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date: 02 October 2023

Nightlife in the Cityfree

Nightlife in the Cityfree

  • Peter C. BaldwinPeter C. BaldwinDepartment of History, University of Connecticut


Today the term nightlife typically refers to social activities in urban commercial spaces—particularly drinking, dancing, dining, and listening to live musical performances. This was not always so. Cities in the 18th and early 19th centuries knew relatively limited nightlife, most of it occurring in drinking places for men. Theater attracted mixed-gender audiences but was sometimes seen as disreputable in both its content and the character of the audience. Theater owners worked to shed this negative reputation starting in the mid-19th century, while nightlife continued to be tainted by the profusion of saloons, brothels, and gambling halls. Gradual improvements in street lighting and police protection encouraged people to go out at night, as did growing incomes and decreasing hours of labor. Nightlife attracted more women in the decades around 1900 as it expanded and diversified. Dance halls, vaudeville houses, movie theaters, restaurants, and cabarets thrived in the electrified “bright lights” districts of central cities. Commercial entertainment contracted again in the 1950s and 1960s as Americans spent more of their evening leisure hours watching television and began to regard urban public spaces with suspicion. Still, nightlife is viewed as an important component of urban economic life and is actively promoted by many municipal governments.


  • Cultural History
  • Urban History

The term nightlife today typically refers to social activities in urban commercial spaces—particularly drinking, dancing, dining, and listening to live musical performances. In the 19th century, the term was often used more broadly to include all nocturnal activities outside the home, including working and walking the streets. The modern understanding of nightlife emerged in the early 20th century as commercial entertainment grew dramatically in scale and attracted wider participation. Now focused on recreational consumption, nightlife is viewed as an important component of urban economic life.

Before 1830

Cities in colonial America and the early American Republic were typically quiet at night. Almost all work took place during daylight hours, and commercial entertainment options were few.

Colonial cities kept curfews, which began at an established hour in the early evening and were signaled by the ringing of bells, the beating of drums, or the firing of cannons. Pedestrians in the streets at night risked being challenged, questioned, and perhaps detained until morning by the city’s night watchmen. Local laws prohibited juveniles, blacks, and Indians from being out after curfew. Women suspected of prostitution could be arrested for “night walking.” Southern cities such as Charleston and New Orleans, where whites feared slave uprisings, had larger forces of military guards to police the nighttime streets. The curfews and patrols succeeded in forcing most law-abiding people indoors. Still, doctors, midwives, and servants ventured out on errands at the risk of being waylaid by muggers and rapists. Virtually no street lighting existed in the colonial era except for widely spaced oil lamps and candle lanterns on a few streets in the largest cities. Unable to see where they were going unless they carried lanterns, pedestrians stumbled into puddles, tripped over sidewalk obstructions, and collided with posts.

While curfews and dangers discouraged people from venturing into the dark streets, few attractions tempted them to go out anyway. Entertainment options consisted mostly of taverns and brothels, ensuring that most people out for an evening of pleasure were male. Taverns through the end of the 18th century drew a diverse clientele of men from different class backgrounds, who mingled somewhat uneasily within these shared spaces. Young men on drinking sprees enjoyed passing from tavern to tavern, singing as they went and occasionally getting in brawls with other carousers. The Christmas season was an especially popular time for drunken rowdiness at night: somewhat like 20th-century trick-or-treaters, young men in early 19th-century Philadelphia and New York knocked on doors demanding drinks or small gifts. They often retaliated against householders who refused.

The theater was the only major venue for night entertainment that drew large numbers of women as well as men in the late colonial and early national periods. Public performances were sporadic at best in most cities. Plays were banned in New England cities, forcing traveling troupes to bill their performances as “moral dialogues.” Theatrical performances became more frequent in the early 19th century, particularly in New York and Philadelphia. An evening at the theater included a long series of diverse performances intended to appeal to every taste within a broad audience. With the house lights kept up, audiences paid as much attention to socializing and people-watching as to the performance. People felt free to talk through the performance. Bolder attendees even interrupted the performance by bantering with the actors, calling for encores of favorite songs, or booing weak performers off the stage.


Nightlife expanded in the middle decades of the 19th century. The growing size and diversity of the urban population contributed to this shift, as did changes in the nature of work, living arrangements, street lighting, and police protection.

Even during the early decades of industrialization, working hours for the vast number of urban Americans continued to follow the schedule of natural daylight. Oil and gas lamps allowed “lighting up” textile mills for a few hours of evening production, but the expense and poor quality of the illumination discouraged round-the-clock industrial production until the coming of electricity in the 1880s. One effect of industrialization, though, was to encourage stricter work discipline that pushed leisure activities out of the day and into the night. Workers had once enjoyed the freedom to take unscheduled breaks for a round of drinks or to watch some interesting activity in the street. By the middle of the 19th century, factory owners and other employers insisted on keeping workers steadily on task during established hours of labor. Drinking and socializing now happened after work.

In an earlier era of household-based craft production, apprentices and journeymen often lived with the families of their employers, subject to the employer’s discipline. Partly because of a shift toward larger-scale work units in the 19th century and a new middle-class desire for familial privacy, employees now increasingly lived on their own. In the booming canal port of Rochester in the late 1820s and 1830s, temperance-minded employers successfully stifled drinking in their workplaces but were powerless to suppress it in the burgeoning working-class neighborhoods. Thus, a hard-drinking culture flourished among working-class men after work, even as their employers grew increasingly devoted to self-discipline and sobriety. Growing numbers of middle-class young men, having left their families’ supervision for urban jobs as clerks, joined in the hedonistic “sporting” culture of drinking, gambling, and whoring.

Holidays—notably Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and Independence Day—continued to be marked by wild street celebrations that lasted well into the night. On Christmas Eve in 1833, according to one observer in Philadelphia, “Gangs of boys howled as if possessed by the demon of disorder.” Affluent people responded by leaving town during the uproar or by celebrating quietly indoors. Working-class organizations that aspired to greater respectability held street parades on various holidays. Catholic religious societies, labor unions, and volunteer militias all marched in formation. These attempts at order were parodied in mock parades held by other groups of young men dressed in outrageous costumes and raising a racket with the discordant music of “callithumpian” bands. Political organizations from the mid- to late 19th century held torchlight parades during the weeks before elections. Election nights saw a chaotic mishmash of marches, street bonfires, and drunken revelry, drawing mostly men and boys.

