A Non-Disney Holiday in 1919

A BIT OF HISTORY: Random Stuff From Annette's Collection

Intro: An Amused Life

I’m a retired fan of Disney parks. You didn't know someone could be a retired Disney fan, did you? From my first visit to Disneyland forty years ago, and for more than three decades after, I loved all of it, from the Tiki Room to Splash Mountain, and I have photos galore to prove my devotion.

But after that? Well, Disney and I went our separate ways

I sadly parted company with the House of Mouse about the time I realized it would cost me less to go to real Italy than to fake Italy (in Epcot).

Now that Disney prices are officially through the roof and we have to make an appointment to do everything in the parks save visit the loo . . . Enough said.

But when I lived on the outskirts of Los Angeles in the 90s, I was at Disneyland every chance I got. And then there was the time He Who Shall Not Be Named On The Internets (HWSNBNOTI, AKA Hoosen Benoti) spent several months as a Disney musician, dressed in clashing primary colors. That was the year I first bought an annual pass.

In the mid-90s, we moved to Georgia, to be closer to Disney World, or maybe for my job at Georgia Southern University. I forget.

Our son was born, and he quickly became my justification for taking annual trips to Florida. This was a role he was delighted to accept from age 2, when he donned his first mouse ears with “Hoosen Jr” embroidered on the back.

Before 1981, and my second trip to Disneyland (the first, a couple of days earlier, was scrubbed when the park turned out to be closed on Tuesdays, which really used to happen in winter back in the olden days), I had to be content with the humbler amusements of the postwar UK.

As an otherwise amusements-deprived 1970s British kid, I got to go to a proper amusement park precisely once: The Battersea Fun Fair in London was a leftover of 1951’s Festival of Britain, the world’s fair-type celebration of the end of the worst of wartime deprivation. Battersea Fun Fair was even claimed to be Britain's first theme park, with Olde England and Modern Design themes, but I think that a bit of a stretch.

Regardless, Battersea Fun Fair closed in 1974, before I had a chance to return. It never recovered from a terrible accident, not long after my visit, when five children were killed on the Big Dipper, the signature roller coaster.

There’s a reason, apart from my fear of heights, that I don’t go on non-Disney rollercoasters.

So my childhood amusement park experience was mostly at the dodgy temporary fun fairs (carnivals) that came to my town every year, complete with the rides that always made my Dad shake his head when he inspected the engineering, the hot dogs we knew to avoid, and the clouds of candy floss (cotton candy) on sticks that always ended as chunks of pink sugar sticking to our already exhausted British teeth.

The rides, games, and mysterious caravans (home trailers) for the annual fair in our town always set up in the field next to my school. One year, my friends and I snuck over to have a closer look at the closed attractions. This adventure ended before we even got there, with the sound of barking. My friends laughed their heads off as I was chased all the way back to the school grounds with a Jack Russell nipping at my heels, a very effective security guard, and one that unlike, say, a Rottweiler or pit bull, left me unmauled to tell the tale.

Much as I admire and adore the relatively sophisticated delights of Disney, I still enjoy those tatty and tawdry British fun fairs.

It's not just nostalgia, either. Pre-COVID still found me visiting the wonderfully British Adventure Island in England's slightly tatty seaside resort of Southend, along with Hoosen Jr and my nephew. I never was a coaster fan, but a dark ride at Southend with incomprehensible theming that looks like it started with the designer being under the influence? That works for me.

And I still love throwing away my money on slot machines at the British seaside, like those games where you keep feeding in coins in hopes that you will overload the moving shelf, and be rewarded with a clattering cascade of small change.

Doubtless, my enjoyment of Vegas likely began as a tot with me standing on a box and feeding coins into one-armed bandits in British seaside resorts. It was Chuck E. Cheese played with real money.

About now, I can just see some of my American readers anxiously reviewing my credentials. Didn’t she say she was an academic historian? Isn't this supposed to be about history?

Yup. Look, there's no rule that says historians have to be stuffy. Of my two graduate advisers, both august scholars, one was a keen poker and craps player, and the other kept a photo of the Addams family on his desk.

