Literature Review

All of the Lights:

New York City Nightlife and Social Trends, 1885-1945

Stepping Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890-1930. By Lewis A. Erenberg. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940. By Chad Heap. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Love For Sale: Courting, Treating, and Prostitution in New York City, 1900-1945. By Elizabeth A. Clement. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

 

Before the late 1800s New York society was ruled by Victorian ideals. Sexual restraint, along with a strict moral and social code characterized this era. Through new modes of entertainment and nightlife, between 1885 and 1945, society changed the definition of respectability. New Yorkers experimented with the boundaries between social, economic, and gender categories, alternately reinforcing and erasing them. The authors of Love For Sale, Slumming, and Stepping Out explore the different ways in which the people of New York City played with these boundaries during this period that ultimately led to the development of new social norms.

 

The period from 1885-1945 produced many social trends that are antecedents of modern day, American society. The shifting social dynamics affected relationships between men and women, the working and middle classes, and the city’s collection of immigrant and native born. As a result of increased intermingling of people and a dismissal of the Victorian norms new everyday practices were established. For example, couples were no longer satisfied with loveless marriages and they believed that they could be romantically and sexually satisfied within their marriage. This epoch also witnessed public life replacing private life in importance. Society was no longer contained within a few well-to-do homes and families. Youths increasingly found entertainment and society beyond the watchful eyes of their parents. This changed the way in which white, upper class, New Yorkers interacted with each other as well as different races and ethnicities.

 

In Stepping Out, Lewis Erenberg postulates that New York society is moving away from conservative ideals toward a preoccupation with consumption and public presentation of one’s self. The book moves through the various social institutions that were the center of New York social life. There is an evolution from the relatively tame restaurant, like Delmonico’s, to the “gayer, more vibrant lobster palace” (33), and onward as society became increasingly attracted to new “urban amusements” (66). Erenberg continually cites instances where working class entertainments are polished and presented to the upper echelons as family friendly. The cabaret was a popular establishment; lifted from its lower beginnings, it allowed the upper classes to relax and enjoy life while still staying in their separate spheres. These spheres are an important theme in Stepping Out. Erenberg argues that upper class men and women sought release from their strict lives in slum neighborhoods and nightclubs because it allowed them to maintain class and ethnic separation. Upper class, whites held their behavior above the working class and urban poor even as their societies mingled. The nightclubs they found in the urban slums fascinated upper class men and women, while reinforcing the belief in their superiority.

 

Erenberg’s argument in Stepping Out is formed linearly, moving through each decade of social change. The author does justice to his thesis as he expands upon each new form of entertainment. Erenberg uses each institution to show the changes in society and by introducing and concluding each chapter with a vivid example he effectively captures the readers attention. It is surprising to read about the societal changes that occurred before the 1920s as the popular belief is that society changed with Prohibition. Erenberg wishes to show the reader that the 20s were not the beginning of a new American society rather they were a culmination of changes.

 

Slumming also deals with the tendency of upper class society to enjoy lower entertainments, while distancing themselves from the behavior associated with such establishments. Heap traces the social patterns of the upper class through the neighborhoods of New York City and Chicago. Middle and upper class whites went “slumming” (1) by visiting immigrant and ethnic neighborhoods to either reform or enjoy the nightlife and the natives. “Slummers” (24) were morbidly curious and they participated in these excursions to get a look at how the other half lived. They were especially interested in participating in sexual, illicit, or particularly ethnic activities. For the well to do, it was “a matter of balancing pleasure and danger” (103). These establishments were far enough removed from their everyday lives that they believed it was acceptable to partake in them and then return to respectability. Once again social boundaries are simultaneously crossed and reinforced. “Slummers” are equivalent to modern day circus goers. They go to see the unusual, and they are amused but it also makes them feel superior. The demand for spectacle leads to artificiality- they saw what the saw because they came to see it. In a sense the slums were merely putting on a show for the “slummers.”

 

The first two chapters of Slumming are arranged geographically, with attention given to each neighborhood of New York and Chicago.  Heap then expands upon the racial and sexual encounters that occurred in these neighborhoods. Unfortunately the author exhausts his critical thinking within the first four chapters. One reads the beginning of Slumming and the author’s whole argument is revealed. Heap explains the encounters that occur between the different people in the urban neighborhoods so well that it makes reading on a tedious affair.

Slumming and Stepping Out both handle the evolution of society during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, though each author approaches the issue in a different way. Stepping Out looks at society through the popular entertainments of the times. The author examines restaurants to cabarets and shows how the middle and upper classes shaped their society by adopting lower class entertainment and elevating them. Heap handles the evolution of society through the upper class’ fascination with slumming. While he does focus on the newly formed societal pleasures his approach is different than Heap’s. Love For Sale has the narrowest focus out the three books, choosing to discuss women in urban slums and nightclubs. The author mentions the changes on middle and upper class society but only as it pertains to courting and prostitution in New York.

 

As the title suggests Love For Sale traces the evolution of courting, treating, and prostitution in the early twentieth century. The book follows the changing ways in which men and women interacted. Previously women were viewed as mothers akin to the Virgin Mary, as maidens, or as strictly sexual beings. There was no sexuality for respectable, upper class, white, women. Clement argues that as the upper classes feverishly sought out “low” forms of entertainment, the separation of genders began to decrease. This separation of slowly disappeared until 1945, which began to approach modern views on sexuality and women. Clement also believes that with increasing promiscuity in courtship and dating prostitution became marginalized. As men found release through new entertainments, such as taxi dancing, burlesque, etc., they turned to prostitution with less frequency. It was no longer a common practice for men to seek out the services of a prostitute. Clement states that many modern men have been to a strip club, but few have ever sought out the services of a prostitute.

 

Given that the author of Love For Sale is an assistant professor at the University of Utah it is surprising to find her book rather informal. Elizabeth Clement introduces and concludes most chapters using first person or “this study” (14). This casual style is especially distracting after one reads Stepping Out and Slumming, whose styles tend to be more academic. In fact when juxtaposing the three authors Clement sounds a bit sophomoric.

 

Upper class New Yorkers eagerly sought out immigrant, working class, and African American neighborhoods and their entertainments the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In doing so they broadened the definition of respectability. Yet, respectability still did not apply to non-whites, rather it allowed the white, upper classes to assert their dominance and superiority. The upper classes still held themselves up as examples of morality, for whatever they might do in a nightclub it certainly did not compare to what the immigrant and working classes did. Participating in these low diversions let society play with the boundaries between respectability and degradation. All of these books deal with respectability and boundaries. Whether they are concerned with geographic, sexual, or socio-economic limits each author highlights the boundaries set and crossed during this changing era.

Samantha Akridge

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