The growing safety of public space encouraged street activity on ordinary nights as well. Gas lamps illuminated public streets starting in 1817 in Baltimore, and, by the 1850s, they could be found in most other significant cities. Gas lighting focused on streets in commercial districts, enticing pedestrians to stroll there in the evenings and encouraging shops to stay open later. Restaurants, ice cream parlors, and oyster saloons also clustered in the well-lit commercial districts. Almost simultaneously, cities created professional police forces to replace the poorly trained and unmotivated night watchmen who had once patrolled the city. Police concentrated in the commercial districts as well, reinforcing the perception that light meant safety.

Respectable evening entertainments expanded in the better-lit streets of antebellum America. Church events drew both men and women. Evening meetings were held by a growing number of charitable and moral reform groups. Lyceum associations were formed in the 1830s and 1840s in cities and towns throughout the northern states, particularly in New England. Lyceums offered entertaining lectures on a range of topics, in addition to musical performances. One observer called the lecture room “a kind of compromise between the theatre and the Church.” Instrumental and vocal concerts were considered so respectable that they actually were sometimes held in churches. Evening hours in public libraries offered men an opportunity to develop their knowledge and cultural capital.

Theatrical performances continued to be viewed with suspicion by moralists through the middle decades of the 19th century. Middle-class Americans grew less tolerant of the tumultuous atmosphere and mixed crowd of the theater, particularly the presence of prostitutes in the third tier of seats. Some impresarios worked to attract a more refined audience by suppressing the audience noise and social diversity that was once an inevitable feature of the theater. The elite Astor Place Opera-House in New York opened in 1847 with an interior design that lacked both the notorious third tier and the “pit” where rowdy men had traditionally sat or stood on benches near the stage. With high ticket prices and a schedule of events that reinforced its snob appeal, the Astor Place Opera-House drew the enmity of working-class New Yorkers. In May of 1849 a mob attacked the theater during a performance of Macbeth, drawing a lethal volley from the militia assigned to protect the building. More successfully, the popular museums of Moses Kimball in Boston and P.T. Barnum in New York provided sanitized plays and other performances for a family audience in what were euphemistically termed “lecture rooms.” Theaters in big cities increasingly divided along class lines. Reformed theaters sought a genteel clientele by enforcing audience passivity and offering shorter evenings of tasteful performances. Working-class theaters continued to tolerate audience noise and provided a series of diverse amusements that continued as late as midnight. “Concert saloons” emerged as another popular performance space during the Civil War era, offering an almost exclusively male, mixed-class audience the chance to drink and flirt with waitresses while watching variety shows. Both of these unreformed spaces continued to provide opportunities for prostitution.

Late hours were controversial partly because they interfered with people’s ability to rest up for the next day’s work and partly because urban nightlife after midnight continued to be dominated by the least respectable activities: gambling, drinking, and whoring. More than five hundred gambling houses operated in Cincinnati in the early 1850s, declared a worried local clergyman. “Night after night they are thronged with a motley company of all ages, from all classes of society. Day and night the emissaries of the pit circulate around hotels, and restaurants, and stores, and boarding-houses, to entrap the stranger and the youth into these terrestrial hells.” Taverns and houses of prostitution also proliferated in the middle decades of the century, as did flagrant streetwalking by prostitutes along commercial streets, including New York’s Broadway. Clusters of brothels developed into early commercial sex districts in the major cities, which, combined with saloons, gave late-night entertainment a persistent reputation for immorality. Nonetheless, urban Americans of all classes enthusiastically attended balls that stretched on until long after midnight. Private balls proliferated despite disapproval by clergymen. Public dances drew large crowds in the mid-19th century, though with diminishing participation by the affluent.

Nightlife varied considerably from city to city. Cities in the South and West were slow to develop the refined cultural opportunities that could be found in eastern metropolitan centers. A Philadelphian visiting Baltimore in 1848 remarked: “The habits of the people are more social and primitive than with us, more villagelike. They go into each other’s houses at all hours and in the evenings you see groups of gentlemen and ladies sitting on the steps at the street doors.” People kept earlier hours in small cities such as Albany, Bangor, or New Bedford where members of the middle class remained hesitant to attend the theater. Those who did go out at night in small cities or in the South were reported to be cruder and more prone to drunkenness. In the theatre at Terre Haute, wrote one British visitor in 1860, “Although more than a third of the audience were ladies, the backwoods yells and shrieks of delight were indulged in with gusto, and did not seem to offend the fair sex.”

In the larger cities of the Northeast and Midwest, a defined schedule of urban nightlife developed in the middle decades of the 19th century. Early evening marked the close of work and the beginning of leisure time for most urban Americans. A range of morally acceptable activities could be found through 10 p.m. Most concerts and reformed theatrical performances ended by 11 p.m. After midnight little remained but controversial “dissipations.” Many cities even shut off the gas lamps after midnight to save money. This schedule of nightlife declined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Hours of work and leisure grew less distinct in the late 19th century. Most jobs until then had stopped around dusk, though oil and gas lamps had allowed early evening work in some factories and in many retail stores. Only a small minority of men worked at night. Among these were the “nightmen” who cleaned privies, garbage collectors, watchmen, marketmen, longshoremen, railroad employees, newspaper printers, bakers, waiters, and bartenders. Little industrial production took place around the clock with the exception of ironmaking at blast furnaces. The ranks of night workers expanded in the late 19th century partly because of the adoption of new processes of continuous production in the iron, glass, paper, and petrochemical industries. These processes were enabled or facilitated by the availability of electric power after about 1880 and by the superiority of electric lighting. Night industry expanded in many small and medium-sized cities with paper mills and glass manufactories, such as Holyoke and Toledo, and was most conspicuous in heavily industrial Pittsburgh. Better lighting also encouraged additional night work on the docks and in the manufacturing of textiles and books. The rise in night work, along with the lower cost of running electric trolleys, encouraged streetcar companies to expand their “owl car” service late at night.

Electric lighting further encouraged the growth of commercial nightlife. In the “bright lights districts” of Chicago, Minneapolis, and many smaller cities, brilliant illumination made downtown streets seem safer and more exciting. Advertising signs, theater marquees, and glowing store windows added to the flood of illumination from arc and incandescent street lamps. New York’s Broadway again led the trend, with the theater district in Times Square emerging as a famously bright urban node in the early 20th century. At the nexus of mass transit lines, and close to Grand Central Station, Times Square became the hub of nightlife not just for America’s largest city but for the nation as a whole.

