Coney Island

Coney Island Park Food
Coney Island Park Food
People enjoying the beach in Coney Island
People enjoying the beach in Coney Island

As you capture everything around you, your senses are overwhelmed with delight: the smell of grilled hotdogs, the sound of performers urging people to watch “never before seen” acts, the sight of young men and women embracing a playful time on the beach. This is Coney Island in 1915. During the turn of the twentieth century, American culture was starting to become less proper and rigid and more outgoing and carefree. Coney Island, located on the lower tip of the borough of Brooklyn, New York, really set the stage for this new mindset of American culture. For the first time, males and females were seen cozying up in public, which was a dramatic change from having proper arrangements of meeting someone from the opposite sex with parental supervision as in the past. Additionally, Coney Island was seen as a place that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds could enjoy, when prior to that, entertainment was strictly segregated by class status. Overall, Coney Island represented a new wave of entertainment, thought, and possibilities that never before seemed possible.

During the time of European settlement, the Dutch owned the part of Brooklyn that consists of Coney Island, but they chose not to establish development there. Instead, they granted the land to English colonists, who established the town of Gravesend on the island. Although there is some uncertainty about how the area as a whole got its name Coney Island, some speculation suggests the Dutch called the land “Coney Eylant” because it was the “island raided by coneys, or rabbits, that lived there”.[1] When the English took over New Netherland, Coney Island was simply used for animal grazing purposes, but the area was uninhabited for the next 150 years.[2] It was not until the 19th century when people started to make use out of desolated Coney Island. In the 18th century, public bathing was slowly starting to emerge among the wealthy, so the upper class headed over to Gravesend’s Beach. The general public did not come down to the beaches until the 19th century, in which an inn was established on Coney Island by the Gravesend Town Supervisor to accommodate guests. Shortly after, “a second hotel was erected on the island, and a regular stagecoach service from the Brooklyn mainland was instituted. In addition, a daily ferry service to the island was initiated in 1844”.[3] This marked the beginning of Coney Island’s popularity and accessibility, which only continued to grow from there.

All throughout the following decades in the 19th century, Coney Island became more and more developed. However, it was really after the American Civil War in 1865, when Coney Island truly began to thrive. During this time, many hotels and restaurants started to make their way along the beach, as well as rental shops were bathing “costumes” could be accessed.[4] In 1868, only three years after the bloodiest war on American soil that shook the country, Coney Island was flourishing so well that “one guidebook listed Coney Island as the best beach on the Atlantic coast. By 1873, it was attracting 25,000 to 30,000 visitors on weekends”.[5] In a photograph taken a few decades later during 1900, one can observe how popular the beaches continued to be because of the many people sitting on the sand. In the same photo, it seems that modest clothing was still being worn, as the mother in the center is sitting on the sand in a full dress and the children are all in closed shoes.[6] In additional to the famous Coney Island Beach, the beginning of entertainment began to emerge here. The first roller coaster in the United States was open to the public in in Coney Island which was named Switchback Gravity Railway by LaMarcus Thompson. This ride, which does not seem like a roller coaster at all in today’s standards, was a never before seen form of enjoyment during the 19th century. Passengers had to climb a fifty-foot-high platform that brought them to a train which rode on a track at the speed of six miles per hour. It then came to a stop at the other end of the track in which riders were free to hop back on to another train to go back in the direction they came from. This roller coaster, which seemed more like a leisurely train ride, inspired other amusement rides to be created on the island. [7]Additionally, Coney Island was also the first amusement park in the country to have a mechanical conveyer belt roller coaster that carried the cars to the top of the ride.[8] Moreover, the beginning of carousals, exotic performers, circuses, aquariums, among other new forms of entertainment, were flourishing the area.

Not only was the culture of entertainment changing with Coney Island, but also the culture of greater New York. During the 19th century, poor immigrant workers were working long hours for six days a week in terrible conditions with the result of very little pay. During the 1880s, a movement occurred to give workers “half-holiday” on Saturdays, meaning they would have more leisure time for themselves. Working immigrant girls in particular never before hand the extra leisure time, nor extra money, to go out and enjoy themselves. However with this new movement, the working class as a whole were able to have access to inexpensive forms of transportation to get down to Coney Island, as well as find cheap forms of entertainment, such as food and rides for five cents apiece. Ultimately, Coney Island provided an escape from the miserable reality that many people suffered all week long, as well as display that all people of all social classes are entitled to have a good time.