Indeed, while pretentious ninnydom is rife in academe, I'll let you into a secret:

Those professor types who snottily swan around with their noses in the air, sometimes in bow ties (or, these days, conspicuous tattoos of esoteric subjects) are most typically petty people behind performative curtains.

And in any case, it's too late for me to become an up-myself person, given what I've been doing with my PhD for the past decade. Plus that sort of pretentious nonsense is generally harder for those of us who hail from the Land of Self-Deprecating Humor.

Thus endeth today's first lesson, which (in the manner of modern pedagogy) I shall now needlessly explain: Don't judge an academic by appearances or attitude.

As my laughter-loving yet Cambridge-educated favorite British teacher once put it after sternly lecturing me, “Do I make myself clear?”

Let’s have some fun at Coney Island, shall we?

“My Wife Went to Coney Island, and All I Got Was This Postcard”

Until I found it in storage yesterday, I didn’t even know I owned this luxury, concertina postcard of Coney Island, NY, which at some point, I guess, I paid ten bucks for.

I also have no idea why, in 1919, Mrs. George F. Harcus went to Coney Island, New York, without Mr. George F. Harcus, and why she sent her husband the postcard in care of Mrs. T.H. Galloway, in Brevard, North Carolina.

There’s no message anywhere on the card (although there’s plenty of room for one). Whether this mailing was simply a friendly and fond greeting, or mailed with malice aforethought, we will never know.

But there has to be a story here.

Maybe the Harcuses lived in Coney Island, and Mr. Harcus was in North Carolina on business, or visiting relatives?

Maybe there had been an affair, and Mrs. Harcus took off for Coney Island, sending an obscene gesture to her husband and his floozy in the shape of this postcard? But that’s likely my imagination running away with me. More likely, Mrs. Harcus was on a girls’ day trip with her sister from, say, New Jersey.

UPDATE: Nope, got it wrong! Just noticed the postcard is addressed to George Harcus, Jr. ! So maybe George, Jr got left with Granny while the rents went to Coney Island. Well, the simplest explanation is usually the best. Sigh.

The name alone, Harcus, is interesting, It took me awhile to decipher. I was fascinated to learn that it’s a Scottish name, originally spelled Harcarse, so I can see why it got changed, since “arse” as part of a name is guaranteed snickers. “Carse” is a familiar term in the part of Scotland I’m from, and apparently means a low fertile ridge near a river. That totally works for the Carse of Gowrie, along which I drive most years.

But, yes, we see it and also think “arse”. Indeed, I never got to drive by Dundee’s Invercarse Hotel on innumerable family visits without Hoosen and, under his malign influence, Hoosen, Jr, making infantile jokes about it.

So that’s all the light I have to throw on sender and recipient. It’s not much.

Farewell, then, to the Karcuses and the Galloways. Let’s have a look at the much better-documented Coney Island!

The Disney Ancestor That Walt Didn’t Want to Talk About

Legendarily, Walt Disney was watching his daughters on the Griffith Park carousel (roundabout) in Los Angeles in the 1930s when he had the idea for Mickey Mouse Park, or, as it became known before opening in 1955, Disneyland.

Families, Walt argued, would enjoy a place to have lots of fun without the seamier, tawdrier side of amusement parks. This helps explain Disneyland’s strict control of its staff (cast members) and guests. Do not mess with the Mouse.

A desire to exclude undesirables also explains the steep pricing, even though it was much more affordable in the Fifties: An admission charge of some kind was helpful in keeping out the riff-raff.

On Disneyland's opening day, it cost adults $1 and kids 50 cents just to get in, with rides extra, which is kind of like where things are currently headed back to at Disney, only with much larger sums involved that aren’t entirely explained by inflation.

In the process, Disney came up with what’s reputed to be the first theme park, an amusement park that doesn’t just offer thrills and fried snacks, but also food for the imagination, and especially for kids. If anything, this emphasis on kids was Walt’s most important innovation. Theming was, really, already a bit of a thing, as the postcard will show us.

Coney Island’s amusement parks in New York, and others of their ilk around the nation, were what Walt was reacting against. Amusement parks had typically been aimed more at adults, even though, of course, kids went to them, too.

