‘Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland’

Strobridge Lithographing Company, c. 1898, color lithograph poster, Cincinnati Art Museum

‘It was then a desert island—nobody went there.” So wrote the poet Walt Whitman in 1889, reflecting on the days of his youth spent at clambakes and bonfires in a sleepy seaside neighborhood known by the name of Coney Island. Much had changed by the time he put that name to paper; what had once been a village so remote as to require a half-day’s journey from Manhattan had, by the late 1880s, become home to the largest, most-visited carnival ground in the United States. Without even one mouse-eared mascot in sight, the “Electric Eden” cemented itself as one of the cultural flagstones of American entertainment via three main amusement parks: Luna Park, Steeplechase Park and Dreamland, the latter of which lends its name to the exhibition now on display at the Old State Capitol. 

“Although it may seem odd to host an exhibition about Coney Island in Louisiana, we liked the themes it presented,” says curator Lauren Davis. “The exhibition views this amusement resort as a microcosm for American life and how much has changed over the last 150 years regarding how we amused ourselves, how new inventions thrilled us, and how we navigated the mixing of social classes. Like Coney Island, the Old State Capitol has seen its fair share of social change over its long history.”

From vintage postcards and posters to historic video—plus a side exhibit about the midcentury thrills of New Orleans’ Pontchartrain Beach—much of this journey through time focuses on how the “dreamland” of Coney Island inspired artists, performers, writers and filmmakers through the years.

“The way the area developed from a beach resort to having amusement parks showcasing performers, ‘freaks,’ and new inventions like lighting and cinema is really interesting,” says Davis. “As quoted in the exhibit, ‘Coney Island was a laboratory for the invention and testing of social, commercial and technological ideas that would later shape the nation as a whole.’”

To preview the sights or learn more about October 3’s Story Time Tea—a bring-your-own-doll-or-teddy event showcasing snacks, crafts and a reading from the American Girl doll book Rebecca to the Rescue, in which Rebecca visits Coney Island in 1914—visit louisianaoldstatecapitol.org.