A gradual decline in hours of labor and a slow rise in income also contributed to the expansion of nightlife. Large numbers of young women entered wage labor during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, taking jobs in factories, retail stores, and offices. Ordinary urban Americans had more leisure time and disposable income than ever before. Cultural changes also contributed. Moral opposition to commercial entertainment dwindled away among middle-class Americans at the end of the 19th century; even clergymen now advocated amusements to relieve the effects of overwork.

Still, more men than women went out at night. Cities in the decades around 1900 attracted unusually large numbers of young bachelors, who patronized concert saloons, pool halls, burlesque shows, brothels, and gambling saloons as well as “taxi-dance” halls where they could pay to dance with a woman and perhaps arrange for further intimacies. Meetings of fraternal organizations also drew large numbers of men—single and married—out at night. The Masons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, and other societies counted five a half million members by the 1890s. In every significant city, dozens or hundreds of lodges held ritual-filled meetings every week, sometimes two or three times.

Taverns remained by far the most numerous amusement places.

Figure 1. Boys entering a saloon, Hartford, Connecticut, March 1909. Photographer Lewis Hine of the National Child Labor Committee wrote the following description: “9:30 P.M. A common case of ‘team work.’ Smaller boy (Joseph Bishop) goes into [one of the?] saloons and sells his last papers. Then comes out and his brother gives him more. Joseph said, ‘Drunks are me best customers.’ ‘I sell more'n me brudder does.’ ‘Dey buy me out so I kin go home.’ He sells every afternoon and night. Extra late Saturda[y. At] it again at 6 A.M. Sunday, Hartford, Conn.” National Child Labor Committee Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-nclc-03236.

At the end of the 19th century more than 200,000 licensed liquor dealers could be found in the United States, in addition to countless unlicensed ones. An 1895 survey of American cities found a licensed saloon for every 317 people. Saloons were typically long, narrow storefronts where men stood drinking along the bar. They contained few or no tables where groups of friends could cluster. Instead, the space encouraged a more open form of socializing where strangers could easily be brought into conversation, songs, or reciprocal rounds of “treating” to drinks. Saloons in downtown areas, and at junctions of streetcar lines, drew an eclectic and shifting clientele. Those in outlying neighborhoods drew many regulars and often developed the atmosphere of a social club. Some catered specifically to the needs of a particular ethnic group or to workers at a nearby factory. Political clubs and other neighborhood organizations used the saloons as meeting places; some saloons had semi-private back rooms for this purpose. Saloons were almost exclusively male places. Women could enter during the day to carry out buckets of beer, but the presence of women drinking in the saloon usually signaled prostitution. One exception was the German beer hall, which drew immigrant couples and families as well as groups of young men.

Nightlife at the very end of the 19th century began to shift decisively away from the all-male “homosociality” that had prevailed until then. Mixed-gender restaurants and increasingly lavish hotel dining rooms opened for business, supplementing the chophouses and oyster saloons that still catered to men. The elegant new restaurants attracted affluent dinner parties that once gathered in private homes. As in the days of the Astor Place Opera-House, elite city residents continued to enhance their status by attending exclusive, “high-brow” entertainments. Opera and classical music were commonly said to reflect a refined, feminine taste that had an uplifting effect on men. Affluent white citizens of Atlanta in the 1910s, for instance, arranged annual visits by New York’s Metropolitan Opera; image-conscious men and women assiduously attended the performances as a way of demonstrating the sophistication to be found in Georgia’s capital.

The theater had long been a mixed-gender venue. Theater owners successfully allayed fears about audience disorder and immoral plays, sanitizing the legitimate theater so thoroughly by 1900 that it even came to be seen as entertainment for women. High ticket prices limited theater attendance, but inexpensive melodrama and vaudeville had a broader reach. Starting in the 1880s, vaudeville houses operated by Benjamin Keith and Edward Albee succeeded in attracting a mixed-gender, mass audience to theaters in Boston and Providence; the inoffensive language of the variety acts, and the diligent policing by ushers, made sure that women felt secure. Vaudeville theaters held the interest of repeat customers by offering a constantly changing lineup of performers, who traveled on circuits from city to city throughout the United States. Vaudeville theaters were among the early venues showing short motion pictures.

After the turn of the 20th century, some new theaters showed only films. “Nickelodeons”—storefront movie theaters charging five-cent admission—exploded in popularity after 1905. These clustered in central business districts and on commercial streets in working-class neighborhoods; immigrants and native-born audiences of both genders and all ages enjoyed the silent films, often talking and cheering as they watched. Like vaudeville houses, nickelodeons offered continuous performances that allowed viewers to come and go as they pleased. Nickelodeons became known for diverse audiences of rowdy children, women with crying babies, amorous couples, and men looking to pick up young women. Large, lavishly decorated “movie palaces” opened in the late 1910s and 1920s, with diligent ushers to impose stricter discipline on audiences. These succeeded in attracting more affluent visitors to what had been a working-class amusement. Movie palaces, claimed the architect George Rapp, became “shrines to democracy” where all classes mixed amicably. But this democracy was for whites only; even in northern cities, movie palaces discouraged attendance by blacks or confined them to inconspicuous corners and balconies. More than 20,000 movie theaters operated across the United States by the mid-1920s. Censorship efforts, including the formation of a National Board of Censorship in 1909, suppressed violent and salacious films that were thought unsuitable for general audiences.

Moral reformers in the 1910s made a determined effort to clean up all forms of public amusement. Until then, police, encouraged by bribes, turned a blind eye to brothels as long as they were unobtrusive and remained largely within immigrant, Chinese, and African American neighborhoods. Public officials tolerated “red light districts” as a necessary evil that protected innocent women and children by keeping prostitution away from residential neighborhoods. Moral reformers rejected this excuse, arguing that even discreet prostitution debauched men, exploited women, and spread venereal disease. Local “vice commissions” in Chicago, Portland, Charleston, Syracuse, Bridgeport, and many other cities published reports on the dangers of prostitution that successfully pressured city governments to close vice districts in the 1910s. Enforcement was strengthened during World War I and spread to additional cities in an effort to ensure that troops at training camps remained chaste. Even the famous Storyville district in New Orleans shut down in 1917. Prostitution continued in every city, of course, but it spread out to numerous locations or relocated deeper inside black neighborhoods. Telephones and automobiles helped break down the geographical limits of prostitution. Rendezvous could be arranged by phone with call girls, while cars were used for discreet travel or as concealment for sexual acts.

