It’s hard to believe this unspoiled beach is Coney Island in the 1870s

Before the Cyclone, before Nathan’s, before the boardwalk, sideshows, amusement parks, bathhouses, mass numbers of beachgoers wading into the surf, Coney Island was an actual island where settlers in the English colony at Gravesend let their animals graze, according to Brooklyn magazine.

Coney’s transformation into the world’s most famous beach resort began in the first half of the 19th century, with the arrival of Coney Island House.

But things really ramped up once the railroads arrived in the 1860s, and then when Ocean Parkway was completed in the 1870s, states by Jeffrey Stanton.

By the end of the 1870s, the big hotels came in, and pretty soon, thousands of New Yorkers every summer headed out by rail, road, or steamboat to what was dubbed the People’s Playground and Sodom by the Sea. After the turn of the century, Coney became even more popular.

Its era as a “spit of sand” that had been “lonely with rabbits” was long gone. But perhaps these 1870s beach photos, from the collection of the Brooklyn Public Library by George Bradford Brainerd, were taken at a pivotal moment in time.

That moment would have been after Coney Island had become a destination but before the great hotels ushered in the era of bathing pavilions and amusement parks, of cheap food and curiosities like disaster spectacles, exotic animals, and infant incubators.

[Photos: Brooklyn Public Library]

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11 Responses to “It’s hard to believe this unspoiled beach is Coney Island in the 1870s”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    Recommended: the link to the infant incubators. I had no idea this even existed; great story about the upside of a downside. Thank you for the amazing research.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Isn’t it crazy? But yes, babies in incubators on display for the masses at Coney Island.

      • Bill Wolfe Says:

        In the first season of Boardwalk Empire, one of the stores on the Atlantic City boardwalk was showing incubators in its storefront window, complete (as I recall) with babies inside them.

  2. Berlin Companion Says:

    Thanks to your post I’ve learnt about the presence of the incubators at the Berlin 1896 exposition in Treptower Park. Thank you for the inspiration and warm greetings from Berlin!

  3. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    Read a novel about a year ago just about babies, was pretty good

  4. Edward Says:

    Being on the sand in suit and tie looks sooo uncomfortable!

  5. jms Says:

    This was likely my first exposure to Coney Island, from which I concluded it was a very eerie place. These references to “disaster spectacles, exotic animals, and infant incubators” don’t necessary change my opinion!

  6. Mark Says:

    And it even had a pier, wow!

  7. Tom B Says:

    We took the F train to Coney Island one day. It was a nice day. A long walk from the terminal to the beach. Not very many people that day. Had the obligatory hot dog. Not too many attractions open. It was a fairly clean place.

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