to other amusement parks Tilyou operated in a number of cities, some with the same name. So successful were these parks that their style of entertainment soon became the industry standard, copied by virtually every other park operator for decades.

Coney Island's improved reputation and commercial success led to a dramatic increase in the number of amusement parks throughout the United States in the first decade of the 20th century. From Maine to California, nearly every shorefront city and town had some assortment of mechanical rides, food and game concessions, and sideshows at one or more trolley park or public park midway. Americans were caught up in the outdoor amusement craze.

Local promoters around the country built imitator parks structured around "novelties" or entertainment innovations developed at Coney Island. Some made fortunes while others lost heavily when they attempted to attract the wrong class of people or misread the public's taste in amusement. Most of these new parks—Riverview Park in Chicago, Willow Grove Park in Philadelphia, and Euclid Beach in Cleveland—presented a variety of attractions that appealed to all classes, reaped steady profits, and achieved a considerable degree of permanence. So strong was Coney's influence on the outdoor amusement industry that many promoters unabashedly affixed names like Coney Island, Steeplechase, Luna Park, or Dreamland to their park names.

The second decade of the 20th century witnessed a steady increase in both the number of amusement parks being built and their attendance figures. During the summer of 1911, for example, Kansas City's five parks counted almost 2 million visitors. Many of the staples of today's amusement parks, such as the penny arcade and various skill games, were popularized in this period. So too were the amusement park piers at coastal cities, with roller coasters and other mechanical rides on wooden or steel platforms extending hundreds of feet over the water. One important development was the invention of the underfriction roller coaster, changing this device from a scenic gravity ride to an undulating thrill machine. By 1919, there were more than 1,500 amusement parks in American cities.

Amusement parks reached their zenith in the 1920s, a time of strong economic growth. Engineers and designers of amusement devices created faster and higher roller coasters, bumper cars, and vertigo-inducing rides. The widespread use of the automobile paved the way for the construction of parks unrelated to mass transit lines. Existing parks were refurbished according to middle-class tastes and had a family orientation.

With the onset of the Great Depression, the amusement industry declined precipitously. Money for capital improvements and new promotions dried up. People turned to the movies, now with sound, for a cheap fantasy. Increased reliance on automobiles sounded the death knell for trolley parks. By the end of the decade, there were fewer than 300 amusement parks, and attendance was down as well.

The only bright spot at this time was the development of major new amusement devices that would play an important role in traditional and newer theme parks in years to come. At the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, the first cable Sky Ride in America was introduced. Two decades later, Disneyland's cable car ride served to transport people from one location to another and entertain them with a bird's-eye view of the park. A 250-foot Parachute jump opened at the 1939 New York World's Fair was moved to Steeplechase a year later and became the most visible symbol of Coney Island. Many parks today have parachute rides half as tall.

During World War II, new parks were not built, and in the late 1940s, with the advent of television, people entertained themselves more at home. New parks seldom got off the drawing boards as the novelty of amusement parks had worn thin. The white, middle-class exodus to the suburbs and the influx of poor and minority populations to cities further adversely affected the amusement park industry. With the start of the baby boom, America was changing, and many traditional amusement parks managed to survive by adding dance bands, swimming pools, picnic facilities, and children's rides.

A whole new era in amusement park history started with Disneyland in 1955. Walt Disney's creation, now called a "theme park," appealed primarily to middle-class, suburban, travel-oriented, national audiences, the kind of people who shunned traditional amusement parks with bad reputations in their local communities. In the 1960s and 1970s, many theme parks in the Disney mold were built throughout the country by such large corporations or conglomerates as Six Flags, Taft Broadcasting, Anheuser-Busch, Marriott, and Bally Manufacturing. Other theme parks were sponsored by smaller companies or individual investors for regional markets.

The success of national and regional theme parks stimulated a renewed interest in, and financial commitment to, many older traditional amusement parks. Despite earlier neglect and deterioration, Kennywood Park (Pittsburgh), Cedar Point Park (Sandusky, Ohio), Elitch Gardens (Denver), Dorney Park (Allentown), Hershey Park (Hershey), and Playland (Rye, New York) survive to this day via renovation and expansion to compete with the new theme parks. The building of longer, taller, and faster roller coasters, or "scream machines," also helped sustain traditional amusement parks.

Unfortunately, closings of urban amusement parks in the 1960s and 1970s were all too common. Many became sites for gang violence and racial tensions as they found themselves in the middle of deteriorating neighborhoods. Riverview Park (Chicago), Olympic Park (Irvington, New Jersey), Euclid Beach Park (Cleveland), Palisades Park (Fort Lee, New Jersey), and Glen Echo Park (Washington, D.C.) could not survive the social and economic problems typical of the times. Also contributing to park closings were such natural disasters as fires and floods, prohibitive insurance costs, and skyrocketing land values. Steeplechase itself, the harbinger of all amusement parks, closed in 1964, its demise due mainly to the urban decay of Coney Island outside its gates.

From ABC-CLIO's Encyclopedia of Urban America

"amusement parks." Daily Life through History. ABC-CLIO, 2015. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.


Birth of Cinema

"New storefront theaters, dubbed nickelodeons, were a wildly successful innovation. Appearing first in 1905, nickelodeons featured movie shows all day long, and in contrast to the vaudeville theaters which had showed many actuality films, the nickelodeons featured more fictional films. The first nickelodeon was built in Pittsburgh in June 1905 by Harry Davis, a vaudeville magnate. Soon nickelodeons began to appear in cities around the country."  -- from the American Memory Collection of the Library of Congress