In 1895, the first enclosed amusement park was opened in Coney Island which marked the true beginning of the spectacular amusement parks with bright lights, beautiful archways, and so much more. This first park by Paul Boyton was called Sea Lion Park, which was located on West Twelfth Street and Neptune Avenue. This was the first park in which “customers paid admission to enter the enclosure and ride the Shoot-the-Chutes and the Flip-Flap roller coaster, watch circus performers, and view trained sea lions in an artificial lagoon”.[9] While Sea Lion Park only lasted seven years until 1902, it inspired a wave of new designers to open up their envisioned dream parks. Only two years after Sea Lion Park opened in 1895, in 1897, George C. Tilyou was motivated to open his own park. This park came to be known as Steeplechase Park, because the “park’s centerpiece was a British mechanical horse race called the Grand National Steeplechase Race Course and Tilyou surrounded the racetrack with elaborate new amusements and whimsical structures”[10]. In addition to the mechanical horse ride, Steeplechase also offered visitors a boat ride across the Grand Canals of Venice, a Ferris wheel, formal gardens, and the largest ballroom in all of New York. Half of the park was destroyed by a fire in 1907, but Tilyou did not let that stop his dream of creating “the most enchanting and magnetic fun-making resort in the world”[11]. Instead, he came back stronger than ever in the following year. “He built a two acre enclosed weatherproof steel-and-glass pavilion as the centerpiece, enabling the park to remain open on rainy days”[12]. Although Tilyou’s first vision of Steeplechase Park was a family fun environment with no bars, this new park in 1908 involved many activities intermingling men and women. The Barrel of Fun tossed people on top of each other when the first entered the park, and the Blow-Hole Theater blew a gust of air up women’s skirts and dresses while men stood by and watched. This new, “Funny Place” park’s rides mostly consisted of physical human interaction. Steeplechase Park remained open until 1964, making it the longest existing amusement park on Coney Island.

Two showmen who worked on amusement rides in Steeplechase Park, Frederick Thompson and Elmer “Skip” Dundy, decided to occupy the land leased by Boyton after Sea Lion Park came to an end in 1902. This was the perfect opportunity for these men to move on to a project of their own after the disagreed with Tilyou over attraction fees. This new park came to be known as the iconic Luna Park. “As about 45,000 men, women, and children streamed toward Luna Park on opening night in May 1903, according to one reporter, they stopped. ‘rubbed their eyes, and stood in wonder and pinched themselves”[13]. Luna Park was most famous for its beautifully lit architecture, and it gained the name “Electric Eden” as the result of every structure having light bulbs that glowed at night: “an enchanted, story book land of trellises, columns, domes, minarets, lagoons, lofty aerial flights, and everywhere was life”.[14] Visitors could expect to see elephants and camels roaming around, a circus, and the previous Shoot-the-Chutes lagoon from Sea Lion’s Park with a new added marvelous tower.[15] Additionally, because Luna Park had people coming in by the thousands, the park food had to keep up with the crowds. In a photograph from 1935, one can see multiple griddles filled with hot dogs and a full row of customers waiting on the other side.[16] This is the same sight one would think of when imagining amusement parks and boardwalks today. Luna Park continued to be a sought after place for amusement, wonder and excitement for the first third of the 20th century. Sadly though, in the 1940s, a series of fires destroyed the park. Today, high rise buildings sit on the once “heart of Coney Island”

In addition to Steeplechase and Luna Park, Dreamland Park was also an iconic area of amusement during the turn of the 20th century, however it did not reach the same level of success as the real estate Senator William Reynolds had hoped. “While Luna was colorful and Steeplechase was silly, Dreamland was refined, orderly, and symmetrical with every classical building painted pristine white”.[17] Visitors could expect to see a Shoot-the-Chutes ride just like the other parks, as well as boat ride called Hell Gate. The focal point of the park was the 375-foot-tall Beacon Tower that was the tallest structure on all of Coney Island. However, Dreamland Park was the only corporate amusement park, developed by politicians and businesspeople, and therefore suffered in the long term success as a result. The park went bankrupt in 1910, and although new management tried to revamp the space with bright colors, sadly in 1911, it was destroyed by a fire which could be seen from Manhattan and was never rebuilt.

Over the years from the as early as the 18th century, the area of Coney Island was seen as a place for enjoyment as an escape from the harsh daily lives of the constant flow of immigrants coming into New York to try to build a better life. At first the area was just utilized for its beach but over the years Coney Island became more and more well-known, and had its peak of success during the turn of the 20th century. Thousands of people enjoyed the beach and parks each weekend during Coney Island’s golden years up until about half of the 20th century, and as many as “250,000 people visited the park on opening day”.[18] Steeplechase, Luna, and Dreamland Park all offered magical wonders for people of every socio-economic class to enjoy. Additionally, during the turn of the 20th century, Coney Island reflected the social changes of America with the interaction among sexes, less rigid social rules, as well as an opportunity to go out and have a good time to escape the difficult work life. For the lasting impact it left on thousands of Americans, it will always be remembered as America’s Playground.