Public dancing also drew the attention of moral reformers. Commercial dance halls proliferated during the first decades of the 20th century. Most of the commercial dance halls were in rooms adjoining saloons, or immediately upstairs. Social investigators warned that the halls threatened the morals of young people by encouraging them to drink and by bringing them into contact with disreputable men and prostitutes who solicited there. Some “dancing academies” sought a more refined atmosphere by screening the crowd, excluding alcohol, and banning suggestive “tough dances.” Opulent new ballrooms opened on major commercial streets in the 1910s and 1920s. Dance palaces attended carefully to their reputation by policing the behavior of the audience and by discouraging jazz music that might stir up sexual feelings. The dance palaces succeeded in drawing a crowd from all classes.

Efforts to reform the theaters, cinemas, and dance halls persuaded more women to venture into mixed-sex amusement places. Cabarets, though, drew men and women together in a very different atmosphere. Cabarets in the 1910s escaped the confines of the vice districts to bring their mix of stage shows, dancing, dining, and drinking to a wider audience. Pretentious old “lobster palace” restaurants converted themselves into cabarets, while new venues opened in cellars and roof gardens. Performances included musical revues that featured attractive chorus girls. Cabarets allowed a greater feeling of freedom than what prevailed at many other mixed-sex venues. Performers and audiences interacted freely, much as theater audiences had done a century before. Well-dressed couples socialized not only with those in their own party, but also spontaneously with those at other tables. Cabarets found subterfuges, such as claiming to be private clubs, to stay open past legal closing hours. Cultivating a moderately risqué reputation while discouraging prostitution and inappropriate dancing, cabarets succeeded in exciting adventurous men and women without repelling them.

Changes in patterns of courtship encouraged mixed-gender nightlife. Instead of courting young women in the latter’s homes, men in the 20th century took them out on “dates” to public entertainment places such as restaurants, theaters, and dance halls. Dating freed young couples from parental supervision, a development much assisted by the advent of the automobile. Courtship became a more expensive process transacted partly in public space. Power shifted toward the man who paid the costs and provided transportation and protection. Young men and women typically went on numerous dates with many different partners, evaluating each carefully, before finally choosing one to marry. Though young women now participated more frequently in nightlife, older adults did not. Nightlife in the 20th century was shaped increasingly by the patronage and tastes of young adults and teenagers.


The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and Volstead Act in 1920 largely shut down the saloon, the main institution of same-sex nightlife. Prohibition seemed at first a great victory for moral reformers, but it ultimately destroyed the remaining gender barriers that shielded women from the morally dubious nightlife of men.

Liquor law enforcement varied considerably from city to city. Illegal drinking thrived in large cities. Some smaller towns, such as Galveston also became notorious for being “wide open.” Most urban saloons shut down immediately, though some saloonkeepers struggled to continue in business selling coffee, meals, or soft drinks. Restaurateurs and cabaret owners also suffered a drop in business, forcing many to close. Optimists had predicted that theaters would see a surge in business as people sought alternatives to the nightclub, but attendance stagnated; without the attraction of alcohol, nightlife and urban tourism declined.

Alcohol continued to be served illicitly in hotels, restaurants, and the remaining nightclubs, often with the involvement of organized crime. Speakeasies and illegal nightclubs were cheaply decorated, transient places that thrived briefly until a police raid, after which they reopened in a new location. Already in defiance of liquor laws, these venues ignored legal closing hours as well. Nightclub entertainment did not even begin until 10:30 or 11 p.m., after theaters closed, and then continued long after midnight. Nightclubs offered women a chance to socialize roughly as equals with men, in stark contrast with the old saloons. Nonetheless, the nightclubs decisively rejected the older model of attracting women customers through refined entertainment. Performances included jazz music and scantily clad young female dancers and singers.

Enhancing their aura of exciting naughtiness, nightclubs for whites opened in African American neighborhoods, most notably in Harlem in New York City. These nightclubs contributed to the vogue of “slumming” in racial ghettoes and immigrant neighborhoods, where affluent white visitors could imagine themselves freed from civilized constraints. White customers visited black prostitutes at “buffet flats” in Harlem, gawked at dark-skinned women in the clubs along Los Angeles’s Central Avenue, and drank and danced with African Americans in the interracial “Black and Tan” clubs of Chicago’s Bronzeville. Such neighborhoods attracted tourists from out of town as well as white visitors from other parts of the city. Some Harlem nightspots, such as the Cotton Club, tried to make risk-seeking slummers feel safe by excluding black patrons, while others found that an interracial clientele attracted white customers. Residents of racial ghettoes often resented the white slummers who came looking for “primitivism” and illicit thrills in the neighborhoods where ordinary families made their homes. Conservative community leaders tried with little success to increase black support for Prohibition. They warned that the drinking culture and slumming contributed to racial exploitation and negative stereotypes. Nonetheless, the flourishing nightlife in Harlem, Memphis’s Beale Street, and other African American neighborhoods contributed to the growth of black musical culture, supporting the early performers who developed blues and jazz.

Interracial clubs provided space for another violation of social taboos: homosexuality. Men seeking connections with other men, either of the same race or across the color line, found opportunities in the Black and Tans of the Southside of Chicago and the nightclubs of Harlem. Lesbians also found a tolerant atmosphere there. Some black speakeasies offered white male customers the choice of male or female prostitutes. The modern conception of a homosexual identity was largely undeveloped. As in the 19th century, same-sex acts continued to be viewed as sinful lapses rather than as indicators of one’s essential nature; as long as a man did not adopt a feminine manner or perform a submissive role in sex, he was not seen as inherently deviant. This older understanding of sexuality made it easier for masculine men to take an interest in feminine “fairies” and “pansies.” The culture of the pansy flourished in the nightclubs of the Prohibition era, as just another form of misbehavior that accompanied the virtual illegalization of nightlife. Flamboyantly gay men and transvestites were a common sight in the streets and clubs of Times Square and Greenwich Village as well as in Chicago’s Near North Side. Observing the Chicago scene in 1930, Variety magazine claimed that “The world’s toughest town is going pansy. And liking it.”


Repeal of Prohibition shook up the institutions of American nightlife again. Many of the seedier speakeasies folded, while new taverns and nightclubs sprang up in their place.

Figure 2. “Bar and Gambling House, Butte, Montana,” summer 1939. Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-DIG-fsa-8a11339.

