Posts Tagged ‘Coney Island Gilded Age’

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

June 13, 2022

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]

What New Yorkers wore to Coney Island in 1879

August 3, 2020

“Beach Scene,” by Samuel S. Carr, is your portal into what people looked like when they visited a pristine, boardwalk-free Coney Island in 1879.

It won’t be long before placid beach scenes like this are replaced by throngs of city residents looking for fun and adventure, and Sodom by the Sea is born.