- First Resorts: Pursuing Pleasure at Saratoga Springs, Newport & Coney Island
First Resorts represents an admirable contribution to the growing body of scholarship on the history of American leisure, recreation and tourism. Jon Sterngass explores changes in nineteenth-century American ideas about travel, leisure, community and consumption by examining three of the nation’s most prominent resorts: Saratoga Springs, Newport, and Coney Island. Taking a page from Victor Turner and other historians of leisure, Sterngass depicts the three resorts as “liminal places, laboratories in which visitors could experiment with new or different ideas about the value of the work ethic, the significance of luxury in a democratic republic, the proper roles of men and women, and the relationship between community and privacy” (4). These resorts, Sterngass argues, were central to the development and growth of American culture, both popular and elite. Newport, the Springs, and Coney, in his view, “embodied variations of the collective ideal and functioned as virtual holy centers in a secular society; the pursuit of pleasure at their springs, beaches, and hotels elucidates numerous aspects of American life” (6). Even allowing for some hyperbole, First Resorts makes a good case for viewing the establishment, growth, and ultimate decline of these three leisure venues as indicative of larger trends in the emergence of America’s consumer society.
In three early chapters, Sterngass relates the origins of each resort. Visitors seeking health benefits from the mineral waters available at Saratoga Springs [End Page 1073] began appearing in the late eighteenth century. As trips to spas became fashionable in the early nineteenth century, the Springs’ promoters elbowed out local competition for guests such as Ballston Spa, and engaged in a building spree that would transform Saratoga from virtual wilderness to a premier tourist destination. In succeeding decades, steamboats and railroads made the Springs more accessible to elite urban pleasure seekers. While the promenading, flirting, and other amusements in which guests engaged seemed “to exist outside the market economy,” (31) Sterngass demonstrates that visitors sought not a respite from urban life, but an “intensified version of it,” (35) a “sanitized rusticity without muck or smells, a metropolis without ethnic, racial or religious riots” (36). Newport, by contrast, was a colonial town in decline by the late eighteenth century. Economic resurgence, a pleasant climate, and the lure of “distinctive ocean beaches” (55) rapidly changed Newport into a fashionable summer retreat for travelers from both the North and South. Large elegant hotels provided accommodations for guests who, like denizens of the Springs, viewed the wanderings of fashionable travelers as a quasi-religious experience, and the resorts themselves as “disenchanted pilgrimage sites.” (69). Coney Island’s rise to national attention began somewhat later in the century, and along a slightly different trajectory. Though Coney’s promoters constructed large resort hotels, and boasted the pleasures of its ocean beaches, they catered to a less fashionable, not to mention much larger, clientele than either of the other two resorts. Coney’s enormous hotels, though “direct imitations of those at Saratoga and Newport,” relied on a mass audience for their profitability, implying that “Coney Island was never developed to be a truly fashionable resort” (89). Moreover, the “cheap amusements” that sprang up to lure day trippers “ensured that the island would not become a resort exclusively for the wealthy” (92). Though very different at first glance, all three resorts provided opportunities for experimentation and self-definition through selective display of oneself and observation of others. Whatever the dissimilarities of Saratoga, Newport, and Coney Island, Sterngass argues, to “see and be seen defined life at mid-nineteenth-century resorts” (139).
In three subsequent chapters, Sterngass analyzes changes in each resort over the course of the century. Saratoga Springs commercialized, adding horseracing, casino gambling, and a thriving souvenir trade to the allure of its healthful mineral waters. Though Saratoga lost its status as the preeminent elite watering hole, it prospered nonetheless, epitomizing, in Sterngass’ view, an emerging American culture that elevated “consumption as the means of achieving felicity” (147). Newport...