And yet, as it happens, and as we will see, Coney’s parks (the main ones being Luna Park, Steeplechase Park, and Dreamland) also had a lot in common with Disney Parks, starting with an admission charge.

You could go to Coney Island, walk the streets like Surf Avenue, and sample the often tawdry delights of the Bowery area (where dancing, gambling, burlesque and prostitution were on offer), all of which kind of reminds me of bits of Non-Disney Orlando today.

But you had to pay to get into the parks.

1919 Coney Island Street scene with electric wires
Surf Avenue, where all sorts of fun and naughtiness took place in the area called the Bowery, with its bars, dance halls, gambling places, and amusements. What happened in the Bowery stayed in the Bowery. Admission (to the street, anyway) was free, so this was a less controlled environment than Coney’s amusement parks. Image: Public domain, in possession of author.

Admission to a Coney Island park in 1919 was about 25 cents per person, which doesn’t sound like much. The relative value of prices is, despite all the tables issued by economic historians, impossible to measure accurately. But 25 cents was about the price of a loaf of bread, and also a typical wage for 30 minutes work by the baker. In other words, while this wasn’t a small sum, and excluded the very poor, a lot of people could afford it.

That was important, because Coney Island Parks were aimed at working-class people: Cheap amusements for the masses, using modern technology (including electricity) plus modern street cars to deliver the audience to the fun.

Yes, Brits, Coney Island is America's answer to Blackpool (or vice-versa, Americans). A place of cheap amusement for the urban masses, ideally located by the seaside. And, although I don’t know, I’m betting that’s one reason why both Disneyland and Disney World are inland: Far from the beach, which draws everyone, including those undesirable people who can’t afford park admission.

The Coney Island parks of a century and more ago were aiming, not entirely unlike Disney later, for the slightly more respectable masses. They didn’t mind slightly risque rides (like the one that threw men and women together on a giant turning wheel, as a mild example), but no overt smut, thanks. Well, except for the machine that blew women's skirts over their heads, but we'll tell that story some other time.

Theming? Not New.

Tell me what this is, if not theming?

This is Luna Park’s Dragon’s Gorge, and it’s a themed indoor coaster. Here’s what the Brooklyn Museum site has to say about it:

The Dragon’s Gorge was an enclosed roller coaster, a scenic railroad that brought the passenger on a fantastic trip from the bottom of the sea, through a waterfall, to the North Pole, Africa, the Grand Canyon, and even into Hades, the kingdom of death, over the river Styx. Two dragons framed the entrance, their eyes glowing from globes of green electric light.

Take that, Disney! Nothing corporate or predictable or formulaic about Dragon’s Lair! You start at the bottom of the sea, cruise by the Grand Canyon, and end up in Hell! I even detect a hellacious theme there! The only thing Disney has that comes close is Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, in which poor old Toad almost ends in Hell, which is pretty darn risque for Disney.

The Coney parks themselves had a sort of general theming. Built in 1903, Luna Park’s architecture, like that of Steeplechase Park (1897) and Dreamland (1904), reflects the influence of the Columbian Exposition, a massive and fantastically successful World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893. The Columbian Exposition’s ancestor, in turn, was London’s Great Exhibition in 1851, the first world’s fair, which I wrote about recently. See? It all connects! That’s a history thing, and today’s second lesson! Also non-boring! Here’s what I had to say about the Great Exhibition:

Non-Boring History
The Crystal Palace & The House on the Rock
An eccentric house that's now a tourist attraction. That was the subject I planned to write about for you. That was it. If……
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And Yes, The Thrill Rides at Coney Were THRILLING.

Eat my dust, Splash Mountain! Here’s Shooting the Chutes at Coney Island. But to really get the effect, you have to watch this awesome two-minute film from 1903. And women are riding this thing in big-ass Edwardian hats! Watch to the end and be rewarded by the staff member coming down the ride on a bike. The Library of Congress (who posted this) says he’s on a single ski, but, no, that’s a bike.

How did this get made? If you were American Mutoscope and Biograph, a newly-formed film company in 1903, you were like a YouTuber today: Making money and gaining followers with footage of places they wanted to go, in cheaply-made short films.

