Atlantic City (N.J.) -- History -- 19th century, Cape May (N.J.) -- History -- 19th centry, Class consciousness -- United States -- History -- 19th century, Leisure -- United States -- History -- 19th century, Recreation -- United States -- History -- 19th century, Seaside resorts -- New Jersey -- History -- 19th century, United States -- History -- 19th century


"Victorianism" is a highly controversial, sometimes ironic, term penned by historians throughout various works that has come to hold dramatic weight in both its meaning and its influence. Though the term is usually most closely associated with nineteenth century England, Victorianism was a highly influential movement in American culture simultaneously as well, specifically in the spheres of home, work, and play. Of those, "play," or leisure, is undoubtedly the least explored, especially before the latter decades of the twentieth century. Prior to this period, most literature about the Victorians, with the exception of a few works, only dealt with masculinity, religion, and the rigid dynamic of the nineteenth century household. Recently, historians like James Walvin, Pamela Horn, and Hugh Cunningham have attempted to draw attention to Victorian leisure with excellent works on pastimes and society during the nineteenth century, but they represent only a few. However, many works of this caliber focus on England, the "birthplace" of Victorianism. Thus, this work attempts to emphasize that the cultural phenomenon of Victorianism was just as present in the United States. Despite the recurring themes of the home and the workplace so often chosen by scholars, it is actually within the realm of leisure that the controversial issues of the Victorian period and its people can be best observed. Class, race, and gender were three major components of the Victorian culture that shaped the various forms of leisure and recreation, as well as the specific restrictions on those amusements. All of these factors had a shared, tremendous influence on the progress (or lack thereof) towards a more modern era and society that occurred at the turn of the twentieth century. iv In the pages to follow, the numerous contradictions and paradoxes of Victorian leisure in America will be examined, ultimately demonstrating how pastimes and recreation (and their outlets) in the mid to late nineteenth century were neither truly Victorian nor truly progressive, but indeed a combination of both. This creates further irony during this controversial period. However, before exploring these outlets, the term "Victorian" will be examined while placing it into the context of mid to late nineteenth century Americans who belonged to all classes of travelers. It will become apparent that American Victorians had much invested in their values, but were also willing to break the rules regarding certain amusements and pleasures. Moreover, the "democratization" of leisure will be highlighted as the upper and lower classes began to enjoy the same recreations. Marked innovations of the period will also be discussed, as to highlight their importance on Victorian leisure and its development, which will also be referred to throughout the chapters. These topics will be addressed before examining the specific Victorian leisure culture of two of America’s oldest seaside destinations: Cape May and Atlantic City, both in New Jersey. The guests, accommodations and transportation, and offerings at these resort towns will act as a mirror into mid to late nineteenth century culture. There, the contradictory ideals and rules of Victorianism are exhibited as the resorts rose to prominence. The decline of "elite-only" leisure and the rise of the "excursionist" will be examined throughout the progression of the towns’ growth and boom periods. Exploring the ironies of Victorian leisure through the proverbial lens of Cape May and Atlantic City proves effective, as the towns came to represent opposite ends of the "socially acceptable" spectrum after a short period, and were full of similar inconsistencies and paradoxes themselves. Additionally, their current fates remain a product of their polarized v Victorian heydays, further proving the influence of seaside resort culture, the late Victorian period, and its ideals on the broader field of American leisure history.


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Graduation Date





Lester, Connie


Master of Arts (M.A.)


College of Arts and Humanities



Degree Program

History; Public History








Release Date

December 2014

Length of Campus-only Access

3 years

Access Status

Masters Thesis (Open Access)


Arts and Humanities -- Dissertations, Academic, Dissertations, Academic -- Arts and Humanities