Coney Island signs offer women not hotdogs
I have no memories of good times at the fabled Coney Island in New York, but my auction buddy Janet does. She grew up in Brooklyn, and has stories to tell of going there for fun and hotdogs with her parents and brothers.
I thought of her when I came face to face with two Coney Island signs depicting women from an era long before she was there with her family. They were propped against the back of two chairs at an auction house. I considered them rather whimsical until I took a closer look.
One was titled “A Horse’s Neck,” and featured a woman straddled on a carousel horse, a drink in her hand and her dress pulled up her thighs to show the top of her nylons. The other – titled “Bottoms Up” – showed a woman in a fitted slip and black high heels, bent over, her backside showing as she seemingly fingered water in a bathtub.
The auction sheet described these as Coney Island signs, but they did not offer Nathan’s hotdogs and Cyclone rides at “America’s Playground,” as the island was called. They promised women who provided their own form of amusement. The paper signs had no dates on them and were signed C.P. Meier.
Coney island in Brooklyn was the gathering spot for millions of New Yorkers and out-of-towners for rides, Nathan’s hot dogs, the beach, family fun and – as apparent in the auction signs – a little tawdry fun for others. The area started out in the mid-19th century with bathhouses and hotels.
Around the 1870s, it became a place of opposites: At one end were expensive hotels for the moneyed, and at the other were prostitutes, pickpockets and card sharks. This culture roamed so freely that Coney Island was called “Sodom by the Sea.” A giant tin elephant was built in 1884 and sparked the phrase “seeing the elephant,” which meant that this was a spot to find prostitutes. It burned down in 1896.
Coney Island was selling sex along the beach and some folks didn’t necessarily approve of it.
Early on, the amusement-park side of the island became known for its attractions, including Steeplechase Park and its Horse Race (with wooden horses) and later the Wonder Wheel ferris wheel.
This is how PBS described Coney Island in an American Experience film:
“Coney Island is a twentieth-century icon of American fun, and the birthplace of the large-scale amusement park. George Tilyou’s grinning ‘funny face’ logo for Steeplechase Park, the giant tower at Dreamland, and Luna Park’s 1.3 million electric lights drew crowds of fun-seekers for decades. Visitors strolled the boardwalk, splashed in the Atlantic Ocean, rode the Wonder Wheel, and enjoyed festive, carefree days at New York’s ‘Electric Eden.'”
The island is credited with having some of the first rollercoasters in the country, including the Flip Flap Railway (it turned upside down), the Loop-the-Loop (it didn’t do too well because most folks wanted to watch it rather than ride it), the whitewashed Giant Racer and the grand dame of them all, the Coney Island Cyclone.
I could find very little on Meier the artist. He was apparently born in Newark, NJ, and lived in New York as an adult. I found several of his drawings: a horse race on Coney Island, and others of men and women (who were likely prostitutes) and booze – the latter perhaps his way of snubbing his nose at Prohibition. He also apparently worked as a cartoonist, accountant and designer of wallpaper, textiles and bar accessories. Here’s a serving tray that he illustrated.
I suspect that the pair of Meier signs at auction may have hung outside a saloon or bar.
A May 7, 1894, New York Times story gave an account of walking the streets of a new and respectable area of the island that had been home to its seamy side. Some of the old dives were open, a few “lurid posters” still hung outside, and barkers were no longer beckoning guests. Inside, the bars were practically empty – to the chagrin of the owners – women wore long dress and sang clean songs, and female “attendants” were no longer entertaining men at tables.
The auction signs sold for $125.