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Brooklyn Museum
Brooklyn Museum

Coney Island Gambling Wheel

Brooklyn Museum
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."

 

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Show and Tell
Photograph of Jefferson Davis in Women’s Clothing
International Center for Photography, Gift of Charles Schwartz, 2012

On May 10, 1865, Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederacy, was captured by Union troops near Irwinville, Georgia. Davis’s capture, about a month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, was the effective end of the Confederacy and the four-year war that had left hundred of thousands of Americans dead.

Davis, a true believer in the cause of the Confederacy, refused to accept Lee’s surrender, believing that the South could still wage a guerilla war against the Union (clearly, Lee disagreed). With that cause in mind, Davis and his family fled Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, hoping to make it to Texas, where he believed he could continue to fight. But the Davises would only make it as far as south Georgia before they were found by Union troops.

According to a handful of accounts from the period, Davis was captured while wearing women’s clothes. The story, as it’s generally told, depicts a man desperate to escape and so, with the encouragement of his wife, Varina, he donned her overcoat and shawl and slipped into the Georgia swamp with a female servant (other accounts say he grabbed his wife's coat and shawl accidentally). Union troops spotted the two “women” and, on closer look, realized that one was wearing spurred boots. Given away by his footwear, Davis surrendered to the Union troops.

The story of Davis in women’s clothing traveled quickly to the ears of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War. Stanton recognized the story as an opportunity to discredit Davis, who still had numerous sympathizers throughout the country. Historians have noted that the North gendered its victory as masculine and heroic and, in contrast, portrayed the South as feminine and weak. Davis’s flight played into that narrative, portraying the Southern leader as a coward willing to emasculate himself in order to escape. In short, manly martyrs do not wear women’s clothes. (Never mind that numerous eyewitness accounts disputed the story, including two by members of the First Wisconsin Cavalry, one of the units that captured Davis and his party and another by Davis’s coachman.)

Nevertheless, Stanton planned to exploit the account to the Union’s full advantage. But there was a slight hitch in his plan—namely, the look and style of Varina Davis’s overcoat and shawl. Mrs. Davis’s overcoat was essentially unisex, and bore a striking resemblance to the raincoats of Union soldiers. Furthermore, the shawl was also worn by many men in the mid-19th century, including Abraham Lincoln. The original plan foiled, Stanton encouraged the rumor that Davis had been captured wearing women’s petticoats, earning Davis the derogatory nickname “President in Petticoats.”

The rumor proved incredibly popular. Historian Gaines Foster writes, “Northerners delighted in the accounts of how the Confederate chieftain had tried to escape in female disguise.” Indeed, even P.T. Barnum couldn’t resist the spectacle: The circus king exhibited what he claimed to be the very clothes Davis was wearing at the time of his capture.

Boston Public Library via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Numerous prints circulated of Davis in petticoats, and photography—a relatively new medium at the time—took up the theme as well. In this combination photograph (up top) produced by the Slee Brothers of Poughkeepsie, New York, and now owned by the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, Davis is depicted in the petticoats of a woman, his head, taken from a separate photographic portrait, having been imposed on another body. Here, Davis wears bonnet, shawl, and petticoats, a fanciful elaboration on the story of his capture, and the skirts are lifted to reveal his spurred boots. The Slee Brothers were one of many photography studios to use combination printing—the production of a single positive through multiple negatives—to play with the theme of Davis fleeing in women’s clothes.

Other photographs from the period depict Davis’s head superimposed on a body wearing full hoop skirts with large men’s boots also imposed over the body, as well as Davis (again in full women’s dress) sneaking through the Georgia swampland while holding a dagger. In almost all of these photographs, the boots are prominently displayed, noting Davis’s folly and a clear part of the narrative of the North’s victory.

Photography was undoubtedly a powerful tool to disseminate the story of Davis’s and the South’s defeat. Davis himself recognized the importance of the new medium: In 1869, he commissioned a photograph of himself wearing the actual clothes he had worn when captured. But the act was fruitless and, despite his insistence, the “President in Petticoats” is a story that stuck with Davis long after death.

Header image: International Center for Photography

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