Vintage Coney Island: postcard from 1938 Fortune Magazine

Coney Island
Summer has officially started and for many New Yorkers, summer is synonymous with Coney Island‘s boardwalk, beach, and hot dog eating contests. Fortune Magazine has just republished a story from their archives about Brooklyn‘s famous “island” (really, it’s been connected to the mainland for many years and is an island only in name, though technically it is part of Brooklyn, which is part of Long Island) when a day at the beach cost only 10 cents (round trip!) in subway fare.


The fascinating and evocative article chronicles the history and then-current status of New York‘s “nickel empire” after its 1920s heyday and at the beginning of its decline that led to the closure of most of Coney Island’s original attractions.

Back in 1938, there were sixty bathhouses where you could rent a locker, use the pool facilities, and even rent a bathing suit for fifty cents or less (nowadays you can try to change in a municipal restroom, but the only pool will be the overflowing sinks). Though it may seem a world away from the Coney Island of 2011 (men in white sailor suits cleaned the boardwalk each night!), a lot of parallels can be drawn about the waning popularity of urban beach resorts and revitalization efforts of Coney Island then and now.

Other highlights of the article include:
-The saga of Feltman’s frankfurters, who could once serve 8,000 meals at a time until a young upstart named Nathan undercut the hot dog business by a nickel and took over the market.
-Observations from chief lifeguard of 37 years John McMonigle on beach rescues: ” The fat dames is different. Hell, you don’t have to worry about them — can’t swim a lick — but they go in, dog paddle around two hours, an’ never touch bottom. By God you can’t sink ‘em.”
-The oddly intriguing practice of baby incubators on the boardwalk with a charge to view (Boardwalk Empire viewers will recall seeing this in 1920 Atlantic City). Turns out they were opened by a pragmatic and kindly doctor who treated poor and ill infants, using the admission fee to pay for the medical care and facilities.
-The difficulties of running a freak show, where acts included “The Spider Boy; Singing Lottie, Fat Girl (O Boy, Some Entertainer); Laurello, the Only Man With a Revolving Head (See Frisco, the Wonder Dog); Professor Bernard, Magician Extraordinary (He will fool you); Professor Graf, Tattoo Artist (Alive); and his star act, Belle Bonita and her Fighting Lions (Action, Thrills).”

Read the whole article (maybe on your way to Coney Island on the subway) here.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Albany_Tim.