[1] “America’s Playground: The Development of Coney Island,” (Accessed November 11, 2016)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Service, Bain News. “Coney Island.” The Library of Congress. Accessed December 8, 2016.

[7] “America’s Playground: The Development of Coney Island,” (Accessed November 11, 2016)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Charles Densen, Coney Island Lost and Found (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2002), 26

[10] Densen, 27

[11] Densen, 32

[12] Densen, 34

[13] John Kasson, Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century, (New York: Hill & Wang, 1978), 63

[14] Ibid.

[15] Denson, 36

[16] “Coney Island.” The Library of Congress. Accessed December 8, 2016.

[17] Denson 38

[18] “New Coney Dazzles Its Record Multitude”, New York Times, May 15, 1904

  • Dreamland Park

    The last of the three major amusement parks of Coney Island during the 20th century, Dreamland Park was known as the refined and orderly park. With every structure being pristine white, this business-like amusement park was indeed beautiful, but only lasted from 1904 to 1911 because it did not evoke the same sense of fun entertainment as much as Steeplechase or Luna Park did.

  • Luna Park

    Luna Park, located between West 12th Ave and Surf Ave, was a vibrant amusement park from 1903 until the 1940s. Known as "Electric Eden" because every structure was dazzled with lights, visitors were often see standing in wonder, taking in all of the magic around them.

  • Steeplechase Park

    Known as the "Funny Place" park, Steeplechase Park was an amusement park in Coney Island designed by George C. Tilyou. The first version of the park was opened in 1897, but a fire destroyed more than half of it in 1907. However, Tilyou rebuilt this iconic amusement center, and the new Steeplechase continued to operate until 1964.

Annotated Bibliography

Primary Sources:

  • “NEW CONEY DAZZLES ITS RECORD MULTITUDE.”New York Times (1857-1922),

New York, N.Y.,

This source will be a good resource for my guidebook entry because it is the front page article of the New York Times from 1904 of Dreamland Park’s opening day on Coney Island. This was a special historical moment for the people of New York, and the excitement of the first day is written is this article, from multitude of people to all the exotic animals and exhibits the park will showcase for entertainment.

  • Coney Island. [New York, N.Y.?: Publisher not identified, 1935] Image. Retrieved from

the Library of Congress

My second primary source is a photo from 1935 displaying men grilling up hotdogs by the dozens, as well as other amusement park foods. I really like this photo because not only is it showing how busy the food stands were at Coney Island in the early 20th century, but it also shows that the typical park food we think of now date back many decades ago. Therefore, this picture will serve as a nice visual piece in my guidebook entry.

  • Bain News Service, Publisher.Coney Island. [1900] Image. Retrieved from the Library

of Congress

This source is also another photograph, because I truly believe a picture is worth a thousand words. In this photo from 1900, we can see a mother and her babies sitting on the beach and many people in the background. Even though this photo is on Coney Island Beach and not the actual amusement park, it still displays how crowed the area was with people enjoying themselves by the ocean. Therefore, not only was the amusement park and boardwalk very popular, but the beach was as well, even before the opening of Dreamland Park.

Secondary Sources:

  • Denson, Charles.Coney Island: Lost and Found. Berkeley, Calif: Ten Speed Press, 2002.


This book primarily focuses on Coney Island because the author grew up in the neighborhood. Therefore, this source will give me a personalized understanding of how the area came to be. He has included many historical, as well as recent photos, and explores Coney Island from its first inhabitants to the amusement park of his present time.

  • Kasson, John F. Amusing the Million: Coney Island At The Turn Of The Century. p.: New

York: Hill & Wang, 1978., 1978, Seton Hall University. Print.

This book will be a useful feature for my guidebook entry because the author chose to wrote about Coney Island in the sense that it is part of the American experience. Additionally, the author has featured many historical photographs that will serve as a visual aid, not only for me to get a better understanding of Coney Island over the years, but also for my project to display the park’s development throughout different time periods.

  • Parascandola, John. “Coney Island.” The Ultimate History Project. N.p., d. Web. 03 Oct.


This source is a website that is written by history professor, Dr. John Parascandola. On this site, he goes into depth of the early European settlers’ occupation of the area, with first the Dutch and then the British. The historical information will serve as very important facts for the start of the guidebook entry, because one has to understand the historical roots of an area before understanding its thriving time period.