Repeal did not fully restore the old homosocial drinking culture of the saloon. The Prohibition-era pattern of men and women socializing together continued in many of the drinking places that opened (or became legal) after 1933. Taverns still featured bars, now lined with barstools, but customers often preferred to sit with friends around tables. Legal nightclubs continued to offer live music and dancing to a mixed-gender clientele.

A backlash against homosexuality and racial mixing accompanied Repeal. Once legalized, nightclubs became more open to official scrutiny. Club owners anxiously redrew the eroded lines of respectability, suppressing disorderly behavior and excluding stigmatized people. As early as 1931, police in New York began a campaign of harassment against clubs with pansy acts and against drag balls. In the later 1930s, nightclub owners sought to protect their licenses by omitting performances that might draw police intervention. Suppressing homosexual displays and prostitution, they limited sexual titillation to the less controversial form of skimpily dressed showgirls. Male homosexual culture retreated from mainstream nightclubs into specialized drinking spots that catered almost exclusively to gays. Gay bars in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were typically short-lived places controlled by organized crime. Some nightclubs in black neighborhoods continued to offer drag performances for mixed-race audiences. However, white slumming in black neighborhoods declined; in New York, interest dropped off after a 1935 riot in Harlem.

Theaters struggled during the Great Depression. Most vaudeville theaters converted into movie houses and others began offering burlesque shows. Partial female nudity, usually involving flesh-colored tights, had been seen in theaters since the mid-19th century. Crudely humorous burlesque shows travelled through small towns or were performed in theaters in outlying commercial streets within the city. Starting in the 1930s and 1940s, however, burlesque occupied more prominent locations in entertainment hubs such as New York’s Times Square and Boston’s Scollay Square, attracting largely male crowds from diverse class backgrounds.

After a brief drop in admissions during the early years of the Depression, movie theaters thrived through the remainder of the 1930s and during World War II, especially with the new attractions of sound and color.

Figure 3. “Movie theater. Southside, Chicago, Illinois,” April 1941. Russell Lee, photographer. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USF34-038553-D.

Thereafter they saw a sharp fall in attendance. Television, which drew viewers to the communal setting of taverns in the 1940s, became pervasive in most private homes in the 1950s and early 1960s, reaching 90 percent of U.S. households by 1962. Watching TV with one’s family became a popular alternative to going out at night. As a significant proportion of the urban population moved to the suburbs, and as people relied more on automobiles than public transportation, a trip to view a movie in the congested downtown seemed inconvenient. Savvy entrepreneurs capitalized on suburbanization by opening drive-in theaters; by 1958, 5,000 of these establishments could be found nationwide. Total movie admissions plummeted from 4.1 billion in 1946 to 1.1 billion in 1962. Many struggling downtown theaters were demolished in the 1950s and 1960s to make way for office buildings or parking lots.

Jazz music, with its roots in black culture, flourished in the illegal nightclubs of the Prohibition era and the legalized ones after repeal.

Figure 4. “Oakland, California. Hot Jazz Recreation. A spontaneous jitterbug exhibition in the middle of the dance floor. Benny Goodman concert at the Oakland, California, dance hall, 04/26/1940,” Rondal Partridge, Photographer, National Youth Administration. Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 119-CAL-211.

Big jazz bands dominated popular music in the late 1930s and early 1940s, synthesizing black and white influences into a swing music that was easy to dance to and commercially successful. Radio broadcasts and records accelerated the diffusion of musical innovation. Jukeboxes allowed young people to listen to the latest tunes, and sometimes dance, in new public venues such as soda fountains, candy shops, and pool halls. Whether played in ballrooms or less formal venues, swing encouraged young people to develop energetic new dancing styles, which disturbed older observers. Nightclubs along New York’s 52nd Street became known for an atmosphere of racial mixing that some people found liberating and others frightening.

Bebop jazz combos flourished in smaller nightclubs in the late 1940s and 1950s, offering innovative but less danceable music. Young, white, bebop hipsters sneered at the conventionality of mainstream society, welcomed the sexuality they associated with black culture, and, in many cases, enhanced their listening experience by using marijuana and heroin. Blues, once heard mostly in black dance halls, spread into white popular music in the 1950s in the form of early rock-and-roll. The dance culture of young whites came to focus on rock, while bop fans preferred just to listen to this increasingly intellectual art form. Rock concerts brought new life and prosperity briefly to some downtown movie houses in the late 1950s, until they were halted by concerns about improper dancing and juvenile delinquency. After a minor riot took place outside the Boston Arena on the night of May 3, 1958, Boston banned rock concerts (and arrested concert promoter and disc jockey Alan Freed). City officials and theater owners in other cities followed suit. Adult organizers of teen dances at church halls and schools struggled to control the effects of rock by limiting the number of rock tunes and imposing rules about dancing and dress.

Even in northern cities, African Americans continued to face discrimination or exclusion in white-owned nightspots through the mid-20th century. Blacks often preferred to attend performances, dances, and music in primarily black venues within black neighborhoods; large cities had movie palaces and opulent ballrooms that catered mostly to blacks. African American nightlife in the mid twentieth century also flourished in private social clubs; one observer estimated that more than 2,000 of these existed in Chicago alone, typically hosting parties and dances for their members and guests.


Rising crime rates in the 1960s and 1970s discouraged urban nightlife. A soaring murder rate produced frightening headlines and television news reports, while mugging became a far more common danger in daily life. Urban riots from 1964 through 1968 contributed to a fear of public spaces. After outlying commercial streets in almost every major city were damaged by arson and looting, nightspots and other businesses shut their doors. Whites often conflated criminality with racial diversity, seeing the rising black population of cities as itself a cause for alarm. Downtown Detroit by the 1970s was nearly deserted after dark; most of the restaurants and nightclubs had already closed and the last two first-run movie houses soon joined them.

Amusement parks were among the biggest casualties of the 1960s. These parks had flourished in the early to mid-20th century, offering rides, games of chance, cheap food, and swimming. Typically located in outlying areas at the end of trolley lines, they did most of their business on weekends and evenings. Amusement parks resisted pressure for racial integration, claiming that it would deter white visitors. Park owners grudgingly opened their doors to African Americans in response to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as did owners of bowling alleys and other segregated amusements. Continuing racial tension and discrimination exploded into riots at amusement parks near Newark, Washington, Oklahoma City, and Louisville. White attendance dropped sharply as owners neglected maintenance and the parks developed a reputation as hangouts for juvenile gangs. Most amusement parks shut down altogether in the late 1960s and 1970s.

