Coney Island at Night (1905)

Before the cotton-candy and mechanical thrills, Coney Island was known for its thriving rabbit population — hence the name, the Dutch for rabbit being konijn: or so goes one of numerous etymologies for the area. Earlier the Lenape had named it Narrioch, meaning “land without shadows” or “always in light”. While thought to be a reference to its sunlit beaches, the name also speaks somehow (more than rabbits at least) to the dazzling electrical displays which would light up the peninsula after dusk at the turn of the twentieth century.

It’s these illuminations which are the subject of Coney Island at Night, an Edison Studios short from 1905 directed by Edwin S. Porter. Bringing together two of Thomas Edison’s “inventions” — the light bulb and the motion picture — the film offers a dreamy four-minute glimpse of the amusement district at its peak. Two years prior, Luna Park had opened, full of lavish electric landscaping and a futuristic “dark ride”, A Trip to the Moon, in which passengers left Earth to cavort with moonlit maidens and Selenites. And a year after that, the ribbon was cut at Dreamland, home to lagoons, towers, and one million electric lights. These venues, along with Steeplechase Park, built in 1897, formed the trio of iconic parks that competed during Coney Island’s heyday.

For the darker side of early film at Coney Island, see Ross Bullen’s essay on Jumbo’s ghost, featuring a filmed electrocution of Topsy the elephant on the site of Luna Park’s construction. For Coney Island’s acoustic heritage, see our post on Cummings’ Indian Congress too.

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