The Search for Fun

Going Out at Night

Chicagoans embraced mass popular culture for various and sometimes overlapping reasons.

For one, the cheap amusements that filled the city’s expanding bright-light districts enabled the average man or woman to express their individuality in a way that one’s work and role in community life no longer could. As jobs became more monotonous and residential mobility grew, Chicagoans relied upon mass culture to define themselves and their place in an increasingly fluid social world.

Meanwhile, the new entertainment industry demanded little from its patrons in the way of social stature or personal wealth. Anyone with an enthusiasm for music, a willingness to learn the latest dance, a desire to conform to the newest fashions, and a bit of spare income to pay for it all could partake in popular amusements. Tremendous social mixing therefore took place in the city’s department stores, movie theaters, dance halls, and night clubs. Such mixing was especially appreciated by African-Americans, Jews, recently arrived immigrants, gays and lesbians, and other outcast members of society, who found that bright-light districts often accomodated them in a manner they seldom enjoyed elsewhere in the city.

Similarly, the city’s new mass culture was exceptionally popular with younger men and women, those in their late teens and twenties. The city’s youth embraced such amusements not only because they were cheap and helped them define themselves, but also because such activities inherently challenged the authority of parental and pastoral ideas about appropriate public and private behavior. Accordingly, young Chicagoans substituted the “modern” ethic of leisure and consumption for the Victorianism of their parents, with its emphasis on thrift and self-denial.

Finally, popular amusements provided opportunities for individual men and women, many of whom were unattached and in the market for marriage or sex, to meet eligible partners, often from outside the social boundaries of one’s class or ethnic group. Through amusements such as movies and public dancing, men and women formulated dating rituals suitable to the changing consumer marketplace and shifting ideas about sex and marriage. Whereas sex and marriage had long been seen as merely an economic arrangement for the purpose of sharing expenses and rearing children who would care for you in times of illness and old age, “modern” couples expected to receive companionship and sexual pleasure from their marriages. Bright-light districts catered to such couples by offering activities by which they could meet their ideal mate, test their compatibility through shared amusement experiences, and then use those same activities to help make their marriage more pleasurable and personally satisfying.

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