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Digital History ID 3316

 

Of all the differences between the 19th and 20th centuries, one of the most striking involves the rapid growth of commercialized entertainment. For much of the 19th century, commercial amusements were viewed as somehow suspect. Drawing on the Puritan criticisms of play and recreation and a Republican ideology that was hostile to luxury, hedonism, and extravagance, American Victorians tended to associate theaters, dance halls, circuses, and organized sports with such vices as gambling, swearing, drinking, and immoral sexual behavior. In the late 19th century, however, a new outlook--which revered leisure and play--began to challenge Victorian prejudices.

During the first 20 years of the 20th century, attendance at professional baseball games doubled. Vaudeville, too, increased in popularity, featuring singing, dancing, skits, comics, acrobats, and magicians. Amusement parks, penny arcades, dance halls, and other commercial amusements flourished. As early as 1910, when there were 10,000 movie theaters, the movies had become the nation's most popular form of commercial entertainment.

The rise of these new kinds of commercialized amusements radically reshaped the nature of American leisure activities. Earlier in the 19th century leisure activities had been sharply segregated on the basis of gender, class, and ethnicity. The wealthy attended their own exclusive theaters, concert halls, museums, restaurants, and sporting clubs. For the working class, leisure and amusement was rooted in particular ethnic communities and neighborhoods, each with its own saloons, churches, fraternal organizations, and organized sports. Men and women participated in radically different kinds of leisure activities. Many men (particularly bachelors and immigrants) relaxed in barber shops, billiard halls, and bowling alleys, joined volunteer fire companies or militias, and patronized saloons, gambling halls, and race tracks. Women took part in church activities and socialized with friends and relatives.

After 1880, as incomes rose and leisure time expanded, new commercialized forms of cross-class, mixed-sex amusements proliferated. Entertainment became a major industry. Vaudeville theaters attracted women as well as men. The young, in particular, increasingly sought pleasure, escape, and the freedom to experiment free of parental control in mixed-sex crowds in relatively inexpensive amusement parks, dance halls, urban night clubs, and, above all, nickelodeons and movie theaters.

The transformation of Coney Island symbolized the emergence of a new leisure culture, emphasizing excitement, glamour, fashion, and romance. Formerly a center of male vice--of brothels, saloons, and gambling dens--Coney Island became the nation's first modern amusement park, complete with ferris wheels, hootchie kootchie girls, restaurants, and concert halls. Its informality and sheer excitement attracted people of every class.

If Coney Island offered an escape from an oppressive urban landscape to an exotic one, the new motion picture industry would offer an even less expensive, more convenient escape. During the early 20th century, it quickly developed into the country's most popular and influential form of art and entertainment.

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