Cheap Amusements


Peiss, Kathy. (1986) . Cheap Amusements. New York: Temple University.

In Cheap Amusements, Kathy Peiss studies the customs, values, public styles, and ritualized interactions expressed in leisure time of the working-class women living in New York. The social experiences of these young women gives different clues to the ways in which these women constructed and gave meaning to their lives between the years of 1880-1920.
The laboring poor?s leisure activity was brief, casual, and non-commercial. Amusement was and had to be cheap. It mostly consisted of walks, visiting friends, and reading the penny press. The people of the Lower East Side entertained with sights of interest and penny pleasures such as organ grinders and buskers, acrobats performed tricks and vendors and soda dispensers competed for customers.
Evidence suggests that families often enjoyed everyday leisure but in reality working class social life was divided by gender. Married women?s leisure tended to be separate from the public domain and was not very different from work, but was linked with domestic duties and family relations. It was during this period that to survive families had to send their sons and daughters into the labor force to supplement the earnings of the father, while the mother cooked, cleaned, cared for the children and manufactured goods in the home. The typical wage-earning woman of 1900 was young and single.
The young single working women experienced time and labor similar to men?s rather than married women?s. They needed to, as Peiss puts, "carve a sphere of pleasure", out of daily life in the harsh conditions of the shop floor and the tenement. These young women found pleasure in dance halls, amusement parks, and movie theaters. The young women were not content with recreation at home so they went for "organized entertainment". Dressing up nice, strolling the streets and staying late at amusement parks became an important cultural style for many working women.
Dancing was the greatest passion of all for the single working woman. This is where they played out their cultural style. This is also where it became easy for young men and women to interact. The dance craze gave way to dance halls, which could now be rented for large meetings, weddings, dances and other gatherings. What mattered in the dance hall was popularity, dancing ability, fashionable clothes and male attention. Still women had a hard time getting past reality. Their work and family life undercut their social freedom.
Excursions also played a big part in women?s leisure time. Women could now afford to use trolleys and they used these to socialize with men. Women also started travelling to beach resorts on their own. Coney Island became a major place go for entertainment. Coney Island had amusement parks, dance halls, beaches, and the boardwalk, this was a place for all to go.
Cheap amusements became a real problem especially for the women of the late nineteenth century. The amusements were blamed for debasing womanly virtues, segregating youth from family and fostering a dangerously expressive culture. Out of these cheap amusements came a "New Woman". A woman who "relished personal autonomy and activity in the public arena and challenged the boundaries of domesticity and female self-sacrifice."