Entertainment In The Gilded Age

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In the late 1800's, American society began to burst with cultural activity. After the Civil War and the Reconstruction, Americans were eager to return to their normal lifestyles. The period that followed, however, was quite different from what the country was used to. During the war, many pushed hard for a rise in industry, leading to an explosive industrial revolution far beyond what people had expected. America's business and economy had boomed, and, as the new century approached, many had a new outlook on life. They were eager to escape the dull regiments of both the past Victorian era and the new urban lifestyle. This was easy for the upper and middle classes, both of which were growing due to the rapid increase in industry. It was great news for entrepreneurs and business people of the time, because there was money to be made in this desire for amusement. Of course, this was not the whole story of the new Gilded Age, but it was definitely an era of growing leisure time and the business that came along with it.
One of the most popular forms of entertainment during the Gilded Age was theater, particularly Vaudeville, which was a type of variety theater prominent in late 19th century America. Of course, similar types of variety shows had existed much earlier, before the 1830's, but they experienced a growth thanks to Benjamin Franklin Keith, "the father" of American Vaudeville. He spent his earlier years working in traveling shows and circuses, before establishing his own museum of oddities in 1883. His success allowed him to finance the building of his own theater, and he became the subject of his own "rags to riches" story, one of many that were so common in the Gilded Age. Keith was a savvy businessman who knew how to draw in new urban audiences. He favored the idea of the "legitimate" stage, free of vulgarity, and developed the policy of consecutive performances that created the illusion of thriving business to ensure patrons, which made Vaudeville what it was. It featured a large variety of diverse acts, and was great entertainment to those coming from cities who were assured of quality by large numbers of people and were used to constant buzz.1
Traveling entertainment was also extremely popular during this period. One such display was the circus, especially the Barnum & Bailey Circus, which was advertised as "The Greatest Show on Earth." Much like those of today, it featured an array of animals and performers gathered under a big tent. P.T. Barnum, one of its founders, started out as the owner of a freak show. He was keen on advertising and also knew how to attract audiences, skills he needed in order to compete with The Ringling Brothers' Circus, his main competitor. That show was also quite a spectacle, featuring lavish scenery and thousands of performers. The two each strove to be recognized as the best in the world, which helped to make the circus the "show to see" when it came to town.2
One more prevalent traveling show was the Chautauqua, which blended education with entertainment. When its founders realized how popular their exhibition had become, they knew they had something good, and the one show expanded to locations throughout the country. Large tents were set up for huge audiences who came to hear orators, comedians, and musicians. Eventually, the shows were run by a few agencies that booked tickets far in advanced, which gave those companies a big payoff as well.3
Another form of theater that had its beginnings in the Gilded Age was the movies. They emerged due to Thomas Edison's kinetograph, a new type of camera that could photograph motion pictures. At first, movies were very short and contained no plot structure. Due to their growing popularity, however, nickelodeons, the first permanent movie theaters, began to spring up. Soon after, glamorous movie palaces, such as The Roxy in Los Angeles, were built to mimic the grand style of real theaters. Filmmakers began making movies longer and more sophisticated in order to please their audiences. By the early 1900's, there were already 10,000 movie theaters throughout the country. Edison then helped to create a short monopoly in America with the Motion Picture Patents Company. The film industry thrived because of its efficiency--people paid low prices to watch movies, but they brought big business because of their sheer number.4
As Americans watched silent movies, sound-based entertainment also grew. New forms of music such as ragtime and the cakewalk were all the rage, and some people, such as Rudolph Wulitzer, knew how to take advantage of America's new taste for music. Wulitzer was a German immigrant who found moderate success in importing musical instruments from his home country. In the 1890's, however, he changed his focus to musical machines. He invented the first coin-operated electric organ, and soon after, self-playing harps and pianos. He sold them to hotels and restaurants that could not afford live musicians and he made quite a lot of money. When he turned his company over to his sons, they developed a pipe organ that filled movie theaters with sound. They would later develop the jukebox and make a fortune in the 1930's, after the Gilded Age was over. But it was during this era that the Wurlitzer Company got its start.5
Although music, movies and shows were very prominent and quite marketable, some Americans had a taste for more adventurous recreation. With the higher incomes and affordable transportation of the Gilded Age, men and women flocked to amusement parks all over the country. The first roller coaster, developed in the 1870's, was really just converted from coal mining trains, but the enterprising businessmen who made it became quite successful. Their sluggish roller coaster later developed into the tall, fast-moving coasters in parks such as the three on Coney Island. There, nickel fares on rides accumulated to up to $700 a day. Lake Erie, New Jersey and Chicago also became popular sites for amusement parks. The people of America wanted thrills, and they were ready to pay well for them.6
During the Gilded Age, Americans also began to develop a craze for physical activity. One popular form was bicycling, and it became a passion that seized the country. In the late 1800's, the bicycle was constantly being improved up until the invention of the safety bicycle, which greatly increased its popularity. Both men and women were part of the bicycle mania. Women were great targets for this business because bicycling gave them a taste of freedom they had not previously experienced. More casual, loose fitting clothes were developed for women to ride in, and manufactures profited not only from bicycle sales but clothing sales as well.7
While physical activity was becoming all the rage in the Gilded Age, spectator sports also became enormously popular. Without a doubt, the most liked was baseball, which became a professional sport in the middle of the 1800's. Like in the case of amusement parks, better transportation and more free time allowed American's to attend many games and become part of the baseball craze. Railroads also allowed baseball teams to travel, so they could compete with one another very easily. Mass audiences became obsessed with baseball, and it spawned an immense business. Ticket sales generated mass amounts of money, and the same went for supplies such as bats and gloves, and baseball cards, which were a favored collectible for American children.8
Although the sports and leisure culture of the Gilded Age was criticized by some, it swept the country and created massive opportunities for business. During the era, people had more free time and an increased access to inexpensive transportation. Americans were also eager to escape the dull routines of daily life, and companies and entrepreneurs took advantage of this. The Gilded Age was not all fun and games, of course, with corrupt political machines and robber barons, but the growing upper and middle classes yearned to break free from their urban confines. America wanted to be amused, and it was more than ready to pay for some entertainment.

Source List


Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. New York: W.W. Norton, 1990

Greenwood, Janette Thomas. The Gilded Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000

Scheffel, Richard L. Discovering America's Past. Reader's Digest, 1993


Baseball Beginnings. The Library of Congress

Hudson, William. Bicycle History. Jim Langley

The Origins of Mass Entertainment. San Francisco State University

P.T. Barnum and the Management of Spectacle. The University of Virginia

Vaudeville, A History. The University of Virginia

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