The rise of rock-and-roll as the dominant popular music in the 1960s and 1970s stimulated the growth of nightclubs.

Figure 5. “Dancing to a rock band at ‘Duffs,’ 06/1973,” Minneapolis. Donald Emmerich, Photographer, Environmental Protection Agency. Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 412-DA-8994.

The most prominent bands filled concert halls and sports arenas, some holding tens of thousands of teenagers and young adults. Earsplitting arena rock concerts were major events for surrounding downtown areas, where crowds spilled over into bars and dance halls afterward. Similar spill-over effects were seen in urban neighborhoods adjacent to ballparks and sports arenas. Introduced at major league ballparks in the late 1930s and 1940s, night baseball became the norm long before Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, finally lit up in 1988. But a number of teams vacated central-city ballparks in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s for suburban locations that were more appealing to affluent, white fans.

One success story in urban nightlife in the 1960s and 1970s was the rise of the discotheque. Dance halls with continuous recorded music were cheaper to operate than those with live musicians, and they succeeded in attracting crowds of young adults. Struggling jazz clubs and dance palaces found a new lease on life. The loud amplification, light shows, and packed dance floors encouraged a frenetic level of activity. Drug use was common. Attendance by celebrities added cachet and drew overflow crowds to flashy clubs like Studio 54 in Midtown Manhattan and its downtown competitors. Lines waited eagerly outside for bouncers’ permission to enter. Amid a liberalization of sexual mores, discos became centers for a new pick-up culture for young men and women, and for gay men. Most venues mixed gay and straight customers.

A New York nightspot was the site for a watershed moment in the history of the gay rights movement. In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar and dance spot in Greenwich Village. Police were astonished when customers refused to submit to the abusive protocol of a raid; some resisted arrest and began fighting back. Police found themselves besieged inside the club as a growing, angry mob surrounded the place, barraged it with stones and bottles, and tried to set it on fire. Though police harassment of gay bars continued for years afterward, Stonewall encouraged gay men to defend their way of life. Homosexuality became more open in New York, San Francisco, and other cities. Gay bathhouses and sex clubs offered men the chance for anonymous contact with strangers until the AIDS epidemic forced most of them to close in the 1980s.

Dance parties called “raves” drew thousands of young people in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and other major cities in the late 1980s and 1990s. Often held in old warehouses, raves featured dazzling light shows, deafening electronic music, and rampant use of party drugs such as ecstasy. Unlike in the first half of the 20th century, when nightclubs drew customers from a broader age range, dancing became a form of nightlife heavily dominated by people under thirty years old. Older adults are more likely to spend evenings at restaurants.

The Nightlife Industry in Urban Economies

Since the late 20th century, cities have increasingly promoted nightlife; the main goals have been to strengthen commercial districts and to encourage a sense of urban excitement that might persuade affluent people to live and do business in the commercial core. Though mainstream commercial amusements scattered to the suburbs in most metropolitan areas after 1960, highbrow entertainments, such as opera companies, dance troupes, and symphony orchestras, continued to be held downtown. Municipal governments and private foundations after 1970 developed performing arts centers in Detroit, San Francisco, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Portland. Old movie palaces were converted to concert halls in New Orleans, St. Louis, and other cities. Some struggling smaller cities, such as Hartford, promote their surviving cultural institutions, nightclubs, and downtown restaurants as “arts and entertainment districts.” Since the 1990s, formerly decrepit neighborhoods of obsolete, multistory warehouses and factories have been redeveloped into clusters of restaurants, nightclubs, and art galleries. These locales include Chicago’s River North, Kansas City’s Power & Light District, Baltimore’s Station North, Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward, and areas simply called the “Warehouse District” in New Orleans, Austin, Cleveland, and Minneapolis. Blues bars are a Chicago specialty in River North and in outlying neighborhoods; largely white, young audiences, many of them tourists, visit the clubs to hear black musicians perform old standards.

The casino districts in Las Vegas are atypical, of course, but several other cities have permitted legalized gambling in an attempt to inject prosperity into tired downtowns. A strip of casinos emerged along Atlantic City’s Boardwalk starting in the late 1970s; New Orleans and Detroit welcomed casinos in the late 1990s and Baltimore did so in 2014. Casinos are largely self-contained entertainment centers with limited spillover effects into surrounding areas, as seen in Atlantic City. Nonetheless, gambling in New Orleans strengthens the city’s appeal to tourists, who also crowd the nearby French Quarter, where, mirroring its name, alcohol-serving establishments dominate the Bourbon Street nightlife district.

New York City remains the dominant center for nightlife tourism, with “Broadway” still used as a metonym for the theater business. The city’s most ambitious effort to promote the entertainment economy was the makeover of the Times Square district in the 1990s. Observers began fretting about the decline of Times Square during the Great Depression, a period that saw an invasion by burlesque houses and chop suey joints. Throngs continued to attend movie houses and legitimate theaters there, but the area grew increasingly seedy. Commercial sex became flagrantly open in the 1960s after U.S. Supreme Court decisions hobbled attempts to suppress pornography. Pornographic bookstores, massage parlors, X-rated movie houses, live sex shows, and streetwalking proliferated in or around the square. Feminist organizations targeted the district for protests, arguing that the sex trade fostered violence against women. Faced with concerns about the survival of the theater district, in the 1970s New York mayors began to crack down on prostitution and related crime in the Times Square area and to encourage redevelopment. The 42nd Street Development Project in the 1980s and 1990s succeeded in pushing most sex businesses out of Times Square and in attracting new theaters and theme restaurants. By the early 21st century, the square was transformed into a more family-friendly tourist attraction, though at the expense of what critics called “Disneyfication.” In Boston, law enforcement and private redevelopment in the 1980s cleared out the old “Combat Zone,” a downtown cluster of strip joints and pornographic movie theaters where the city had attempted to confine the sex trade. Home video and Internet sites in later decades took over most of the pornography business nationwide, while strip joints have scattered throughout metropolitan areas. Encounters with prostitutes are often arranged online rather than through meetings in public spaces.

