What a Gilded Age servant girl had to say about Coney Island

Her name was Agnes. As a teenager in Germany at the turn of the century she sought more money and opportunity. So she decided to buy a ticket for $55 with her wages as a milliner’s apprentice and sailed from Antwerp to New York City, where three of her siblings had already settled.

After a week of living in a flat on West 34th Street with her sister, she found a job again with a milliner. Her pay came to $4 per week, which she was satisfied with, but she wanted something different. “I wanted more pleasure,” she said in the 1906 book, The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans, which includes her story.

So she went “into the service,” as she put it: she became one of thousands of young women, often new immigrants, who worked as live-in servant girls for the upper middle class and rich in the Gilded Age.

Agnes became a nurse governess, taking care of the children of various employers. While the life of a servant girl could be harsh and lonely, Agnes reported that she was generally treated well; usually she would be one of several servants in the household. “The duties are light; I have two afternoons a week to myself and practically all the clothing I need to wear,” she said of her latest situation in a family of three young kids. “My salary is $25 a month.”

Her wealthy employers brought her along on summer trips to Newport and Long Island. But Agnes preferred Coney Island: the rides, the freedom, and most of all the dancing. Coney Island in the early 1900s was packed with dance halls that attracted poor and working-class women like herself. These shop girls, factory girls, and servant girls could get to Coney by train or boat for a day excursion and a break from the tedium of working for a living.

“I like New York,” she said. “I have a great many friends in New York and I enjoy my outings with them. We go to South Beach or North Beach or Glen Island or Rockaway or Coney Island. If we go on a boat we dance all the way there and all the way back, and we dance nearly all the time we are there.”

“I like Coney Island best of all. It is a wonderful and beautiful place. I took a German friend, a girl who had just come out, down there last week, and when we had been on the razzle-dazzle, the chute and the loop-de-loop, and down in the coal mine and all over the Bowery, and up in the tower and everywhere else, I asked her how she liked it.

Stauch’s dance hall on the Bowery at Coney Island

“She said: ‘Ach, it is just like what I see when I dream of heaven.'”

Agnes generally liked her employers. But she wished she could teach them a thing or two about having fun. “Yet I have heard some of the high people with whom I have been living say that Coney Island is not tony. The trouble is that these high people don’t know how to dance. I have to laugh when I see them at their balls and parties. If only I could get out on the floor and show them how—they would be astonished.”

[Top image: MCNY x2011.34.2113; second image: MCNY x2011.34.2033; third image: Bain Collection/LOC; fourth image: eBay]

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12 Responses to “What a Gilded Age servant girl had to say about Coney Island”

  1. fmlondon Says:

    How nice that she wanted her employers to have fun!

  2. beth Says:

    how great to hear her words and perspective

  3. burkemblog Says:

    I would love to know what happened to her–she sounds like a fascinating person.

  4. S.S. Says:

    I actually clicked the link for the 1906 book, The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans,” I just read it all this morning, couldn’t stop. Incredible.
    What an amazing collection of stories told from the mouths of those who lived it.
    Much better than the bios of “distinguished” persons that so many people devour.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’m glad you took a look at the rest of the book. It’s a text I came across years ago, and I keep going back to it. Each story illuminates the life of a so-called “undistinguished” person who I hope to shed light on in future posts.

  5. VirginiaLB Says:

    A very interesting post. And thank you for the link to that book. I have read a few of the stories and will certainly read them all. One I read was by the Lithuanian man. It was especially meaningful considering the situation in Ukraine right now. Things seem to have turned out very well for this man.
    But last year I re-read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, a novel about another Lithuanian man who immigrated to Chicago and its stockyards. A very different outcome and deeply disturbing. A powerful book by one of the most influential muckrakers and well worth reading.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’m glad you reminded me of The Jungle, which I imagine has been pushed off required reading lists in high schools and colleges but deserves recognition.

  6. countrypaul Says:

    Agnes’ story reminds me of an old Rasta I met in Jamaica many years ago, who lived in a hut in the mountains but was beatifically happy. “I may not have money,” he said, “but I am rich because I know how to live with the land.” Similarly, Agnes was “rich” because she knew how to live with the city. I’m also reminded of a great old country song: “The wealthiest person is a pauper at times / compared to the man with a satisfied mind” (#1 for Porter Wagoner,1953). Yes, women, too.

  7. countrypaul Says:

    I must add that the Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans is fascinating! I have just read the first Lithuanian man’s tale so far, but there is definitely more to come. Thank you for the enlightening window into late 19th-early 20th century America.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’m glad everyone is enjoying not just this short excerpt from Agnes’ story but the rest of the Undistinguished Americans book. I plan to excerpt a few other stories there and provide more context.

  8. AG Says:

    Agnes sounds like an utter delight (and what do you bet she was a fun friend with good fashion-on-a-dime sense?!). We all need more Agneses in our lives!

  9. velovixen Says:

    Many immigrants came to the US–and people from other parts of the nation to New York–for freedom. This post shows that “freedom” has all sorts of meanings!

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