Before There Were Amusement Parks

Amusement parks as we know them did not come into being until the latter part of the 19th century. But there were a host of predecessors, some dating back to the middle ages, ranging from beer gardens to world expositions. Each played a role in influencing what we would come to know as an amusement park.

Bartholomew Fair

Bartholomew Fair

Fairs were one of the earliest forms of public recreation and entertainment and one of the most famous was London’s Bartholomew Fair. Chartered by Henry I in 1143 it had an amazing run that lasted for more than seven centuries. Over the years there were musicians, prize fighters and wrestlers, tight-rope walkers and acrobats and of course an ample supply of beer, tobacco and food.  Roast pork was a staple.

A visitor in 1815 reported seeing a “learned pig” which, despite being blindfolded, could tell the time. And a report from the 1825 fair describes an elephant that could uncork bottles. The fair also developed an underbelly of pickpockets and prostitutes active on the Bartholomew grounds. The latter were gently named “soiled doves.” And if you couldn’t find a soiled dove to your liking in the tents on the fairgrounds, there was apparently an ample supply on the nearby and aptly named Cock St.

The Bartholomew Fair’s run ended in 1855, closed down by the city because it was perceived as encouraging debauchery.

It is also in England where another of the predecessors of the amusement park took shape. Pleasure gardens flourished there in the 17th and 18th centuries. True to their name, they were most often gardens that you could walk through and find various entertainments such as music and exhibitions and of course food.

One of the most famous of the pleasure gardens was Vauxhall Gardens. It opened in Kensington on 12 acres in 1661. By the end of the 18th century, Vauxhall Gardens began charging admission, something that would be a standard feature of the amusement parks that succeeded it.

Vauxhall Gardens

Vauxhall Gardens

One of Vauxhall Gardens’ more illustrious visitors was none other than Charles Dickens. Writing in Sketches by Boz,  here’s how Dickens described the scene:

We paid our shilling at the gate, and then we saw for the first time, that the entrance, if there had been any magic about it at all, was now decidedly disenchanted, being, in fact, nothing more nor less than a combination of very roughly-painted boards and sawdust. We bent our steps to the firework-ground; there, at least, we should not be disappointed. We reached it, and stood rooted to the spot with mortification and astonishment. That the Moorish tower—that wooden shed with a door in the centre, and daubs of crimson and yellow all round, like a gigantic watch-case! That the place where night after night we had beheld the undaunted Mr. Blackmore make his terrific ascent, surrounded by flames of fire, and peals of artillery, and where the white garments of Madame Somebody (we forget even her name now), who nobly devoted her life to the manufacture of fireworks, had so often been seen fluttering in the wind, as she called up a red, blue, or party-coloured light to illumine her temple.

In America, the wave of German immigration in the last half of the 19th century introduced us to a Germanic variation of the pleasure garden, the beer garden. It is perhaps here that many Americans were introduced to German style lagers, and maybe some schnitzel and wurst as well. Some of these beer gardens became quite elaborate with entertainments like shooting ranges and bowling alleys and perhaps a classical music performance. Others were little more than a row of tables where you could keep your focus on the brew.

Beer garden

German beer garden in New York City

Perhaps the events that most directly shaped the earliest amusement parks were world’s fairs. The first world’s fair was held in London in 1851 with its famed Crystal Palace, a 990,000 cast iron and plate glass structure that housed more than 14,000 exhibitors. But when it comes to influencing the latter day amusement park, no event had a greater impact than the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

One of the Chicago fair’s contributions that became a standard for amusement parks to this day was the midway. The midway was conceived as a rather high minded cultural educational endeavor. It included such attractions as an African village and a “Streets of Cairo” exhibit. But it also brought some entertainments that were rather edgy back in 1893, like belly-dancers. And one suspects that there was a fine line between cultural enlightenment and voyeurism on the world’s first midway.

the first ferris wheel

The ferris wheel at Chicago’s Columbian Esposition

One of the grandest of attactions on Chicago’s midway was the first ferris wheel, something that no amusement park ever since could be without. George Ferris’ invention was conceived by fair organizers as Chicago’s answer to the Eiffel Tower, unveiled during the 1889 Paris world’s fair. Ferris’ wheel was 264 feet tall, its cars could hold 60 passengers and it took 20 minutes to make one complete revolution.

