Cheap thrills: Coney Island during the Great Depression

At Coney Island, “The best show is the people themselves.”

Reginald Marsh, Wooden Horses, 1936, tempera on board, 61 x 101.6 cm (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art). A conversation with Erin Monroe, Robert H. Schutz, Jr., Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, and Steven Zucker

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Marsh, Wooden Horses (Coney Island)

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Key points

  • During the Great Depression, amusements like Steeplechase Park in Coney Island provided an affordable escape from the anxieties of daily life. Coney Island attracted people of different classes, races, and genders, bringing them together in ways that were not always considered socially acceptable in other environments.
  • Reginald Marsh documented the lives and activities of the working class, part of a general trend in the 1930s towards capturing life realistically. While many of his colleagues, including the photographer Dorothea Lange, worked in rural areas, Marsh focused his attention on life in urban spaces.
  • Marsh’s depictions of women combine elements of reality and popular culture that portray women through a voyeuristic and sexualized lens. His buxom figures were inspired by movie stars, and also reflect the salacious spectacle of Coney Island, where working-class women like those in this image could supplement their income in dance halls and popular entertainment.

Go deeper

See this painting in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Learn about other artworks and stories that portray Coney Island

Read this famous article in Fortune magazine about Coney Island in the 1930s

Learn more about the history of Coney Island

Find out how George C. Tilyou, the founder of Steeplechase Park, developed business practices still in use today

Read about how some of the “lost” wooden horses from Steeplechase Park turned up in a storage yard

Learn more about arts and entertainment during the Great Depression

See photographs of Marsh sketching, as well as examples of his sketches


More to think about

Coney Island was a place of social permissiveness, entertainment, and escape that crossed lines of class, race, and gender. What are some settings that function in this way today? How would you compare these contemporary examples to the scene that Marsh shows us in his work?


Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.