Original image
Brooklyn Museum

Coney Island Gambling Wheel

Original image
Brooklyn Museum

About 100 years old and 65 inches in diameter, this colorful gambling wheel with dragons for spokes provides a peek into how Americans used to have fun. It once lit up when spun, and whichever red or black number it landed on would bring cheers or scowls from spectators—depending on where they put their money.

The wheel was used at Coney Island, the famed amusement park on the sandy southern shores of Brooklyn, and is now on display as part of the Brooklyn Museum’s new exhibit Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008. The show spotlights the unusual place Coney Island holds in our collective imagination by examining art and artifacts both made there and inspired by the park, including this gambling wheel.

“It ties to Coney Island as a place of opportunity,” says Robin Jaffee Frank, Ph.D., Chief Curator and Krieble Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, who curated this show. “It’s a place where you could come and gamble and win money and prizes or a chance encounter between strangers might be the key to your future happiness. All these films and stories that we encounter are about chance encounters at Coney Island.”

Image credit: Brooklyn Museum

The artifact is also a reminder that gambling—among other transgressions—was once one of the biggest draws of the park. In its earliest days, Coney Island was known as “Sodom by the Sea,” thanks to its proliferation of gambling games as well as available prostitutes, alcohol, and more. 

“There was a constant attempt to clean it up, like Times Square, and it was never really successful,” says Frank.

This crossing of lines extended to class and race, with people from distinct backgrounds who might not be expected—or allowed—to run into one another in daily life cramming together on a ride or watching the gambling wheel spin. 

Embedded bulbs would light up as the wheel turned, creating a sparkle in the dragons’ glass eyes and the jewels that dotted each one’s throat. It’s just one creative way that the promoters and managers of Coney Island’s theme parks—Luna Park, Steeplechase, and Dreamland—used electricity, from the hulking mechanical rides to zappers that clowns used to (lightly) shock visitors. 

Dragons (and exotic animals more generally) were common figures throughout the parks, and the show includes a photo by Walker Evans of dragons guarding the majestic Dragon’s Gorge indoor rollercoaster, which took people through sharp turns on their way to “Hades.” In a spooky coincidence, the Dragon’s Gorge caught fire in 1944, destroying half of Luna Park.

Of course, dragons are not all about menace. They also reflect excitement and wonder—dragons were associated with prosperity and good luck in Chinatown and elsewhere. 

These dual themes of threat and delight weave throughout much of the new exhibit. Frank began to conceive of the show when working as curator of the Yale University Art Gallery, when she found herself drawn to Joseph Stella’s monumental 1913–1914 painting Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras, which features abstractions of the Ferris wheel, Loop the Loop, and illuminated floats that create a “whirling vortex that you feel like you’re being pulled into along with all these abstracted masses of people.”

Joseph's Stella's Battle of Lights, Coney Island, via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Spending five years putting the show together, Frank found that over a period of 150 years (from the Civil War to the 2008 closing of the Astroland amusement park), artists working in virtually every medium—painting, photography, film, sculpture—had taken Coney Island as their subject. A number of actual artifacts from the park—carousel animals, signs, and the gambling wheel—also help provide a historic context for the show. All told, the exhibit features some 140 objects from artists, including Diane Arbus, Weegee, William Merritt Chase, and the unknown creator of the gambling wheel.

In fact, much about the wheel remains mysterious: which park it was used in, for example, or how often it paid out to gamblers. The New-York Historical Society acquired it in the mid-1990s from the Smith Collection of Penny Arcade Machines and Related Memorabilia and it sat in storage until Frank requested it for this show. The name of the person or manufacturer who created it remains unknown.

“I hope that visitors to the Brooklyn Museum will recognize it as an astounding work of art,” says Frank. "'Anonymous' is the name of many a great craftsperson."


Original image
National Museum of the United States Navy
Show and Tell
The Craft That First Took Humans to the Deepest Part of the Ocean
Original image
National Museum of the United States Navy

What do you do when you want to go to the lowest point on the surface of the Earth—a place so deep beneath the ocean it could crush you with its intense pressure? If you’re Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard, you build a bathyscaphe, of course.

The object above is Trieste, the first-ever craft to make it all the way to the Challenger Deep, the lowest place in the Mariana Trench (and thus the entire ocean), in 1960. The craft was designed by Piccard, an adventurous physicist, inventor, and explorer who had previously been known for his daring expeditions into the sky. In 1931, he had ascended almost 10 miles into the atmosphere in an airtight aluminum ball tucked into a hot air balloon, demolishing aircraft altitude records and making valuable observations about the behavior of cosmic rays.

But Piccard didn’t just want to go upward. He was also obsessed with going in the other direction: down into the oceans. To make such a feat possible, he invented the bathyscaphe, a kind of inverse of his hot air balloon ball. The concept—a self-propelled, submersible diving vessel—was an improvement on the bathysphere, a kind of deep-sea bubble lowered to the ocean with a cable, which had been invented by Americans William Beebe and Otis Barton in the late 1920s.

