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Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New…

by Kathy Peiss

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238388,152 (3.92)2
What did young, independent women do for fun and how did they pay their way into New York City's turn-of-the-century pleasure places? Cheap Amusements is a fascinating discussion of young working women whose meager wages often fell short of bare subsistence and rarely allowed for entertainment expenses.Kathy Peiss follows working women into saloons, dance halls, Coney Island amusement parks, social clubs, and nickelodeons to explore the culture of these young women between 1880 and 1920 as expressed in leisure activities. By examining the rituals and styles they adopted and placing that culture in the larger context of urban working-class life, she offers us a complex picture of the dynamics shaping a working woman's experience and consciousness at the turn-of-the-century. Not only does her analysis lead us to new insights into working-class culture, changing social relations between single men and women, and urban courtship, but it also gives us a fuller understanding of the cultural transformations that gave rise to the commercialization of leisure.The early twentieth century witnessed the emergence of "heterosocial companionship" as a dominant ideology of gender, affirming mixed-sex patterns of social interaction, in contrast to the nineteenth century's segregated spheres. Cheap Amusements argues that a crucial part of the "reorientation of American culture" originated from below, specifically in the subculture of working women to be found in urban dance halls and amusement resorts.… (more)
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So I was mostly reading this for the purposes of writing an essay on how working-class women in turn-of-the-century North America experienced their sexuality, and this book is positively brilliant for learning about that. It draws extensively on primary sources (as you would hope I guess, but I digress...) and paints a vivid picture about how individuals' experiences were shaped by their class, gender and ethnic backgrounds.

One aspect I found particularly interesting was the phenomenon of "treating", by which working-class women would expect their male companions to pay the cost of an outing, their entertainment needs, etc. - and frequently certain other costs as well, like for clothes and shoes. It seems that there was a kind of continuum from this behaviour, through casual prostitution, to "fully-fledged" prostitution... and as someone who cares passionately about women's oppression, I am vehemently opposed to the existence of that industry. However, the practice of "treating" seems to have been qualitatively different, a far more liberating practice which ascribed far more agency to the woman involved. Which is not to say that working women in the 1910s were all sexually free and liberated - far from it! - as Peiss describes, women's wages were so low (below the living wage of the time) that they were economically dependent on men, which pressured them into this behaviour of course. BUT it ALSO means that many working women (although by no means all... again, this tended to vary by things like ethnic background) were able to experiment sexually, flirting and fooling around with boys etc., at a time when this would have (and did...) completely scandalised bourgeois moralists.

In the last chapter, chapter seven, Peiss describes how bourgeois women tried to create some kind of cross-class solidarity among women. I found this interesting because it seems to me that Peiss, as a feminist, really sympathises with these bourgeois reformers' aims, but working women of the time evidently did not! Working-class women, by and large, identified with the men of their own class before the women of the bourgeoisie; they resented bourgeois women's individualism and identified with the labour struggle instead (if they were political) and even if they were not, they preferred to mingle with men - and enjoyed the freer sexual culture of the working class - to stuffy, stultifying notions of respectability.

In all honesty, this was a really fun book to read - and short too! Goodreads claims it's 288 pages, but the copy I read is more like 188, plus endnotes and index etc. - and if you are even remotely interested in sexual liberation or women's oppression (particularly if you, like me, want to research this entire topic in the first place because most studies of women's sexuality ignore working-class women entirely) THIS IS A MUST-READ. I am not even kidding. ( )
  Jayeless | May 27, 2020 |
Cheap Amusements is an investigation into the economics and patterns of leisure for working-class women in New York City from 1880-1920. Author Kathy Peiss sets a lofty goal for Cheap Amusements: challenge the existence of a top-down and male-dominated system of cultural and sexual norms. Cheap Amusements aims to demonstrate this multidimensionality to cultural change; in respect to culture in the early twentieth century, the book aims to prove that working-class women had large but uncredited role in developing contemporary U.S. popular culture. Not only do turn-of-the-century women have a role in developing current cultural norms (i.e. the popularity of theme parks, early film and drama, etc.), but these norms are developed through homosocial and heterosocial relationships, where there is a complex interplay between environment and gender.
Each chapter of Cheap Amusements is divided along thematic lines. While the first three chapters (“The Homosocial World of Working-Class Amusements,” “Leisure and Labor,” and “Putting On Style”) discuss broad trends in working women’s lives, and the reflected impact on culture, the second half of the book discusses so-called winter amusements (“Dance Madness”), summer amusements (“The Coney Island Excursion”), and specific changes in cultural life. The result of this organization is a well-constructed argument, where the general thesis and argument is expounded upon in these encompassing themes.
Kathy Peiss’s writing style is easily accessible and entertaining without becoming colloquial. Furthermore, all critical facts or sub-arguments are cited, and Peiss uses a multitude of direct accounts of primary sources when appropriate. It is also worthy to note that any given information that pushes the boundary of excessive of extraneous, helps immerse the reader into the setting of the narrative; this is further improved through an inlay of photographs which directly correspond to the chapter themes. While Peiss uses a variety of primary and secondary source material, she tends to directly quote or allude to primary works, while using secondary source material as backing for the supporting material, generally cited in paraphrase.
However, this isn’t to say that structure doesn’t get in the way of the argument. Generally, within chapters Piess will save the discussion of culture-creation and gender (being the driving theme of the work) for the end of chapters. This can be good compartmentalization, however for Cheap Amusements, this came at the price of good flow and argumentative directness. While the introduction is extraordinarily concise and direct in its ability to convey a thesis, this re-structuring in the body of the book was abrupt. It is possible for an author to stylistically provide an argument without direct analysis, but Cheap Amusements doesn’t do this, and instead provides constant analysis, just sanctioning the most relevant analysis for the end of chapters.
However, to the credit of the book, age needs to be taken into account. With the exception of “Dance Madness,” which was published a year prior in Life and Labor by Charles Stephenson and Robert Asher, Cheap Amusements was published in 1986. Peiss even alludes to the current atmosphere of feminist historical scholarship in the introduction at the time of writing:

