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First Resorts: Pursuing Pleasure at Saratoga…

First Resorts: Pursuing Pleasure at Saratoga Springs, Newport, and Coney…

by Jon Sterngass

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Terrifically informative and interesting. Fantastic details about the early years of Coney Island, Newport RI, and Saratoga Springs. For a volume that covers so much ground and investigates the socioeconomic impact of the three locales it is VERY readable. ( )
  vasquirrel | Jul 6, 2011 |
Based on Sterngass’s dissertation, "Cities of Play: Saratoga Springs, Newport, and Coney Island in the Nineteenth Century" (City University of New York, 1998), First Resorts examines the growth, development, decline, and transformation of three well-known east coast American resorts through a century of change. Sterngass explores the similarities among the resorts’ beginnings and chronicles how they diverged into three vastly different types of vacation destinations and gave birth to commercial leisure in the United States—forerunners to Orlando, Aspen, and Las Vegas.
Sterngass treats each resort separately and contextualizes its place in American society from the early antebellum era to the early 20th century. With his solid theoretical grasp of the changing socioeconomics of leisure, he shows how local, regional, and national economic and sociopolitical factors first molded and then reshaped each resort. Using primary sources such as diaries and letters as well contemporary newspapers and magazines, he documents how these resorts welcomed the free sociality in the democratic society of the antebellum period. However, after the Civil War the rise of class distinctions based on wealth, coupled with privatization, consumer values, and commercialization of leisure destroyed the democratic ideals of the early resorts.

Sterngass relates that resorts were able to prosper in a largely puritanical society because of the long tradition of pilgrimage. Promoting Saratoga’s springs as “healing” waters, and Newport and Coney Island bathing as “therapeutic,” “restorative,” and “re-creative,” the healing waters covered for the loosening of the usual social restraints. When tourists arrived at these early resorts, the hotel ballrooms, dining rooms, and vast lobbies and porches served as communal spaces for unexpected and flirtatious encounters. In contrast, the tiny and ill-ventilated sleeping rooms encouraged guests to vacate them as quickly as possible for the public spaces where they could see and be seen. And, because almost all well-to-do and aspiring middle class Americans of the antebellum period went on vacation, commonly for a month or more, the resorts became a destination rather than an overnight stop on the grand tour.
In the transition to commercialized leisure, Saratogans fenced in the springs and sold the water until almost depleting the springs. Newport’s beaches, open to all until just after the Civil War, became unfashionable as the summer resident robber barons discouraged public swimming to distance themselves from the masses when they couldn’t restrict access to the beaches. Coney Island remained a day tripper’s destination for its beaches and amusement parks until the 1950s.
Sporting activities at each resort ran the gamut from horse racing at Saratoga and Coney Island (as well as boxing) to European pastimes such as cricket, tennis, golf, foxhunting, polo, and yachting at Newport. While Sterngass touches on these activities, he does not focus on them in depth, but includes them as one more aspect of the peculiarities of each resort.
Sterngass’s strength lies in the breadth and depth of coverage of the social and political underpinnings of these resorts. His analyses of why, as well as how, vacationing changed over the century are insightful and thoughtful. The illustrations not only depict the resorts’ activities, but the maps help the reader to visualize the locale; they perfectly complement and enhance the text.
First Resorts is destined to be a classic study of the history of resorts.
  sxh36 | Apr 12, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0801865867, Hardcover)

"At the dawn of the nineteenth century, Saratoga Springs hosted no more than a thousand hardy travelers yearly, Newport floundered in the midst of a fifty-year commercial decline, and Coney Island's beach resembled a wind-swept wilderness. A hundred years later, the number of summer visitors to Saratoga had increased a hundredfold, the antics of high society at Newport transfixed America, and at least five million pleasure seekers visited Coney annually. 'Those who talk of the mushroom growth of our Western cities,' declared an astounded writer for Harper's Weekly in 1878, 'might better spend their wonder and enthusiasm upon our Eastern watering-place.'" -- From the Introduction

In First Resorts: Pursuing Pleasure at Saratoga Springs, Newport, and Coney Island, Jon Sterngass follows three of the best-known northeastern American resorts across a century of change. Saratoga Springs, Newport, and Coney Island began, he finds, as similar pleasure destinations, each of them featuring "grand" hotels where visitors swarmed public spaces such as verandas, dining rooms, and parlors. As the century progressed, however, Saratoga remained much the same, while Newport turned to private (and lavish) "cottages" and Coney Island shifted its focus to amusements for the masses.

Fifty-nine illustrations enliven Sterngass's unique study of the commodification of pleasure that occurred as capitalist values flourished, travel grew more accessible, and leisure time became democratized. These three resorts, he argues, served as forerunners of twentieth-century pleasure cities such as Aspen, Las Vegas, and Orlando.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:59 -0400)

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