The pressure at the bottom of the ocean is so great it can crush submarines, not to mention lesser craft. To resist that pressure, the Trieste relied on a heavy steel crew cabin, as well as separate tanks filled with gasoline and air. The gasoline—which is lighter than water and does not compress under pressure like some other substances—helped the crew to maneuver and navigate. The air tanks, which would slowly fill with water while descending, helped the vessel to descend, and worked in concert with a system of cone-shaped containers filled with iron ballast. To ascend back up to the surface, magnets would release the iron ballast.

Piccard built his first bathyscaphes in the 1940s and 1950s, but the Trieste was the most ambitious of them all. The inventor supervised its building for the French Navy, which used it for several years. In 1958 the U.S. Office of Naval Research bought it for its riskiest trip yet—a descent to the world’s deepest place, the Mariana Trench.

Piccard, however, was in his seventies, and did not go along for the trip. He sent his son Jacques instead, along with an American Navy lieutenant named Don Walsh. Before completing Project Nekton, as it was called, the group did multiple test dives in Guam. Then the fateful day came: January 23, 1960. The hydronauts equipped themselves with chocolate bars and sonar hydrophones and headed down … and down … and down.

So what was there to see so far down in the ocean? Some pretty weird stuff, it turns out: sediment the hydronauts described as “diatomaceous ooze,” and bioluminescent creatures gleaming against the darkness. It took five hours to get the seven miles down and another three to get back up, but by the time Piccard and Walsh emerged, exhausted, they were heroes.

For years, nobody ever returned to the Challenger Deep, not until James Cameron managed a much-hyped solo dive there in 2012. But Piccard and Walsh were the first—and these days, the craft that took them to that mysterious place lives in the National Museum of the United States Navy in Washington, D.C. True to its famous form, it’s the museum’s most photographed artifact, and a reminder that sometimes the race to the bottom can be a good thing.

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Ransom Center
Show and Tell
A Rose That Held a Princess's Secret
Original image
Ransom Center

Princess Marthe Bibesco had it all—beauty, brains, and a long line of men dying to be her paramour. But what to get the aristocrat who has everything? For one of her lovers, the answer was not diamonds or priceless art, but rose petals.

The artifact you see above was discovered in Bibesco’s papers at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center. There, you can learn much about both Bibesco, a Romanian princess who was a celebrated literary light in the early 20th century, and the aristocratic circles in which she traveled.

By all accounts, Bibesco was a ravishing beauty. But her appeal went deeper than that: She knew how to exercise influence through her enormous social circle, and embraced her role as socialite and power broker. “I am the needle through which pass the filaments and the strands of our disjointed Europe to be threaded together in a necklace,” she wrote, and indeed her alliances brought together royals and relatives from both sides of the Balkans.

Though she found a niche as an author and a huge social circle, Bibesco didn’t find happiness with her husband, a wealthy prince—and her cousin—whom she married when she was 17. But her married status didn’t keep her from assembling quite the collection of high-profile lovers.

Prince and Princess Bibesco wedding. Image credit: Ransom Center

One of them, French Prince Charles-Louis de Beauvau-Craön, was serious about his love. But Bibesco was religious, and didn’t want to get a divorce. This left the prince heartbroken, but no less determined to express himself to his lover. He wrote her reams of love letters and, at one point in June 1911, even inscribed his amorous emotions on rose petals.

Bibesco pressed the flowers and saved them for the rest of her life. Many years later, conservators discovered them among her papers at the Ransom Center, where they’d landed after being purchased from antiquarian book dealers in the 1960s and 1970s. But unfurling century-old flowers presented a real challenge to the conservators tasked with documenting Bibesco’s life. During a conservation project in 2016, digital archivist Genevieve Pierce joined forces with a paper conservator, Jane Boyd, to figure out how to get the petals open. Instead of starting with the century-old flowers, they wrote in ink on other types of flowers, then pressed them and tried to open them to see if there was a way to do so without the petals disintegrating.

Eventually, they hit on a method: They put the two flowers in a humidification chamber, using a damp brush to humidify them even more. Finally, they coaxed the flowers open and looked at the messages hidden inside. They found something sweet: the names of the princess and her lover.

Princess Marthe Bibesco in 1929. Image credit: Getty Images

Today, the flower petals have been digitized for easier viewing and tucked into carefully created boxes designed to preserve them for another century. It’s easy to imagine the celebrated beauty opening her love letter, inhaling the flowers and their fervent message, then tucking them together in her belongings to return to during a private moment.

Did the relationship last? Alas, no. After a decade, she moved on. But not from affairs: She had many other relationships, some with famous men like Ramsay MacDonald, England’s first Labor Party prime minister. Flowers may withstand the test of time, but not every relationship does.


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