"The world's playground": Tourism and mass culture in Atlantic City
Atlantic City, New Jersey was the most popular resort in turn-of-the-century America. The resort concentrated the sights and symbols of mass culture in a single location, inviting vacationers to physically enter a new shared world that otherwise existed only in mass-produccd images and texts. Thousands of images of the resort circulated through picture postcards, stereo views, early motion pictures, and the urban press, linking the city to mass culture. The appearance of the tourist district, which mirrored the urban entertainment districts that dominated contemporary mass culture, increased the connection. Middle and working-class tourists traveled to the resort to demonstrate membership in the "imagined community" of the mass culture audience. On the beach, visitors became part of the spectacle of the tourist district as they experimented with new styles of public behavior. Crowds of vacationers became the most famous sight in Atlantic City, the physical embodiment of the mass audience and thus of modernity itself. Atlantic City became the metaphorical capital of mass culture, embodying its abstract pleasures in a three-dimensional landscape. Just as visiting the national capital allowed tourists to express their identity as American citizens, traveling to Atlantic City became a way to identify with the mass audience. The resort gave concrete form to the fantasy that consuming mass culture granted entry into an important and influential new community. Though that community lacked the cultural power enjoyed by the producers of mass entertainment, it assumed a kind of influence by association that made joining it a thrilling and novel experience, a way of proclaiming one's place in modern life. However, as the entertainment industry became centralized in New York and Los Angeles, Atlantic City lost its status as the capital of modern mass culture. Although local promoters tried to renew ties to mass culture with publicity events like the Miss America pageant, by the early nineteen-thirties the aging resort ceased to attract middle-class tourists, though it remained popular with working-class visitors from the surrounding region. The rise and fall of this early mass resort suggests the subtle yet powerful influence of mass culture on twentieth-century American history and culture.