With Amusement for All
A History of American Popular Culture since 1830
Publication Year: 2006
Popular culture is a central part of everyday life to many Americans. Personalities such as Elvis Presley, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan are more recognizable to many people than are most elected officials. With Amusement for All is the first comprehensive history of two centuries of mass entertainment in the United States, covering everything from the penny press to Playboy, the NBA to NASCAR, big band to hip hop, and other topics including film, comics, television, sports, dance, and music. Paying careful attention to matters of race, gender, class, technology, economics, and politics, LeRoy Ashby emphasizes the complex ways in which popular culture simultaneously reflects and transforms American culture, revealing that the world of entertainment constantly evolves as it tries to meet the demands of a diverse audience. Trends in popular entertainment often reveal the tensions between competing ideologies, appetites, and values in American society. For example, in the late nineteenth century, Americans embraced "self-made men" such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie: the celebrities of the day were circus tycoons P.T. Barnum and James A. Bailey, Wild West star "Buffalo Bill" Cody, professional baseball organizer Albert Spalding, and prizefighter John L. Sullivan. At the same time, however, several female performers challenged traditional notions of weak, frail Victorian women. Adah Isaacs Menken astonished crowds by wearing tights that made her appear nude while performing dangerous stunts on horseback, and the shows of the voluptuous burlesque group British Blondes often centered on provocative images of female sexual power and dominance. Ashby describes how history and politics frequently influence mainstream entertainment. When Native Americans, blacks, and other non-whites appeared in the nineteenth-century circuses and Wild West shows, it was often to perpetuate demeaning racial stereotypes -- crowds jeered Sitting Bull at Cody's shows. By the early twentieth century, however, black minstrel acts reveled in racial tensions, reinforcing stereotypes while at the same time satirizing them and mocking racist attitudes before a predominantly white audience. Decades later, Red Foxx and Richard Pryor's profane comedy routines changed American entertainment. The raw ethnic material of Pryor's short-lived television show led to a series of African-American sitcoms in the 1980s that presented common American experiences -- from family life to college life -- with black casts. Mainstream entertainment has often co-opted and sanitized fringe amusements in an ongoing process of redefining the cultural center and its boundaries. Social control and respectability vied with the bold, erotic, sensational, and surprising, as entrepreneurs sought to manipulate the vagaries of the market, control shifting public appetites, and capitalize on campaigns to protect public morals. Rock 'n Roll was one such fringe culture; in the 1950s, Elvis blurred gender norms with his androgynous style and challenged conventions of public decency with his sexually-charged performances. By the end of the 1960s, Bob Dylan introduced the social consciousness of folk music into the rock scene, and The Beatles embraced hippie counter-culture. Don McLean's 1971 anthem "American Pie" served as an epitaph for rock's political core, which had been replaced by the spectacle of hard rock acts such as Kiss and Alice Cooper. While Rock 'n Roll did not lose its ability to shock, in less than three decades it became part of the established order that it had originally sought to challenge. With Amusement for All provides the context to what Americans have done for fun since 1830, showing the reciprocal nature of the relationships between social, political, economic, and cultural forces and the way in which the entertainment world has reflected, refracted, or reinforced the values those forces represent in America.
Published by: The University Press of Kentucky
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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
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Introduction to the Paperback Edition
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I the brief seven years since I finished writing this book in 2005, popular culture has continued to change at a dizzying pace, vastly expanding the number and variety of options as well as ways to access them. Familiar patterns remain, certainly. Corporate behemoths keep jockeying for position and profits. New technology relentlessly brushes aside old systems and ...
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"We sell fun," said Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, in 2002. "We sell the answer to 'What do you want to do tonight?'" Cuban's comment neatly sums up the history of popular culture in the United States.1 This book is an interpretive synthesis of almost two hundred years of American entertainment: the sale, and purchase, of fun. Popular culture must enjoy at least fairly broad support from ordinary people and ...
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In November 1829, some twelve thousand I 829, people, many of whom had paid for a good view, watched the falls jumper Sam Patch leap off a scaffolding and plunge 125 feet into the roiling waters at the foot of Genesee Falls in upstate New York. It was his last jump. Drunk before he leaped, he did not survive. He could hardly have guessed that his jump from that platform marked a symbolic ...
