The Oldest Inhabitant of Coney Island from The History of Coney Island, 1878. Picture Collection of the New York Public Library
Coney Island’s Dancing Clams are older than the Switchback, the world’s first roller coaster (1884), and George C. Tilyou’s Steeplechase Park (1897). In fact, the frolicking mollusks are Coney’s oldest inhabitants, ATZ learned from a droll history of the seaside resort published in 1878. “The History of Coney Island from its first discovery in 4, 11, 44, down to last night, in rhyme” is a 47-page book with whimsical sketches of the summer scene from Coney’s western end at Norton’s Point to Brighton and Manhattan Beach. We also discovered that this rare volume was digitized by the Library of Congress and can be read online or downloaded to your Kindle.
A Chowder Party: Vegetables and fish gathering around a pot of chowder from The History of Coney Island,1878. Picture Collection of the New York Public Library
Written and illustrated by I.F. Eaton, the book was “adapted for all children under age 85, with notes by the editor (promissory ones), with maps and sketches in water color, drawings of bier, and many dry cuts.” There are a great many humorous sketches of beach-goers, including bathing beauties in Victorian dress and a mermaid startling a man digging for clams. It’s interesting to see that Coney’s Dancing Clams were not yet wearing top hats and trousers in 1878.
Last month, ATZ posted Lindsay Wengler’s photos documenting Gyro Corner Clam Bar’s hand-painted signs of top-hatted clam waiters serving clams on the half shell. Reader Beth Greenberg posted the comment “That’s one classy clam: look at his top hat and white gloves. That’s Coney Island!” Indeed, it is. Feltman’s Restaurant, where the hot dog was invented, had a famous ad in the 1900s called “The Epicure’s Parade” featuring both a top-hatted clam and a hot dog, as well as a strolling lobster, corn on the cob and mug of beer. Gregory & Paul’s, now Paul’s Daughter, has their own quirky version painted by Catherine Gavalas about 20 years ago, but my fave is their top-hatted Mr. Shrimp. Artist Richard Eagan, the co-founder of the Coney Island Hysterical Society, paid homage to the Feltman’s original with an architectural portrait of polychromed canvas and wood in 1997 and recently completed a limited handmade edition of ten.
In “The History of Coney Island,” the rhymes are as delightful as the drawings:
The hard-shell crab goes sideling by,
With murder in his little eye.
All sorts and sizes here you view,
Of those you eat and that eat you;
And you can see, in this strange spot.
How fish look ere they go to pot.
Prices were very reasonable in Coney Island back in the day: Tilyou’s Bathing Establishment, Bathing Suit and Clam Chowder, 25 cents. Bathing suit without Chowder, 15 cents. Donkey ride on the Beach, 10 cents. Clams, 5 cents. “The History of Coney Island,” 20 cents.
Mermaid startling man digging for clams, Coney Island, N.Y. from The History of Coney Island,1878. Picture Collection of the New York Public Library
Related posts on ATZ…
November 3, 2011: Scoop: Randazzo’s Clam Bar Eyeing Coney Island Boardwalk
October 14, 2011: Photo of the Day: Vernacular Signage by Lindsay Wengler
June 19, 2011: Coney Island Summer Reading: The Wonder City
December 8, 2010: Children’s Book Tells Coney Island Carousel Carver’s Story
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