A JOURNEY TO AMERICA’S ELECTRIC PLAYGROUND: ADVERTISING CONEY ISLAND 1890-1910
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, ten miles from Manhattan, an adult playground emerged. A visitor’s class, race, or responsibilities did not matter here. One could experience an earthquake, ride on a railway through the Swiss Alps, witness a baby come back to life, and be back home in time for dinner. From 1890-1910, Coney Island was America’s Playground. My thesis seeks to understand how a space like Coney Island fits into the collective American narrative, as a place that would attract millions despite fierce cultural tensions propagating New York City. My methods required me to explore archival materials of Coney Island advertisements, postcards, and photographs from the Frederick Fried Collection at Columbia University, The Fred Snitzer Collection at the Brooklyn Historical Society, and on site sources at the New York Public Library. I sought answers to the question of how three amusement parks, Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland within Coney Island told their own story through images of park exhibitions, rides, and displays. Through the creation and exposition of technologies of play, I found that these parks fashioned an image of themselves in which Coney Island represented the technological conquest of and mastery over the natural environment. Through this tension between the natural and the artificial, Coney Island park owners circulated postcards of technology conquering the elements in the form of roller coasters, premature babies inside incubators, and natural disasters reenacted for mass audiences. While Americans continued to visit the Island after 1910, this twenty-year period marks a time when electricity as a technological achievement in an urban space represented a common allure and fascination in American culture. While millions were able to occupy a shared space aside from any class, ethnic, or cultural differences, the images of the amusement parks tapped into the American imagination where the human power of technology conquers the elements of nature.
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