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The Revolt Against Victorianism Previous Next
Digital History ID 3314


The new mood could be seen in a rage for competitive athletics and team sports. It was in the 1890s that boxing began to rival baseball as the nation's most popular sport, basketball was invented, football swept the nation's college campuses, and golf, track, and wrestling became popular pastimes. The celebration of vigor could also be seen in a new enthusiasm for such outdoor activities as hiking, hunting, fishing, mountain climbing, camping, and bicycling.

A new bold, energetic spirit was also apparent in popular music, in a craze for ragtime, jazz, and patriotic military marches. The culture of toughness and virility appeared in the growth of nationalism (culminating in 1898 in America's "Splendid Little War" against Spain), the condemnation of sissies and stuffed shirts, and the growing popularity of aggressively masculine western novels such as Owen Wister's The Virginian.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the New Woman--personified by the tall, athletic Gibson Girl--supplanted the frail, submissive Victorian woman as a cultural ideal. The new woman began to work outside the home in increasing numbers, attend high school and college, and, increasingly, press for the vote. During the 1890s, American popular culture was in a full-scale revolt against the stifling Victorian code of propriety.

During the mid-19th century, urban reformers had responded to the rapid growth of cities by advocating the construction of parks to serve as rural retreats in the midst of urban jungles. Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York City's Central Park, believed that the park's bucolic calm would instill the values of sobriety and self-control in the urban masses. But by the end of the century, it was clear that those masses had grown tired of sobriety and self-control. This was clearly seen at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, where the most popular area was the boisterous, rowdy Midway. Here visitors rode the ferris wheel and watched "Little Egypt" and "hootchie-koochie girls" perform exotic dances.

Entrepreneurs were quick to satisfy the public's desire for fast-paced entertainment. During the 1890s, a series of popular amusement parks opened in Coney Island in New York. Unlike Central Park, Coney Island glorified adventure. It offered exotic, dreamlike landscapes and a loose, free social environment. At Coney Island men could remove their coats and ties and both sexes could enjoy rare personal freedom.

Central Park was supposed to reinforce self-control and delayed gratification. Coney Island was a consumer's world of extravagance, gaiety, abandon, revelry, and instant gratification. It attracted working-class Americans who longed for a taste of the good life. If a person could never hope to own a mansion in Newport, R.I., he or she could for a few dimes experience the exotic pleasures of Luna Park or Dreamland Park. Even the rides in the amusement park were designed to create illusions and break down reality. Mirrors distorted peoples' images and rides threw them off balance. At Luna Park, the "Witching Waves" simulated the bobbing of a ship at high sea, and the "Tickler" featured spinning circular cars that threw riders together.

In part, the desire for intense physical and emotional experience was met through sports, athletics, and out-of-door activities. But its primary outlet was vicarious--through mass culture. Craving more intense experience, eager to break free of the confining boundaries of genteel culture, Americans turned to new kinds of newspapers and magazines and new forms of commercial entertainment.

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