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Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York Paperback – 31 Jan 1985

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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Temple University Press,U.S.; Reprint edition (31 Jan. 1985)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0877225001
  • ISBN-13: 978-0877225003
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 1.8 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,573,853 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description


"Peiss has made a major contribution to feminist helping to restore working-class women to history." --International Journal of the History of Sport "In her beautifully written, meticulously documented, and precisely argued study, [the author] describes in detail how young working women spent their free time and money." --David Nasaw, dissent "The author is at her best in her 'case studies' of the evolving patterns of activity, socialization, and culture in those dance halls, amusement parks, and motion picture theaters." --Susan Esterbrook Kennedy, The Journal of American History "Cheap Amusements take[s] us beyond the flat stereotypes of 19th-century poor and laboring women... Peiss' extensive research provides us with a wealth of details about amusements parks, early silent-movie plots, and dance styles in the working-class dance palaces of the city. She traces the development of Coney Island from a male-recreation bastion of gambling houses, saloons, and brothels to a mixed-sex resort of concert halls, dance pavilions, and variety shows where women occupied the audience as well as the stage... Peiss places prostitution within the context of a range of exchanges between women and men...[which] gave women access to more of the world than their wages alone could bring them, but they also enforced their dependency and rendered them vulnerable to coercion and exploitation." --Lisa Duggan, Ms. Magazine

About the Author

Kathy Peiss is Associate Professor of History and Women's Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

By A Customer on 10 Dec. 1998
Format: Paperback
Better and more interesting than you would think. Peiss delves into the leisure time of young, working women in the industrial age. Definately worth your time.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 11 reviews
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Women's Appropriation of Leisure 9 Dec. 2001
By Tanja M. Laden - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Peiss begins her argument by explaining the relationship of industrial capitalism to wage labor in creating class-conscious leisure arenas, literally recalling Roy Rosenzweig's study. Peiss's distinction lies in "this conception of leisure did not develop historically in the same way for both sexes." (Peiss, 4). Sexual division ultimately shaped and confined women's leisure to their homes. Thus, the typical wage-earning females in pursuit of leisure were young and single. Their youth and marriage status turned their attentions from the leisurely pursuits of Rosenzweig's working men but to dance halls, amusement parks, and movie theatres.
The emerging youth-oriented forms of recreation could not be ignored by the commercial industry, which viewed female participation as lucrative. In addition, these commercialized forms of amusement fostered a heterosocial culture that eventually brought new meanings and restriction to same-sex gender friendships. Rather than stand by and chronicle these changes in leisure for working-class women, Peiss makes the bold argument that these women were actual agents in shaping the nature of their leisure, and Peiss proves again and again to be correct. Even more impressive is her claim that the majority of these women were immigrants or second-generation immigrants (Peiss, 56-88). In examining the actual amusements of working-class women--dance halls, excursions, amusement parks, and the movies, Peiss illustrates vividly how women had a place in the architecture of their own leisure.
It is Peiss's conclusion that women's suffrage and the growth of women in the public sphere "infectiously appealed to other middle-class women who were less politicized. Dancing sensual dances, attending cabarets and nightclubs, living as "bachelor girls" in apartment houses, these women expressed a new-found sense of freedom and possibility." (Peiss, 185). Interestingly, the phenomena of entertainment for working-class women eventually made its way to the middle-class, though the "cheap" amusements deliberately shed their vulgarity for the more formal tastes of the middle-class. Although the adventures of the single working-class woman often ceased with marriage, their new leisure pursuits would only grow with consumerism.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
How the other half played 14 Mar. 2004
By Rocco Dormarunno - Published on
Format: Paperback
In her book, GILDED CITY, M.H. Dunlop chronicled the execesses and outrages of upper class New Yorkers (especially the women of the uppermost uppers) at the turn of the 20th century. While hiding behind the facade that the lavish parties and balls they threw and the exorbitant clothes they had tailored for themselves were giving jobs to the lower classes, their effect was to shamelessly display their wealth and, ultimately, enrage a lower class that was finding the economy and job market less and less bearable. Peiss' style is scholarly yet without the distancing effect that that form of writing usually exhibits in less skilled hands. Her knowledge and passion for the subject are easily identifiable in this wonderful book.
Kathy Peiss' CHEAP AMUSEMENTS, for me, is the flipside of the situation. The working women of New York, especially immigrant women, needed some way to spend what little leisure time they had with the little discretionary spending they had. Rather than simply identifying the spots like some old guidebook, Peiss explores each type of simple pleasure ground available to the girls, and how and why they became so popular. On a second level, the book examines the social and sometimes political consequences of this class of working women--bachelorettes--and their spending habits.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
An eye opener. 4 Dec. 1999
By N. S. Burk - Published on
Format: Paperback
Peiss's work reveals in detail the social implications of young, middle class women's free time in turn-of-the century New York. Based on diaries and reports from the time, Peiss delivers with impact a convincing and highly interesting discussion on how just a few extra hours, a few days out of the week eroded American Victorianism. She writes with authority while keeping her writing very readable.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Cheap Amusements by Kathy Peiss 30 April 2011
By Emily H. - Published on
Format: Paperback
New York City at the turn of the twentieth century was a landscape troubled by class and ethnic tension--there were mansions on Fifth Avenue and tenement houses of Italian, Irish, and German immigrants along the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York, Kathy Peiss analyzes working-class women's free time and leisure. She recounts how Victorian sexual mores and ethnic traditions that restricted women's presence in the public sphere were replaced by a commercialized culture with more modern entertainments: dance halls and clubs, early movie theaters, and summer resorts with amusement parks and shoreline hotels. Examining these social spaces as representative of gender relations, Peiss asserts that young working women viewed these free time pursuits as expressions of autonomy and excitement, but were also exploited by entrepreneurs of the entertainment industry and by men who perceived financial dependency.

The book does offer insight into the gendered nature of capitalist work patterns. The residual nineteenth-century domestic ideal clashed with women's increasing participation in the workforce, rendering their desire for leisure outside the home problematic to their parents. Ultimately Peiss' work succeeds in its depiction of working class leisure culture, reconstructing working women's attitudes toward living arrangements, fashion, romantic relationships, and elaborate kinship and social networks. To escape the Victorian constraints of their mothers' generation, these young wage-earners embraced a nascent entertainment culture of dance halls, amusement parks, and movies, which enforced sexual objectification even as it offered ostensible freedom. Peiss' New York is less a depiction of a bygone era than an explication of a time whose consumer attractions and dangers mirror our own. But while Peiss addresses the issue of cultural transmission, the work raises questions regarding geographical relationships that it does not answer. At several points, I was left asking: Were these pursuits typical of other regions or distinctive features of New York's cultural scene? Did these trends originate in New York, then spread throughout the nation?
or popular culture will find this book a great read! 30 Sept. 2014
By Sharon I Ammen - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a well-written, well-researched book that delves into history which most of us know very little about. It analyzes the tensions between the "new women" of the turn-of-the-century who want to explore the world of leisure on their own and their elders who still think women should live up to the Victorian ideal. Anyone interested in the history of New York, feminism, theatre, or popular culture will find this book a great read!
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