As I’ve written here before, it seems that every generation believes it invented sex. Given the long history of the human race, this idea is physically impossible, of course, but it is not wrong in spirit. Each individual does indeed “invent” sexual experience for herself with every passing day. Yet one of the fascinating surprises of my research into early twentieth-century erotic culture is that many aspects of what we consider “modern” sexuality—“respectable” girls pursuing and enjoying sex, finding boyfriends at dances or other amusement places, and generally rebelling against wait-until-the-wedding values—were flourishing all the way back in 1910.
Sexual freedom was especially abundant in one famous locale at the bottom edge of Brooklyn: Coney Island. I had the pleasure of visiting Coney Island for the first time earlier this month, and while its glitter is somewhat diminished from its heyday in the early 1900s, the spirit of carnival and sensual liberation lives on.
The desolate sands of Coney Island were first developed into a high-class hotel resort in the mid-nineteenth century. With the advent of cheap trolley, steamboat and rail service, Coney soon became the playground of the people, an affordable way for working families to escape the heat of the city. In the early twentieth century, the enclosed amusement park was born at Coney. Steeplechase Park, Luna Park and Dreamland lured millions of visitors to frolic every summer. Rides included roller coasters (also known as “scenic railways”), tunnels of love, trips to the moon or exotic terrestrial lands, and reenactments of fires and floods.
But the real attraction of Coney Island was sex. Sea bathing only became popular in the late nineteenth century. Bathing suits covered far more flesh back then than they do today, but they were quite skimpy by the standards of 1900 dress. Shedding corsets and waistcoats led to untrammeled fun. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 notes that bathers were acting “precisely as if the thing to do in the water was to behave exactly contrary to the manner of behaving anywhere else.” (p. 1136)
Even more insidious to morals were the mechanical rides. From 1897 to 1964, Steeplechase Park’s headliner ride--a mechanical horse race that allowed for two riders to share the saddle, one behind the other--provided a well-known opportunity for couples to get closer than they ever dared in the parlor of a Sunday. Roller coasters allowed young women to clutch their male escorts tight and scream. Tunnels of love such as the Old Mill allowed couples to spoon and cuddle without a chaperon. “Three times through the Old Mill was considered equivalent to the engagement ring, and sometimes once even did the trick,” write Oliver Pilat and Jo Ranson in Sodom by the Sea: An Affectionate History of Coney Island. An old Coney Island joke runs thus:
“You shouldn’t have done it Sam,” Sarah said after the Old Mill ride.
“But I didn’t do anything, Sarah!”
“Not a thing, Sarah.”
“Well, somebody did!” (Sodom by the Sea, p. 217)
Sweethearts often went to Coney together to dance and dine, have their photos taken and their fortunes told, but the resort was also known as a place to meet a stranger of the opposite sex for a day of fun. Young working-class women could enjoy all of Coney’s pleasures for the price of trolley fare, as single young men were on the lookout for a pretty girl to treat with the promise of at least a kiss or two. Common wisdom has it that the clever girls managed to board the train home without surrendering any sexual repayment, but one wonders if the girls weren’t caught up in the anything-goes spirit of the place as well. Rent-by-the-hour hotels were certainly a mainstay of local business. (For more on the Coney Island sex excursion, see Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York 1880-1920).
Today Coney Island still offers cool breezes on a hot summer day, as I can well attest. You can still ride Deno’s Wonder Wheel and dare yourself to try the roller coasters and spook houses. You can still eat a hot dog from Nathan’s in its centennial year and get your fortune told for a quarter from a waxwork grandma. She told me to expect a letter soon and refuse the next opportunity to travel because my “best interest lies in staying at home.” Grandmother also foresaw a great financial change in my status in the near future and suggested I drop in another coin to learn more.
Most marvelous of all, however, was the thought that people have been seeking sensual pleasure at Coney for over a century in the very same ways we do today. To all the couples who got engaged in the Old Mill and kissed under the boardwalk and dared to cuddle on the Steeplechase horses—you were the present and future of Eros in America.
Long live the Coney Island of the mind!
Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman and a collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor