Cheap Amusements Kathy Peiss describes the leisure activities of young working women living in New York during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in her book Cheap Amusements. The book explores the emergence of a young female working class and the conflict the women encountered with the “Old World” traditions. Peiss also explores the commercialization of leisure and the socialization of female leisure. The results of these changes brought about what Peiss calls: “cheap amusements.” During the middle nineteenth century, women observed “Old World” traditions in respect to leisure. Most leisure activities for women were labor oriented and close personal relationships between women were frowned upon as deviant. Peiss explains this during the first few chapters of Cheap Amusements.
The emergence of a young female working class caused a strain on the “Old World” traditions and leisure activities for women became controversial. The traditional role of women was changing due to the economic pressures from industrialization. As more young women began to work in the same conditions as young men, women gained the right to engage in amusement as a man would. Peiss discovers the commercialization of amusement to support the woman’s’ struggle for leisure freedom. The businessmen in amusement saw the female working population as an untapped market for exploiting. The amusement business was booming due to the industrialization of cities and the need for leisure activities for the large population of workers.
Amusement came in a variety of forms such as: social clubs, dances, variety shows, amusement parks, cheap theatre, nickel dumps, and even standing on the street corner. The businessman’s goal was to make a profit off of these activities. With the exception of standing on the street corner, most leisure activities were commercialized and turned a profit. In opposition to the businessman were the mothers and fathers that still lived by “Old World” traditions and did not want their daughters or sons engaging in some of the activities. The exploitation of heterosexuality was extremely controversial and Peiss sites this as a major hang-up in the changing of female leisure activities. The emergence of the dance hall and the attending of these establishments by unattended females were a primary concern for conservatives.
The concept of “picking up” that is, two strangers meeting for the first time and enjoying each other’s company for the night, was the new craze. (102). The mothers and fathers saw this as an act of disrespect for ones self and an exploitation of sexuality. The struggle to maintain control over the leisure activities of a young girl became even more difficult whenever she was working. Most mothers had not made money as a bachelorette and balked at the wishes of their daughters to spend their free time at these new activities that involved young men.
Kathy Peiss makes the world of a young working female in New York City, living around the turn of the century, come to life in less than two hundred pages. The author’s book is a success because of the colorful way she describes the conflicts that occur throughout the book. Any reader of history would find this book a good resource for research as well as enjoyable reading. Moreover, a researcher of sociology would find the information in the book to be of interest, especially if they are interested in the women’s movement in modern America. Bibliography Peiss, Kathy.
Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of -the-Century New York (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1986).