Nightlife—defined as social activity in urban commercial spaces—is, of course, not the only way that people spend their evening leisure hours. As in earlier eras, urban Americans continue to go out for religious worship, visit with friends, and take recreational walks. Many men and women routinely devote their evenings to solitary exercise at health clubs. Bowling Alone, a 2000 study by the sociologist Robert Putnam, observed that people far more commonly spend an evening at a friend’s home than going to a theater or ballpark. Putnam argued that social life of all forms declined after 1960, as a result of television, generational changes, suburban sprawl, and work pressures. He observed a decline in participation in social groups of all sorts, including bowling leagues, parent-teacher organizations and veterans’ associations. Putnam’s conclusions about a decline in public life have been challenged, but it is hard to deny that evening entertainment has retreated into the home since the mid-20th century. For instance, movie theater attendance has never recovered from the massive decline of the late 1940s through 1950s. Movie admissions for the United States and Canada totaled only 1.3 billion in 2013, a modest increase from the low point of the 1960s. Instead of going out at night, more Americans stay home and watch television or play games on their computers.

Discussion of the Literature

In the past thirty years, historians have produced an extensive scholarship on the social experience of nightlife in American cities. This work focuses heavily on the largest cities, especially New York, in the period from approximately 1880 to the 1960s.

Much of the literature on the era before electrification in the 1880s has considered the effects of social class formation on manners and gender relations. Overviews of nocturnal activity in the 19th century, focusing on the cities of the Northeast and Midwest and on drinking culture, attendance at performances, sexuality, and gambling are available.1

A large body of scholarship covers nightlife from 1880 through the 1960s. Early works considered the influence of “modernity” in breaking down Victorian culture or dealt with the frustrated efforts to impose various forms of social control. Works on women noted the liberating potential of consumer culture. Several works examine how concerns about race relations shaped recreation for whites as well as blacks, provide an overview of nightlife during these years, examine the importance of gender in urban environments, and treat subjects that include amusement parks, dancing, drinking, fraternal organizations, nightclubs and music, theater and concerts, and sexuality.2

Most scholarly work on the experience of urban nightlife in the period since 1965 is produced by sociologists or urban theorists, not historians. Several scholarly overviews consider the place of nightlife in urban cultures and economies.3

Primary Sources

Sporting Culture in the 19th Century

Disreputable urban amusements of the 19th century are well documented in the pages of the Sporting Times, the National Police Gazette, and the more obscure publications in the American Antiquarian Society’s “Racy Newspapers” collection, available at

Performing Arts

Billy Rose Theater Division, New York Public Library, is a large archive devoted to theater history. It contains collections of playbills, photographs, and correspondence.

The New York Public Library also contains extensive collections devoted to the history of music and dance. These collections, like those in the theater division, focus on the art forms and the performance rather than on the audience experience.

The Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University. This is another extensive archive devoted to the history of theater and other performing arts.


American Social Health Association Records, 1905–2005, Elmer L. Andersen Library, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. This large collection documents the organization’s work, including its efforts to suppress prostitution in cities during the world wars.

“Blue Books,” Williams Research Center, Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans. A collection of guides to the Storyville commercial sex district of New Orleans.

Committee of Fourteen Records, New York Public Library. This collection contains investigators’ reports and other manuscripts of the Committee of Fourteen, which sought to document and suppress illicit sexuality in New York from 1905 to 1932. Contains material on dance halls.

Committee of Fifteen Records, New York Public Library. Contains the papers of a citizen’s group founded in 1900 to fight prostitution and gambling in New York.

Committee of Fifteen Records, University of Chicago Libraries. Chicago followed New York in creating a Committee of Fifteen in 1908 to combat prostitution.

Women Against Pornography Records, 1979–1989, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute. Includes manuscripts and publications documenting the pornography business in various cities as well as material related to this organization’s work.


Ernest Watson Burgess papers, University of Chicago Libraries. This is a massive and eclectic collection of correspondence, reports, student papers, and notes by a leading sociologist of the early 20th century. It contains extensive material concerning life and social conditions in Chicago.

Juvenile Protective Association records, Richard J. Daley Library Special Collections and University Archives, University of Illinois at Chicago. Contains reports, manuscripts, and other material concerning juvenile delinquency in early-20th-century Chicago.

New York District Attorney Records of Cases, 1895–1971, New York City Department of Records. Includes records of criminal cases and scrapbooks with news clippings.

Links to Digital Materials

Miss Frank E. Buttolph American Menu Collection, 1851‐1930, New York Public Library (online image collection of restaurant menus, mostly from the early 20th century).

Further Reading

  • Ahlquist, Karen. Democracy at the Opera: Music, Theater, and Culture in New York City, 1815–1860. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
  • Allen, Robert C. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
  • Altschuler, Glenn. All Shook Up: How Rock ’n’ Roll Changed America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Baldwin, Peter C. In the Watches of the Night: Life in the Nocturnal City, 1820–1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
  • Bank, Rosemarie K. Theatre Culture in America, 1825–1860. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Boyd, Nan Alamilla. Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
  • Butsch, Richard. The Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television, 1750–1990. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Campbell, Gavin James. Music and the Making of a New South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
  • Carnes, Mark C. Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.
  • Chatterton, Paul, and Robert Hollands, eds. Urban Nightscapes: Youth Cultures, Pleasure Spaces and Corporate Power. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  • Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
  • Chudacoff, Howard. The Age of the Bachelor: Creating an American Subculture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.
  • Clement, Elizabeth Alice. Love for Sale: Courting, Treating, and Prostitution in New York City, 1900–1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
  • Cohen, Patricia Cline. The Murder of Helen Jewitt: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
  • Currid, Elizabeth. The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.
  • Duis, Peter R. The Saloon: Public Drinking in Chicago and Boston, 1880–1920. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
  • Erenberg, Lewis A. Steppin’ Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890–1930. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1981.
  • Erenberg, Lewis A. Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Fabian, Ann. Card Sharps and Bucket Shops: Gambling in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Routledge, 1999.
  • Fikentscher, Kai. “You Better Work!” Underground Dance Music in New York City. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000.
  • Garcia, Cindy. Salsa Crossings: Dancing Latinidad in Los Angeles. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.
  • Gilfoyle, Timothy J. City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1820–1920. New York: Norton, 1992.
  • Gottdiener, Mark, Claudia Collins, and David R. Dickens. Las Vegas: The Social Production of an All-American City. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999.
  • Grazian, David. Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  • Hannigan, John. Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis. New York: Routledge, 1998.
  • Heap, Chad. Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885–1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • Kasson, John F. Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.
  • Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970–1979. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.
  • Lerner, Michael A. Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.
  • Lloyd, Richard. Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City. New York: Routledge, 2006.
  • Long, Alecia P. The Great Southern Babylon: Race, Sex, and Respectability in New Orleans, 1865–1920. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
  • Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Lyons, Clare A. Sex among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730–1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
  • Maginn, Paul J., and Christine Steinmetz, eds. (Sub)Urban Sexscapes: Geographies and Regulation of the Sex Industry. New York: Routledge, 2015.
  • McBee, Randy D. Dance Hall Days: Intimacy and Leisure among Working Class Immigrants in the United States. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
  • McConachie, Bruce A. Melodramatic Formations: American Theatre and Society. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992.
  • Nasaw, David. Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements. New York: Basic Books, 1993.
  • Peiss, Kathy. Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.
  • Peretti, Burton W. The Creation of Jazz: Music, Race and Culture in Urban America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
  • Peretti, Burton W. Nightclub City: Politics and Amusement in Manhattan. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
  • Powers, Madelon. Faces along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingmen’s Saloon, 1870–1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Rabinovitz, Lauren. For the Love of Pleasure: Women, Movies, and Culture in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998.
  • Rabinovitz, Lauren. Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies, and American Modernity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
  • Reichl, Alexander J. Reconstructing Times Square: Politics and Culture in Urban Development. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999.
  • Sagalyn, Lynne B. Times Square Roulette: Remaking the City Icon. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.
  • Schafer, Judith Kelleher. Brothels, Depravity and Abandoned Women: Illegal Sex in Antebellum New Orleans. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009.
  • Schloss, Joseph G. Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls and Hip-Hop Culture in New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Sides, Josh. Erotic City: Sexual Revolutions and the Making of Modern San Francisco. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Snyder, Robert W. The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Stott, Richard. Jolly Fellows: Male Milieus in Nineteenth-Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
  • Thompson, Peter. Rum, Punch & Revolution: Taverngoing & Public Life in Eighteenth Century Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
  • Waller, Gregory A. Main Street Amusements: Movies and Commercial Entertainment in a Southern City, 1896–1930. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.
  • Wolcott, Victoria. Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.


