Date of Degree

2-2021

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

M.A.

Program

Liberal Studies

Advisor

Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis

Subject Categories

Cultural History | Other History | Social History

Keywords

Lobster Palaces, Gilded Age, Times Square, Broadway, restaurants

Abstract

Between 1870 and 1920, the period known as the Gilded Age, New York City became the acknowledged national leader in finance, manufacturing, technology, and entertainment. As the country’s leader, it attracted both new millionaires who wanted to validate their social importance in an attempt to rid themselves of a small-town past and immigrants, who were searching for better opportunities. However, to New York’s elite society, the Four Hundred, led by Mrs. Astor, both groups were not welcomed. While the immigrants proved easier to control physically, the new millionaires, however, were indeed a legitimate threat. With this real threat including pressure within her group, Mrs. Astor felt compelled to lead elite society from the comfort of their private homes to approved quasi-public spaces such as the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel where the wealthy were provided an opportunity to validate their social superiority before a worshipping public. See and be seen became their new mantra.

To the west, Times Square offered a more exciting alternative as a nighttime adult playground where its brilliant modern lights transformed nighttime into day and gave every individual the reward of privacy while participating in its public amusements. Times Square’s sparkling theaters, glittering billboards, and new restaurants called lobster palaces were a public defiance to previous generations of proper social behavior. The lobster palaces’ classic architecture, decor, and French-inspired cuisine, all approved aristocratic symbols of empire, were noted by its devotees as being the triumvirate of a good time where women (however dubious), diamonds, and champagne was celebrated every night.

As the years passed, Times Square continuously grew physically. With it grew a changed public desire, and out of economic necessity, lobster palaces transformed themselves easily into cabarets where music, entertainment, and dance were added to their menu. These new cabarets attracted a more democratic crowd that represented the real America in blending these different social classes. Couples now had an opportunity to discover each other and themselves in the process.

This new form of adult play and leisure was continuously criticized by social, political, and religious critics. However, their censure encouraged an increased desire to break the established social and cultural conventions. The censors claimed that the dancing and music's moral and social degeneracy predictably was caused by these lobster palaces. However, the Volstead Act passed in 1919, which enforced prohibition, and with the loss of lucrative alcohol revenues forced the lobster palaces to permanently close their doors. They were replaced by mob-controlled speakeasies, which were less elegant and catered to a seedier crowd. Looking at the physical decline, many critics believe that this period contributed to American civilization's moral decline. However, others felt that this period gave the disenfranchised—women, immigrants, Jews, and Blacks—an opportunity for something better, with the promise of rewards and a chance for the American dream. This thesis will analyze how and why lobster palaces became part of an essential experimental setting where adults could find the possibility of a better life than their ancestors before them. In the process, Americans discovered themselves through play and leisure.

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