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Peiss, Kathy.

Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-


Century New York. Temple University Press, 1986.

In this collection of seven essays focusing on specific aspects of women in labor,

relationships, and recreation, Kathy Peiss combines her extensive research with an easy-

to-read writing style to produce an entertaining yet highly informative work on an oft-

overlooked sect of Gilded Age society: working-class women. From the introduction,

Peiss is direct in presenting her thesis, setting a clear and concise tone that continues

throughout the remainder of Cheap Amusements. While choosing to focus solely on

women in New York City, many of her ideas can be expanded to the era and society as a

whole. Peiss’s argument is that working women in New York were not mere victims of

their social class but in reality played a role in facilitating the “transmission of cultural

lines” between their own class and the middle- and upper-classes (8). With the evidence

presented in the book, the reader is able to grasp more fully the extent to which society at

the turn-of-the-century was pulling away from stodgy Victorian ideals and towards

gender role transformations, commercialism, and a more “heterosocial” culture (10).

The beginning of the book describes the population as well as typical daily

experiences of working-class women. For experienced scholars of history, it is refreshing

to review evidence on women creating their own reactions to their environment. More

importantly, it may be the first introduction to readers with less knowledge on this

subgroup the impact that working-class women had on the middle class and not just the

other way around.

From there, the chapters go on to discuss specific means working-class women

used to carve out their own niches in New York. The arenas Peiss delves into include

expressive styles of fashion, dance halls, amusement parks, and nickelodeons. To


supplement her evidence, she uses effective quotes from actual immigrant laboring

women of the era as well as a small collection of photographs to demonstrate her point.

The only drawback, which she addresses, is that the book is only about women in the

Manhattan area and not representative of the entire country.

While the book provides a rare peak into (arguably) positive and autonomous

responses to emerging industrial capitalism in the United States, Peiss is careful not to

paint too rosy a picture of the working-class. The chapters do a good job carefully

juggling the balance between being overly optimistic and portraying the women as

victims. By showing that the women were gaining new independence but at the same

time experiencing new forms of oppression as subjects of judgmental middle-class

reformers, Peiss earns credibility and the ability to engage readers, challenging them to

analyze the topic more thoroughly and its correlation to the upcoming unsuccessful

“Progressive Movement.”

Cheap Amusements, despite its fun, colorful descriptions of wild dances, funky

fashion, weekend excursions, and crazy Coney Island adventures, Peiss concludes on a

more somber note. The book applies the “desires” of working-class women for “self-

determined pleasure, sexuality, and autonomy” at the turn-of-the-century New York to

women today, proving its relevance as an important perspective in the study of both the

Gilded Age and present gender roles.

Allison Wonsick
Appalachian State University