  • 1. For an overview of nocturnal activity in the 19th century, focusing on the cities of the Northeast and Midwest, see Peter C. Baldwin, In the Watches of the Night: Life in the Nocturnal City, 1820–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). On drinking culture, see Peter Thompson, Run Punch & Revolution: Taverngoing and Public Life in Eighteenth Century Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999); and Prichard Stott, Jolly Fellows: Male Milieus in Nineteenth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). On attendance at performances, see Karen Ahlquist, Democracy at the Opera: Music, Theater, and Culture in New York City, 1815–1860 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997); Rosemarie K. Bank, Theatre Culture in America, 1825–1860 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Richard Butsch, The Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television, 1750–1990 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press); Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988); Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); and Bruce A. McConachie, Melodramatic Formations: American Theatre and Society (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992). On sexuality, see Patricia Cline Cohen, The Murder of Helen Jewitt: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999); Clare A. Lyons, Sex among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730–1830 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Timothy J. Gilfoyle, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1820–1920 (New York: Norton, 1992); and Judith Kelleher Shafer, Brothels, Depravity and Abandoned Women: Illegal Sex in Antebellum New Orleans (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009). On gambling, see Ann Fabian, Card Sharps and Bucket Shops: Gambling in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Routledge, 1999).

  • 2. For an overview of nightlife during these years, see David Nasaw, Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements (New York: Basic Books, 1993). Works examining the importance of gender in urban amusements include Howard Chudacoff, The Age of the Bachelor: Creating an American Subculture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); and Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Girls and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986). On amusement parks, see John F. Kasson, Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978); Lauren Rabinowitz, Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies, and American Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012); and Victoria Wolcott, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012). On dancing, see Randy D. McBee, Dance Hall Days, Intimacy and Leisure among Working-Class Immigrants in the United States (New York: New York University Press, 2000). On drinking, see Perry R. Duis, The Saloon: Public Drinking in Chicago and Boston, 1880–1920 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1920); Madelon Powers, Faces Along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingmen’s Saloon, 1870–1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); and Michael A. Lerner, Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008). On fraternal organizations, see Mark C. Carnes, Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989). On movies, see Lauren Rabinovitz, For the Love of Pleasure: Women, Movies, and Culture in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998); and Gregory A. Waller, Main Street Amusements: Movies and Commercial Entertainment in a Southern Town, 1896–1930 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995). On nightclubs and music, see Glenn Altschuler, All Shook Up: How Rock ‘n’ Roll Changed America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Lewis A. Erenberg, Steppin’ Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890–1930 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1981); Lewis A. Erenberg, Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Chad Heap, Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885–1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009); Burton W. Peretti, The Creation of Jazz: Music, Race, and Culture in Urban America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992); and Burton W. Peretti, Nightclub City: Politics and Amusement in Manhattan (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007). On theaters and concerts, see Robert C. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991); Richard Butsch, The Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television, 1750–1990 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Gavin James Campbell, Music and the Making of a New South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); and Robert W. Snyder, The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). On sexuality, see Nan Alamilla Boyd, Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994); Elizabeth Alice Clement, Love for Sale: Courting, Treating, and Prostitution in New York City, 1900–1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); and Alecia P. Long, The Great Southern Babylon: Race, Sex, and Respectability in New Orleans, 1865–1920 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005).

  • 3. For scholarly overviews, see Paul Chatterton and Robert Hollands, eds., Urban Nightscapes: Youth Cultures, Pleasure Spaces and Corporate Power (New York: Routledge, 2003); Elizabeth Currid, The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007); Mark Gottdiener, Claudia Collins, and David R. Dickens, Las Vegas: The Social Production of an All-American City (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999); John Hannigan, Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis (New York: Routledge, 1998); Richard Lloyd, Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City (New York: Routledge, 2006); Alexander J. Reichl, Reconstructing Times Square: Politics and Culture in Urban Development (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999); and Lynne B. Sagalyn, Times Square Roulette: Remaking the City Icon (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001). Additional scholarly and semi-scholarly works include Kai Fikentscher, “You Better Work!” Underground Dance Music in New York City (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000); Cindy Garcia, Salsa Crossings: Dancing Latinidad in Los Angeles (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013); David Grazian, Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity Urban Blues Clubs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970–1979 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); Joseph G. Schloss, Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls and Hip-Hop Culture in New York (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); and Josh Sides, Erotic City: Sexual Revolutions and the Making of Urban San Francisco (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).