In next week’s post I’ll take a look at the first amusement parks and some of the oldest parks that are still in operation today.


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23 Responses to Before There Were Amusement Parks

  1. patweber says:

    How interesting amusement parks were initially in Europe. Since Chicago then made the transition from European style fairs, did Europe follow suit with Chicago? Or maybe one of your next posts will tell us this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ken Dowell says:

      Not sure that I know enough about amusement parks in Europe to answer your question. Once they started to proliferate after the turn of the century, I think parks in both Europe and the U.S. had pretty similar attractions.


  2. Great post about amusement parks back in the day. I really like Ferris wheels. There is a large one in Orlando when we recently visited. We didn’t have time to ride it, but it looked impressive. I don’t think they were that big back then though. Looking forward to your next post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Donna Janke says:

    Fun story about the history of amusement parks. London’s Bartholomew Fair sounds fascinating. A learned pig telling time and an elephant uncorking bottles! Those would definitely wind up on some television shows in today’s world.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Phoenicia says:

    Thank you for sharing. I have learnt something new today. I have enjoyed fairground rides from a young age – the faster the better!


  5. heraldmarty says:

    Fascinating topic. I’ve never been big on fairs or amusement parks because I don’t care too much for crowds but there’s no question that the experience is entertaining and I look forward to following the series.


    • Ken Dowell says:

      Like you I find the topic more fascinating than many of the parks themselves. But I love Seaside resorts having grown up spending summers on the Jersey shore. I’m also a big fan of Coney Island and you’ll hear a lot about that in future posts.


  6. Fascinating topic, Ken, and well-told with pithy details to breathe life into history.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Erica says:

    20 minutes for the ferris wheel to make one revolution. I imagine that was a really crazy ride back before they had all the roller coasters that we have today.I never thought about the origins of amusement parks so this should make for an interesting series. Looking forward to it.


  8. Ken — I enjoyed learning about the history of amusement parks. I found it astounding that each car on the first Ferris wheel could hold 60 passengers! I wonder how many cars the wheel held? Hard to conceive of it.


  9. Cool bit of history on amusement parks that would make great fodder for fictional stories. I never quite looked at parks and state fairs the same way after I read David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again.”


  10. Have to admit I have never even paid attention to the history of amusement parks. Makes sense that the origin is in Europe. That’s after all where early Americans originally came from.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. BroadBlogs says:

    Growing up in a small town I was much more likely to go to fairs than amusement parks. So I totally get this!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. lenie5860 says:

    Ken, I like your wicked sense of humour, surprised no one else caught it. 🙂 I haven’t gone to a lot of fairs but remember going with an older sister’s friend on the ferris wheel – at night – and thought that was just the most wonderful experience ever.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Great post with great history.
    I liked the information about closing the Bartholomew Fair because it was perceived as encouraging debauchery. This is ironic and change in perception over time, because many of the original fairs were supported if not sponsored by the church and were centered around religious holidays.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Having just did a day tour in London, I learned about Cock Street from our Guide. Many people were ending their tour at the London Eye. My sister and I opted for a Champagne Tea at the Park Plaza Hotel overlooking Big Ben. In other words, despite living a few miles from Disneyland for three years, I never made it to the park. Keep the history lessons, and Dickens, coming Ken, because that’s as close as I’m getting to a theme park!

    Love the history.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Andy says:

    And so it was that Vauxhall Gardens was inaugurated in 1661, a mere three years after history’s favourite puritan, our Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, passed away. Could there have been a connection between these two occurrences, perhaps?

    As for those beer gardens, I’ve never been to one, but I can attest that eating a bratwurst on French bread and drinking doppelbock is indeed a one-way ticket to happiness. 🙂


  16. Jason @ says:

    I didn’t know the idea of amusement parks went that far back. Chicago was innovative with the Belly Dancers and the Ferris Wheel. The Midway sounded like the place to be in the last 1800’s.

    Liked by 1 person

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