Behind the Boardwalk: Library Exhibit Reveals the History of Coney Island

This 1920 postcard pokes fun at the “mystery meat” in a Coney Island hot dog, years before Nathan’s Famous. / Marianne LaBatto

It’s not every day that a Brooklyn College alum plops four binders worth of vintage postcards on your lap, but that’s exactly what happened to Colleen Bradley-Sanders, Brooklyn College’s College Archivist. The result of this donation is the “Greetings from Coney Island: Postcards of Surf, Sand, and Steeplechase” exhibit now on display at the Brooklyn College library, which uses postcards and photographs from Coney Island to paint a vivid picture of Coney Island at the turn of the century.

During the spring semester, Bradley-Sanders was approached by Everett Hughes of the Brooklyn College class of ‘73. Over the course of his life he had collected hundreds of postcards from the early days of Coney Island, and he wished to donate them to the college archives. Bradley-Sanders was enthusiastic about his donation, not just for the quantity of donated material, but because of the powerful reaction postcards produce that are unlike other documents.

“These postcards are kind of the comparison of writing an e-mail to posting an image on Snapchat,” Bradley-Sanders said. It’s different from the stiff formality of Victorian- or Edwardian-era letters. “Informal correspondence, with pictures.”

“Pictures” is the key word here.

This iconic “Greetings from Coney Island” postcard was used as the source material for a poster for the library’s Coney Island exhibit. /
Marianne LaBatto

“They’re interesting because they’re so visual,” Bradley-Sanders said about the postcards. She’s always on the lookout for historical documents that are visually exciting. Show a student a paragraph, and their eyes glaze over; but show them a photograph, and their eyes light up. In addition, the postcards in the exhibit predate the mainstream adoption of color photography, meaning that they are the only color representations of Coney Island in the early 1900’s.

The exhibit supplements Hughes’s postcards with black-and-white photographs from the college archives, handpicked by Associate Archivist Marianne LaBatto. While the postcards capture the vibrancy of Coney Island life, the panoramic photographs of Coney Island offer a glimpse at the amusement parks’ grandeur.

The exhibit focuses on the three main amusement parks of Coney Island in the early 20th century: Steeplechase, Luna Park, and the ill-fated Dreamland, which burned down in 1911. The three amusement parks were popular with both the upper and lower classes of Brooklyn, and attracted millions of visitors from all across New York City, just as it does now. It was those very similarities between the Coney Island of more than a century ago and the Coney Island of today that drew Bradley-Sanders to the project.

Even the hot dogs are the same! One postcard from 1920 jokingly implies that the hot dogs served in Coney Island are made of actually made of dog, a gag that wouldn’t be out of place in 2010.

The exhibit was originally organized for the summer semester — “What’s more ‘summer in Brooklyn’ than Coney Island?” Bradley-Sanders said — but the summer is over, even if it doesn’t feel that way, and the Greetings from Coney Island exhibit’s time in the sun will soon draw to a close. The exhibit will be closed sometime in early November, although Bradley-Sanders and LaBatto haven’t decided on a date yet. In the meantime, you can visit the exhibit on the ground floor of the Brooklyn College library.

A postcard of Coney Island’s iconic parachute jump. / Marianne LaBatto

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