The flowering of feminist scholarship has at last begun to restore working-class women to history, establishing the significance of their activities in the household, workplace, and political arena. But leisure?—a minor pursuit, if not an outright contradiction; as one Polish immigrant remarked, “Who had leisure time?”…Delineating young working women’s leisure not only opens to a view of gender and generation within working-class life, it illuminates aspects of a larger cultural process…”

Cheap Amusements comes at a time where feminist history is developed enough to have internal revisionism, yet still is young enough to need developmental literature, something Cheap Amusements serves as today. Cheap Amusements is also outwardly Marxist, something it acknowledges and builds upon. The substance and argument are unique is this regard, as it now challenges numerous pre-conceived theories of history and function, and does so directly in the main argument.
Even if the reader chooses to lens a reading of Cheap Amusements in its respect to larger bodies of feminist history, there are still functional issues that cannot be absolved through allowances of historiography. Cheap Amusements is white. Even though centering on turn-of-the-century New York pushes for a “kinship with the [white, south/east European] immigrant at Ellis Island,” if the author chooses to follow her own thesis, being a subversion of commonly held power structures, a discussion on African American women is thus logically mandated. This oversight is inexcusable especially given that the scope of the argument does not even demand Intersectionality—it demands literature. If in fact black women in New York are factually different in respect to Peiss’s argument, than acknowledging and discussing how and why would only strengthen the argument. If black women fall into the argument (something that is assumed by the thesis’s scope and resolution) than leaving them out hurts the argument. By not including black and brown women, Peiss’s has inadvertently shot the argument of Cheap Amusements in the foot, especially in the eyes of a twenty-first century audience.
Regardless of its flaws, Cheap Amusements is a well-written book, and is enjoyable to read. The content is supported by strong evidence, and provides insight onto the construction of culture in the United States. The formulation of the book may have flaws but in the end, it minimally provides an intriguing, if incomplete, narrative on women in the early twentieth century. ( )
  MarchingBandMan | Oct 11, 2017 |
This book was alright. On the one hand, 'Cheap Amusements' does a good job of explaining the roles and expectations of various women living in Industrial America--young, old, native, immigrant, and women of varying class.

On the other hand, I find it bothersome that Peiss does not specify various terms before launching into the book. While it's no trouble for me to look up terms like 'vice investigator' or The Committee of Fourteen, Peiss makes no effort to explain who qualifies as a vice investigator, or what their specific purpose is. She mentions the Committee of Fourteen several times in the book, but does not explain the purpose of the committee's existence until more than half way through the book.

Perhaps it's just my personal preference, but I feel like it's arrogant to assume one's reader to already know the particularities of a time or subject, and that if an author writes this sort of book with the intent to educate, then they should do it to the fullest extent. The alternative is that Peiss just forgot. In which case it's sloppy writing.

Despite the aforementioned, I did come away with knowledge about the era and its treatment of immigrants and women, so for that I am grateful. ( )
  christina.h | Apr 6, 2016 |
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What did young, independent women do for fun and how did they pay their way into New York City's turn-of-the-century pleasure places? Cheap Amusements is a fascinating discussion of young working women whose meager wages often fell short of bare subsistence and rarely allowed for entertainment expenses.Kathy Peiss follows working women into saloons, dance halls, Coney Island amusement parks, social clubs, and nickelodeons to explore the culture of these young women between 1880 and 1920 as expressed in leisure activities. By examining the rituals and styles they adopted and placing that culture in the larger context of urban working-class life, she offers us a complex picture of the dynamics shaping a working woman's experience and consciousness at the turn-of-the-century. Not only does her analysis lead us to new insights into working-class culture, changing social relations between single men and women, and urban courtship, but it also gives us a fuller understanding of the cultural transformations that gave rise to the commercialization of leisure.The early twentieth century witnessed the emergence of "heterosocial companionship" as a dominant ideology of gender, affirming mixed-sex patterns of social interaction, in contrast to the nineteenth century's segregated spheres. Cheap Amusements argues that a crucial part of the "reorientation of American culture" originated from below, specifically in the subculture of working women to be found in urban dance halls and amusement resorts.

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