'Industrial saturnalia' by the sea

The Playful Crowd
June 9, 2006

From the 19th century onwards, the psychology of the crowd has been a subject of concern to social historians and sociologists. Gustave Le Bon's seminal work The Crowd (1895), positing the idea of the crowd as threatening and irrational, was echoed in many subsequent works, notably Jose Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses (1930) and Sigmund Freud's Group Psychology (1922). In 1981, the eminent social historian Harold Perkin published a collection of essays titled The Structured Crowd in which he saw the crowd as far more benign, as an entity linked together by "the bonds of language, inherited ideas and beliefs, and all the common experiences of shared community".

The latest historians to examine the phenomenon of the crowd are Gary Cross and John Walton, who like Perkin take a much more positive view of the crowd than Le Bon and Co. In The Playful Crowd , Cross and Walton, two of the leading historians of popular leisure - the former American, the latter British - have drawn on their many years of research and their long friendship to produce a comparative study of pleasure-seeking and pleasure grounds in Britain and the US.

They take as their focus four notable popular playgrounds, Coney Island and Blackpool for the late 19th and early 20th centuries and Disneyland and Beamish Open Air Museum for the later 20th century. The comparison between these institutions leads them to conclude not only that the British and American experiences were different but that, from the early 20th-century heyday of Coney Island and Blackpool to the emergence of new pleasure grounds in 1955 (Disneyland) and 1971 (Beamish), there was a change in the nature and aspirations of the pleasure-seeking crowd.

Coney Island and Blackpool emerged as playgrounds for the masses in the late 19th century but developed differently due to the differences in location, climate, landholding patterns, entertainment customs, the political context and broader social and cultural considerations.

Coney Island, close to New York City, became a magnet for exclusively working-class day-trippers drawn from many different immigrant ethnic groups. It was ramshackle, transient and novelty obsessed, and it had to battle continually against hostile local authorities. Blackpool, entertainment capital of the North of England, was far more permanent and responsible, never exclusively working class but depending on a regular flow of ethnically homogeneous holiday-makers, backed by a supportive local authority and securely established as part of a stable and traditional popular culture.

Cross and Walton define the motives of the playful crowd as the desire for escape from the stresses of everyday life and for the stimulation of the senses and the imagination and active participation in sociable communal leisure. They found these in the "industrial saturnalia" provided by mechanical rides, fantastic exhibitions, freak shows and a flirtatious, free-and-easy but generally innocent heterosociality.

Turning to the intellectual and bourgeois reactions to the playful crowd, Cross and Walton find the Americans far more critical of Coney Island than their British counterparts were of Blackpool. One American critic said of Coney Island that humanity en masse "sheds its civilisation and becomes half child, half savage", whereas by the 1880s there was much favourable comment on the sobriety, orderliness and good humour of the Blackpool crowds. During the 20th century, particularly after the Second World War, Coney Island went into a decline from which it never recovered. Blackpool, with its supportive local authority, continually reinvented itself, providing new attractions and tapping into new audiences.

By the time Disneyland and later Disney World were created in America and Beamish was set up in County Durham, there had been a fundamental change in the aesthetics of the holiday in both countries. It could be summed up by the motto of Disneyland - "Happiness and Knowledge". The desire for escape and entertainment remained, but it was being channelled in the direction of education and uplift and geared to middle-class sensibilities.

Disneyland, which was inspired not by the model of Coney Island but by the international exhibitions of the early 20th century, was characterised by family entertainments, film-based fantasy, nostalgia for an idealised past and optimism for an idealised future. Although Britain never produced the direct equivalent of Disneyland, Beamish was an embodiment of a similar desire to couple enjoyment with rational recreation and was inspired by a certain heritage nostalgia, a desire to preserve and teach about "the world we have lost".

Cross and Walton conclude that by 2000 the nature of the playful crowd had changed decisively. It was more affluent and less diverse than it had been, and globalisation had eroded the differences between the UKand the US in the nature of their pleasure-seeking and their pleasure grounds. This book, which is vividly and engagingly written, makes a major contribution to our knowledge and understanding of a cultural phenomenon.

Jeffrey Richards is professor of cultural history, Lancaster University.

The Playful Crowd: Pleasure Places in the Twentieth Century

Author - Gary S. Cross and John K. Walton
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Pages - 308
Price - £21.00
ISBN - 0 231 124 3

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