1. Blackface, Barnum, and Newspaper Ballyhoo
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In 1832, Thomas Dartmouth Rice,a young former carpenter's apprentice wearing blackface, electrified his boisterous workingclass audience by spinning around on a Bowery stage with a curious, jerky motion and singing: "Weel about and turn about, I And do jis so; I Eb'ry time I weel about, I jump Jim Crow." A year later, the newspaper publisher ...
2. Taming Rough Amusements 1940s-1960s
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A pivotal Antebellum development was the emergence of a middle class with an expansive set of values and beliefs. That development profoundly influenced popular culture. For the burgeoning amusement sector, this middle class was both an obstacle, swelling the ranks of social and cultural reformers who targeted "immoral" diversions, ...
3. Building and Entertainment Industry
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In the early 1880s, audiences from New England to the midwest and the Great Plains took turns packing themselves into a massive traveling canvas tent to watch "the Greatest Show on Earth"-the circus extravaganza of P. T. Barnum and his new partner, James A. Bailey. In town after town, excitement would build for weeks about the show's impending arrival: "circus day," when ...
4. "The Billion-Dollar Smile":
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During the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, the entertainment industry expanded at a furious rate. Joining circuses, enlarged minstrel shows, and sports were burlesque and vaudeville. Like their amusement counterparts, burlesque and vaudeville reflected the industrial trend of consolidation. Yet they followed contrasting audience ...
5. The "Leisure Problem" at the Turn of the Century
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"Looping the loop" amid shrieks of stimulated terror or dancing in disorderly saloon halls are perhaps the natural reactions to a day spent in noisy factories and in trolley cars whirling through the distracting streets," wrote Jane Addams in 1909, "but the city which permits them to be the acme of pleasure and recreation to its young people, ...
6. Popular Culture and Middle-Class Respectability in the Early Twentieth Century
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Edgar Rice Burroughs was bored. As the son of a successful entrepreneur whose company made storage batteries, he had grown up during the late nineteenth century in a middle-class Chicago family. "Nothing interesting ever happened to me in my life," he recalled. "I never went to a fire but that it was out before I arrived .... The results were always blah." Uninterested in ...
7. Battling the Great Depression
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The cataclysmic events of the Great Depression constituted a major turning point in U.S. history, but they also tested and, eventually, strengthened popular culture's place in the nation's life. Virtually all areas of mass entertainment reeled during the early 1930s as the economic crisis deepened. Ultimately, however, commercial amusements flourished, ...
8. Building a Wartime Concensus in the 1940s and 1950s
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In early December 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor prompted Time magazine to displace its originally scheduled cover story regarding Walt Disney's new cartoon movie creation, Dumbo. After the December 7 attack on the Hawaiian Islands and Germany's declaration of war on the United States a few days later, Americans immediately focused ...
9. Counterpoints to Consensus
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The streets were dark with something more than night," the mystery novelist Raymond Chandler wrote in 1944. While mass entertainment during the 1940s and 1950s was packed with the reassuring images and rhetoric of the postwar consensus, Chandler's comment attested to another perspective, one full of danger, unpredictability, and striking reminders of popular ...
10. Popular Culture and 1960s Ferment
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During the 1960s, the United States entered a fiercely tumultuous era of social and cultural unrest. The civil rights movement became a powerful force, breaking down racial barriers and galvanizing both a larger "rights revolution" and fierce resistance. The United States and the Soviet Union faced off for thirteen terrifying days in October 1962 over ...
11. Up For Grabs: Leaving the 1960s
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As the United States entered the 1970, popular culture provided wildly different signals about where the nation was headed. In 1970, a ninety-three-page novel with a bland title, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, came out of nowhere to become what Time described as "the decade's pop publishing miracle." According to the author, Richard ...
12. A Pop Culture Society
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With Ronald Reagan's presidency in the 1980s, politics and entertainment were increasingly intertwined, yet popular culture served as a political punching bag. Such paradoxes were legion. Business consolidation accelerated as audiences fragmented. New technologies such as cable expanded television's offerings while placing the networks' future in doubt. Reagan-era upbeat ...
Epilogue: Pop Culture in a Post 9/11 World
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During the several months and years following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Super Bowl advertisements and halftime shows provided a good guide to popular culture's varied responses to a frightening new world. In January 2002, less than five months after hijackers flew airplanes into the World Trade Center, parts of the Pentagon, ...
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Page Count: 712
Publication Year: 2006