The first and best ride at Coney Island had to be the Steeplechase, a themed ride that was the signature attraction of Steeplechase Park. Without joy-killing modern safety standards, this carousel/rollercoaster mash-up of a fake horse race was incredibly fun for the stout of heart! Here’s the shot from my postcard:

Men and women riding carousel horses up rails
Heading up the hill of the Steeplechase ride at Steeplechase Park, Coney Island, likely around 1912. Safety harnesses? Pah! Image: Public Domain, in possession of author.

And here it is in action, in this short film from around the turn of the last century. Note, again, the hats. These women were not shrinking violets.

And So Much More!

While Coney Island’s parks, like Disney parks, lacked the racier adult attractions of their neighborhood, there was much more to do than ride rides.

If you want to enjoy a pool at Disney today, for example, you have to stay at your hotel, or go to a separate park (like my favorite, Typhoon Lagoon, closed at time of writing) In 1903, Steeplechase Park had you covered, because, right in the park, owner George C. Tilyou had built what he claimed was the World’s Largest Pool (couldn’t look up that claim easily in 1919), filled with ocean water. Maybe our postcard sender, Mrs. Harcus, took a dip.

Here’s a great close-up of the pool from another postcard I own:

Don’t mock the modest bathing suits (which are making a bit of a comeback with the burkini), lest you be mocked for your bathing apparel by your great-grandchildren. Instead, use two fingers to blow up this shot on your screen, and look at their faces. Check out the ocean water gushing from the building at back right, and the awesome shooting water from the right. How cool is that?

Everything Changes

There are 18 different shots on my concertina postcard, and I haven’t space to show you them all, much less get into what happened to all the Coney Parks. It’s a story of changing tastes, especially after World War II, when the growth of middle-class America turned more and more people away from the vulgarity of East Coast-amusements, and toward Disney’s West Coast, suburban, and sanitized vision of “vulgar” popular entertainments. It’s about the growing impoverishment of the inner city that followed middle-class flight, which made Coney Island a dodgy neighborhood for decades.

And it’s probably got something to do with the quest for novelty and spectacle: People hate change in amusement parks, but, as Disney knows, if it doesn’t happen, it’s hard to keep the punters, er, guests returning year after year. So Florida’s Mr. Toad is no more, but, look! We get Star Wars Land.

Steeplechase closed in 1964. It was soon bought by a local realtor by the name of Fred Trump, who made quite a big to-do about replacing it with luxury housing (which never happened, long story) Trump held a big event where people were sold bricks to smash the windows of the one of the Park’s buildings, to start off its demolition. There were proposals, and scrapped plans, and sales, and resales, and the story somehow involved Rudy Giuliani at one point, because of course it did.

Demolition was a sad end to an iconic park. But that, as they say, is life.

You can still ride the Carousel, which was brought back to Coney Island in 2013, and you can also see the tower that was the Parachute Jump, the only remaining structure at Steeplechase Park. And there is an amusement park at Coney Island today called Luna Park, but it’s no relation to the original.

Still. Coney Island still lives in the memory of my postcard, bearing the handwriting of the long-dead Mrs. George Harcus. I hope she enjoyed herself, and didn’t lose her hat.

Nonnies (subscribers), what do you think?

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Here’s where I make a major confession: I have never really been to New York City, except for a bus journey from JFK to Long Island on my very first day in America. I got closest to Manhattan when I was touring colleges with Hoosen, Jr, and on our way from Vassar to the New Jersey Turnpike, we took what was possibly the most frightening driving adventure of my life. While negotiating a place for us among honking trucks, I did catch a glimpse of that famous skyline.

But if YOU are in or plan to be in New York, here you go:

The Coney Island Museum (open seasonally, i.e. not right now) Its mascot is currently a masked “Tillie” borrowed from Steeplechase Park, and named for founder George Tilyou. I sincerely hope he looked nothing like Tillie, who was terrifying.

Grotesquely grinning man's face with too many teeth.
Tillie AKA the “Funny Face” symbol of Steeplechase Park, and still today an icon of Coney Island. Also terrifying, and a symbol of how the past is a foreign country. Image: Public Domain Wikipedia

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