Coney Island has a long history as a place for entertainment. Even before the creation of the three great amusement parks around 1900, the area was enormously popular with visitors looking for fun. The first inn, Coney Island House, was established in the island’s Gravesend section, to the east, in 1829. Guests arrived by stagecoach, and the journey from the city was often grueling and time-consuming. By the 1840s, a daily ferry connection to the western part of the island brought visitors to Coney Island Pavilion, an early pleasure dome offering dancing, dining, and bathing. The eastern edge of the island catered to a middle-class and wealthier audience, but the western part, known as Norton’s Point and the site of present-day Seagate, was closer to Manhattan and attracted a much broader range of people. Excursion boats and ferries were still the most convenient modes of transportation, with just about an hour’s ride from Fulton Ferry or Peck Slip in Manhattan, but the railroad soon became an efficient competitor. With the arrival of the first rail lines in the 1860s, bars, music halls, and entertainment contributed to the grittiness, especially around the terminus, where many small hotels and taverns – Peter Tilyou’s Surf House is an example – opened up. By the late 1870s Coney Island was one of the most visited summer resorts in the United States; an estimated one hundred thousand people visited on the Fourth of July in 1879. It was one of the few resorts that attracted people from all different social and economic backgrounds, including the poor urban working class, which was afforded some leisure time toward the end of the nineteenth century, with a decreased number of working hours and often Saturdays as well as Sundays off.
After establishing Surf House, the Tilyou family in 1882 developed the Bowery, a lane that ran parallel to Coney Island’s main drag, Surf Avenue, between West Tenth and West Sixteenth streets. It was famous for its gambling, dance palaces, concert halls, burlesque theater, and sideshows with snake charmers, jugglers, and acrobats, as well as many independently operated concession stands, arcades, and carousels. From the 1860s through the 1890s, the west end of the island attracted a very mixed crowd, including many prostitutes and criminal gangs, and this part of Coney came to be known as Sodom by the Sea. Nearby attractions such as the Midget’s Palace, a Convention of Curiosities (essentially a “freak show”), a Camera Obscura (where moving images from the surrounding area were projected onto a revolving screen), roller coasters and other thrilling mechanical rides, and spectacular nighttime fireworks contributed to Coney’s immense popularity well before the creation of Steeplechase, Luna Park or Dreamland, the great amusement parks of the turn of the century.
Sea bathing was another important aspect of early entertainment at Coney Island. It started in eighteenth-century Britain as a fashionable upper-class pursuit of health, an extension of the spa experience. Growing in popularity in the second half of the nineteenth century, especially after the seaside became more accessible through public transportation, sea bathing soon became associated with pleasure more than health and spread to the working classes. Mixed bathing was frowned on until the mid-nineteenth century, and although it was acceptable for men and women to swim together at the turn of the twentieth century, they were expected to be more or less fully covered. Bathers were advised to wear woolen or flannel bathing suits, and both men and women were prohibited from exposing the nipples. At this time, public beaches with free access existed only on the far edges of the island. The high-end hotels had their own facilities on the east end while the west side was lined with bathhouses such as Balmer’s. Visitors to the bathhouses paid to use lockers and to get access to the beach, where long ropes attached to poles a hundred feet offshore provided a safer experience in the surf.
As Julian Ralph wrote about Coney in Scribner’s Magazine in July 1896: “It is New York’s resort almost exclusively; our homeopathic sanitarium, our sun-bath and ice-box combined, our extra lung, our private, gigantic fan.”
Patrick Amsellem is the Associate Curator of Photography at the Brooklyn Museum. Formerly a curator at the Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art in Malmö, Sweden, Patrick organized the first Swedish exhibition of the work of Andreas Gursky and was part of the curatorial team that produced a major series of exhibitions under the leadership of Lars Nittve. He has written about art for Stockholm’s major newspaper Svenska Dagbladet and was also a critic for the Swedish daily newspaper Kvällposten and for Swedish Public Radio. Patrick has taught at New York University and is the author of several exhibition catalogues. He received a Ph.D. in Art History from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.