The search for a “good time” is nothing new. Americans (all humans really, but for this post’s purpose we’ll be precise) across the centuries have sought a fun escape from the humdrum of everyday life. Historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, folklorists and sociologists have all looked at what drives us to do what we do.
Again, nothing new here.
But studying people’s pursuit of that fun and, in particular, studying how it changed American culture? That’s something else entirely, and it’s what Kathy Peiss does in Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York, an engaging and enlightening look at the young wage-labor working women during the latter half of the Progressive era. She uses popular culture history, feminist thought and women’s labor history to show the emergence of leisure culture among young white (European immigrant and Anglo-American) working-class women. These women, she argues, were actively involved in reconstructing cultural notions of gender, as well as heterosocial versus homosocial interaction. She also shows that the “reorientation of American culture” began not with the “elite 400,” but with the single working-class women in urban centres.
Working-class women’s leisure choices re/constructed gender identities and helped to mostly destroy the cult of “true womanhood.” Commercial dance halls, for example, often offered far less regulation and more heterosocial behavior than their middle-class counterparts; they also had lower admission and hatcheck prices for unescorted women. This served as inducement to attend dances without an escort or companion. These young working-class women rejected the social patterns of the previous generation. They flouted middle-class expectations of respectable behavior and domesticity. Instead, Peiss argues, they indulged in a world that promoted pleasure and enjoyment.
However, their choices also lead to their commodification and the commodification of women’s sexuality in general. Because many of these women were economically dependent upon “gentlemen friends” for part of the entertainment, an unbalanced scenario of “treating” developed. Treating could be anything from buying a woman a drink to helping out with her rent, depending on the extent of the relationship, and a certain amount of reciprocity was implicit. These young women’s casual contact with male strangers and wild and carefree dancing had shattered Victorian notions of decorum and propriety, but their flashy dress and those relaxed attitudes, combined with treating, blurred the lines between respectability and prostitution. Sensuality and sexuality (especially women’s sexuality) became something that could be bought and purchased legitimately.
Rather than “trickling down,” this new socially proscribed female gender-identity moved outwards to embrace others of the working class at the same time it moved up into the middle class and elite. Peiss posits this heterosociality and relaxed deportment became accepted behavior via commercialized entertainment, which began to spread the idea to the population at large through movies, nickelodeons and tamer versions of the large commercial dance halls. Modes of dress and interactions between the sexes were circulated through commercial entertainment, and previously unacceptable behavior gained acceptability among the middle-class. And all this spread so rapidly and thoroughly that middle-class moral reformers — who may or may not have been genuinely concerned with the working woman’s plight — were forced to dilute their message of cross-class sisterhood to maintain relations with working-class women. This weakened an ideology already being challenged by more liberal thinkers.
Was this all part of a larger cultural transformation? Yes. Peiss’ point, however, is that the reshaping of women’s gender-identity and its prohibitions were due in large part due to the young urban working-class women in the early twentieth century. By exploring the genesis of commercialized entertainment, as well as early twentieth century women’s labor history, this study neatly shows how the two were intertwined and how the middle-class was already changing. While a more in-depth look at the differences in immigrant/second generation and multi-generation American women would be beneficial, the connections Peiss draws between women’s wage-labor, leisure time and commercial amusements cannot be easily dismissed.