Much has been written about Coney Island, once just a thread of sandy beach supposedly named for its rabbit population (konij is Dutch for rabbit).
By the 1880s, of course, this little outpost had become Sodom by the Sea—a tawdry playground of hotels, pavilions, dime museums, freak shows, amusement parks, exotic animals, and more, all bathed in thousands of colored lights.
The phenomenon that was Coney Island attracted hordes of working class New Yorkers as well as foreign journalists, who wrote articles attempting to explain Coney to curious readers outside New York City.
These articles serve as an illuminating look at the spectacle that rose out of the sand in just a few short post-Civil War decades.
“Coney Island, one of the great resorts for the million, is reached from the foot of 23rd Street in about an hour,” wrote English novelist Mary Duffus Hardy in her account of traveling through the United States in 1881.
“A few years ago it was a mere wide waste of sand, and was bought by a clever speculator for a mere song; it is now worth millions of dollars, and is covered on all sides by a miscellaneous mass of buildings of all descriptions.
“The hotels are crowded, every nook and corner of the island filled to overflowing during the season; the beach is covered with a lively mass of holiday-makers, all bent on enjoying themselves; gay bunting is flaunting and flying everywhere; musicians are hard at work, beating drums, scraping fiddles, and blowing trumpets, as though their very life depended on the noise they are making.
“Altogether, it is a gay, stirring scene. Coney Island is not a place where the fashionable or aristocratic multitude most do congregate; it is a rather fast, jolly, rollicking place, and serves its purpose well, as the health-breathing lungs of a great city. . . .”
In a 1905 issue of The Cosmopolitan, another English writer, Richard Le Gallienne, explained Coney Island this way:
“If you are too superior to have your fortune told by some peasant woman who knows nothing about it, and knows that you know that she doesn’t—don’t go to Coney Island.
“Coney Island exists, and will go on existing, because into all men, gentle and simple, poor and rich—including women—by some mysterious corybantic instinct in their blood, has been born a tragic need of coarse excitement, a craving to be taken in by some illusion however palpable.
“So, following the example of those old nations, whose place she has so vigorously taken, America has builded for herself a Palace of Illusion, and filled it with every species of talented attractive monster, every misbegotten fancy of the frenzied nerves, every fantastic marvel of the moonstruck brain—and she has called it Coney Island.
“Ironic name—a place lonely with rabbits, a spit of sandy beach so near to the simple life of the sea and watched over by the summer night; strange Isle of Monsters, Preposterous Palace of Illusion, gigantic parody of pleasure—Coney Island.”
For more on Coney Island in the late 19th century, and all the other resorts and pleasure gardens where New Yorkers spent their leisure time, read New York City in 3D in the Gilded Age.
[Photos: Top, New-York Historical Society; two through five: MCNY/Byron Collection]