Coney Island’s Role in Breaking Class Barriers in Nineteenth-Century America

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Coney Island in the nineteenth century was a major hub for spectacle and amazement. It’s various dazzling sideshows, amusement parks, and seaside location made it the ideal getaway from distressing city life. In fact, it was this very period in time that these attractions were first invented and/or introduced, with the first recorded Coney Island sideshow performance in 1880, as well as the world’s first enclosed amusement park, first roller coaster, and more. These spectacular technological displays created an overwhelming sense of ‘sensorial overload’ for patrons of the nineteenth century, as they have truly never seen or experienced anything comparable to this kind of entertainment.

This paper intends to analyze how the design of Coney Island impacted or contributed to ideas about class in the nineteenth century. The end-goal is to gauge whether or not the park’s designers intentionally constructed the park in a way that challenged class barriers and societal norms.

The two-class model of the elite and the labor class got increasingly more complicated throughout the nineteenth century as a result of industrialization, which introduced a new middle class (Katz, 579). These classes are typically isolated from each other, and individuals who are a part of different social classes have little to no social contacts (Katz, 585). It is true that Coney Island was divided into four parts from east to west, where each class had sort of instinctively claimed their preferred zone: the upper class in Manhattan Beach, the middle-class claiming Brighton Beach, the poor/working class in West Brighton, and the underclass at Norton Point (Frazier, 6). However, Coney Island's sideshows, Sea Lion Park, and Steeplechase Park became common areas for people of all classes to intermix. Their existence derided the established order of social values and roles through the formation of a carnivalesque atmosphere (Frazier, 9).

Entertainment at Coney Island had been made up of ideas from a myriad of designers. Charles Loof, a famous artisan, crafted the first carousel in 1875; Lamarcus Thompson built the world’s first roller coaster – the Switchback Railroad – in 1884; but perhaps the most prominent designer of Coney Island was George Tilyou. Son of a Coney Island’s hotel proprietor, Tilyou learned the business and started his entrepreneurial career when he was fourteen, and would souvenir bottles of seawater and boxes of beach sand for money. As an adult, Tilyou ventured to the Columbian Exhibition in 1893 and witnessed the colossal Ferris wheel, which ultimately lead to his vision for a space, “where all the world would be on display” (Ostwald, 196), and thus, using the Ferris wheel as the basis for the idea, opened Steeplechase Park in 1897 (Frazier, 10). The park was made up of intricate compilation of rides and other attractions, including the Razzle Dazzle, the Soup Bowl, the Barrel of Love, and more. This was all enclosed by the steeplechase race horse ride – the park’s namesake (Ford and Milman, 67).

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It is evident that Tilyou utilized spatial compression to cultivate a fully “simulated and controlled experience” (Ostwald, 196) that appealed to everyone despite social class. One popular attraction of his was the Razzle Dazzle, where attendees would sit huddled together on a giant spinning wooden roulette wheel, unrestrained, and try, unsuccessfully, not to be shifted by force into other riders (Gleason, 475). Similarly, the Soup Bowl was a giant bowl with slippery-smooth sides that people would try to climb out of, but would ultimately just fall all over each other (Ford and Milman, 68). To even enter the park, visitors had to pass through the Barrel of Love, a slippery, rotating cylinder, which required quick and steady feet to navigate without toppling over everyone else in the barrel (Gleason, 475). These are all just a few examples of how Tilyou strategically planned designed his rides to encourage the interaction – in this case, even physical interaction – across the social classes. Tilyou wasn’t one for passive viewers, thus offering attractions such as these in order to make the patrons as big of a part in the show as the attractions themselves. He gave visitors a chance to take a break from life and laugh at themselves and others.

Tilyou believed that by condensing the distance of his attractions and creating a barrier around them would produce the most conductive simulated and controlled experience. With this in mind, he decided to go off of Captain Paul Boyton’s idea for Sea Lion Park and construct a fence around Steeplechase Park, making it the world’s second enclosed amusement park. This allowed Tilyou greater control over who entered the park, and the power to exclude ‘unsavory elements’ from it. In turn, this made patrons feel safer and more comfortable intermingling with those of other classes. On top of that, Tilyou charged admission to get into the park, weeding out anyone from the streets who was only around to start trouble. Due to the profusion of activities that the park offered, little possibility remained for violence to occur (Frazier, 8). He charged a single price to any ride in the park as many times as each visitor wanted (Frazier, 11). This kept troublemakers out of the park while also keeping the entrance fee low enough so that the park was still accessible to all classes. Not only that, but Tilyou also invented the concept of group sales – granting special prices to junior navy militia, girl/boy scout troops, and even courted church groups (Ford and Milman, 67-69).

Coney Island’s sideshows or ‘freak show’ performances are one of the most iconic aspects of Coney Island, and still exist today. These performances, too, were designed to break class barriers in the nineteenth century, allowing classes to experience these performances together. They consisted of “formally organized exhibition for amusement and profit of people with physical, mental, or behavioral anomalies” (Bogdan, 2). Originally, this really only appealed to the lower classes, as it was considered too crude and despicable for the upper classes to explore, but became an accepted part of American life when the shows had started to become marketed as ‘scientific’ (Bogdan, 3). This allowed the upper classes to justify their curiosity and attendance at these shows, as it was now for scientific and educational purposes.

Coney Island had been the first amusement park to encourage an assortment of groups to explore new things, so much so that it became known as “The People’s Watering Place” (Frazier, 7). It is evident that it had been purposefully constructed to attract diverse social classes in order to order, entertainment, and social change. It serves not solely to entertain, but to challenge notions of both social order and public conduct by providing people across the classes an environment in which to interact and test these societal norms together.

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Coney Island’s Role in Breaking Class Barriers in Nineteenth-Century America. (2023, September 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 20, 2024, from
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