Essay, Research Paper: Cheap Amusements

World Literature

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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

Peiss, Kathy. Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of
-the-Century New York (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1986).

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