Title: Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York
Author: Kathy Peiss
Categories: Leisure, Recreation, Working Class, Gender, Urban History, Consumer Culture
Place: New York City
Time Period: 1880-1920
Kathy Peiss examines working class youth culture in turn-of-the-century New York through the lens of public leisure spaces and activities. She argues that young working-class women actively helped to shape new forms of commercialized public leisure and was part of a larger working class culture that emphasized sexuality and heterosocial interaction. Peiss argues that this development was a double-edged sword: on the one hand working women could gain more autonomy and freedom, but on the other it limited their ability to more substantively change the underlying patriarchal structure of society.
At the end of the 19th century greater and greater numbers of young, single women moved from small-scale domestic work or small sweatshops into a larger industrial workforce. With this came a new conception of leisure as something separate from the workplace. This new form of leisure challenged existing parental controls by taking place in public spaces and being bolstered by a growing mass consumer culture. Peiss argues that these women turned away from an older idea of "homosocial" culture of gendered separate spheres towards a "heterosocial" culture that emphasized male-female interaction and sexuality. In doing so, she highlights the fact that working class women actively shaped the market of mass consumerism by impacting new commercialized spaces and how they were marketed. Instead of a top-down approach to culture, Peiss argues for a bottom-up influence of the working class.
Peiss examines three case studies of new public leisure: dance halls, amusement parks, and movie theaters. At dance halls, Peiss describes the complex interplay between women's autonomy (resisted attempts by middle-class reformers to mediate the kinds of dancing) and dependence, particularly in the form of male "treating" that represented a continuum of exchanged favors for economic support. In the case of amusement parks and movie theaters, entrepreneurs catered to a growing working-class women's culture while they became a site for disputes with middle-class reformers. Peiss argues that the agency and opportunities that came with women's leisure activities also carried a cost. Specifically, by embracing commercialization and its privileging of the individual consumer and dependency on men via heterosocial relationships, actually served to undermine the potential for substantive collective action as women to challenge deeper issues of patriarchy.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Rise of working-class commercialized public leisure
- Bottom-up influence of working-class women on culture and the market
- Shift from "homosocial" culture/leisure towards "heterosocial" culture/leisure
- Use of mass consumption to create working-class
- Downside of working-class female leisure: stifled ability to act collectively for more substantive change
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License