The Best Books About Historic Coney Island

The Books I Picked & Why

Good Old Coney Island: A Sentimental Journey Into the Past

By Edo McCullough

Good Old Coney Island: A Sentimental Journey Into the Past

Why this book?

First published in 1957 (and re-issued with a welcome epilogue by historian Michael P. Onorato), the book vividly portrays the storied seaside’s heyday. McCullough was Coney Island royalty: His grandfather was one of its earliest settlers, his uncle was among its greatest showmen, and his dad owned a dozen amusement-park shooting galleries. The family’s love of the place seeps through these pages (a sub-sub title reads “the most rambunctious, scandalous, rapscallion, splendiferous, pugnacious, spectacular, illustrious, prodigious, frolicsome island on earth”—which about sums it up).  Particularly moving is the heartbreaking fate of the show animals on the night of a tragic fire in 1911.


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Sodom By the Sea an Affectionate History of Coney Island

By Oliver Pilat, Jo Ranson

Sodom By the Sea an Affectionate History of Coney Island

Why this book?

Known as “the people’s playground,” Coney Island was also affectionately dubbed “sodom by the sea.” This thick volume, published in 1941, offers a history going all the way back to 1830, affording a sweeping view of Coney Island’s risque, criminal, glamorous, delightful, glittering, and sometimes seedy past. It includes a splendid few pages about my subject, Dr. Couney, which were no doubt approved by the self-inventing showman himself—co-author Ranson was among his favorite newspaper reporters. 


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Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008

By Robin Jaffee Frank

Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008

Why this book?

Created in conjunction with a 2015 exhibition, this volume is a visual feast -- a tribute to the way Coney Island inspired artists and endures as part of the public imagination. Paintings, drawings, posters, artifacts, and photographs spanning 1861-2008 fill its pages; artists include Diane Arbus, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Red Grooms, and many others. Accompanying essays explore the seaside resort’s cultural significance.


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Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century

By John F. Kasson

Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century

Why this book?

Crammed with delightful stories and images, Kasson’s book is particularly strong in conveying the way that early 20th Century Coney Island provided a refuge for the “million”: working class immigrants who spent all week cooped up in tenements and sweatshops could ride the new subway cars out to the ocean on the weekend. There, they found liberation not only from the confines of cramped spaces but from buttoned-up mores: “Various amusements contrived to lift women’s skirts and reveal their legs and underclothing, while numerous others provided opportunities for intimate physical contact. Slow, scenic rides through tunnels and caves offered abundant occasions for ‘spooning’ and ‘petting,’ to use the language of the day. Other, more vigorous rides worked less subtly, throwing couples into each other’s arms.”


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Coney Island: The People's Playground

By Michael Immerso

Coney Island: The People's Playground

Why this book?

Immerso’s book provided confirmation of a rumor I’d heard—that back in the late 1880s, the first thing a newly arriving immigrant making the transatlantic crossing would see wasn’t the Statue of Liberty—it was in fact Coney Island, and specifically the ridiculous edifice known as the Elephant Hotel. A bad idea from the get-go, the novelty, pachyderm-shaped hotel was converted into a brothel until even the hookers checked out and it burned to the ground.


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