Since its beginnings, Coney Island has been criticized its sometimes-perceived scandalous activities and amusements. During the first decades of the 20th century, Coney Island was full of taverns, gambling, prostitution, girlie shows, dance halls and all sorts of entertainment frowned-upon by the more conservative powers that be. Robert Moses, even famously referred to Coney Island as “tawdry.” Despite all that, it was still a popular destination, frequented by families from all over New York City. Several attempts have been made over the years to clean up the “less moral” activities at Coney Island, often with clever and hilarious workarounds by Coney Island business owners.
On March 23, 1896, the New York State Legislature passed the controversial Raines Law, banning the sale and consumption of alcohol on Sundays and shuttering dance halls. Tavern owners and visitors were appropriately upset, as a six-day work week left Sundays as the only full days for entertainment. At first, bars, saloons and dance halls in Coney Island stayed open, sometimes opening a side door, openly ignoring the new law. Eventually, the law began to be enforced, with police conspicuously arresting bar owners.
The most interesting things about the Raines Law were the loopholes that were found to prevent arrest. The only businesses that were allowed to serve alcohol were hotels, provided that they had at least 10 rooms and served food. “Raines Hotels” popped up all over the city and at Coney Island, sometimes creating the illusion of operating rooms, or subdividing very small spaces into tiny hotel rooms. The unintended consequence of this probably upset the censors more. Prostitution abounded and unmarried couples took advantage of the privacy these tiny rooms offered.
New York Times, April 4, 1902
Even odder were the use of “property sandwiches.” There was great discussion about what actually constituted a meal. In the April 13, 1896 New York Times, Assistant District Attorney, William A. Miles declared “a cracker was a subterfuge, but a sandwich was a meal.” Drinkers were required to pay for a sandwich with their drinks. They were not required to actually eat the sandwiches, they merely had to sit on the table. The same sandwich, sometimes a brick between two pieces of stale bread, or a completely fabricated, unbreakable sandwich, was brought to the table and taken away over and over for each drink and from one customer to the next.
New York Times, January 14, 1907
By 1907, the fake sandwiches were done away with. All food ordered in order to drink on Sundays, had to be actual sandwiches to be eaten. One article (below) describes how bar patrons have come to regard individual fake sandwiches as treasures – with some having customers initials carved into its surface.
New York Times, January 14, 1907
Later attempts to make Coney Island more wholesome included an attempt at closing all amusements that were not strictly educational. In response, L.A. Thompson temporarily renamed Luna Park “The Luna Park Institute of Sciences.” Performers in the Bowery theaters would show to work randomly wearing the same modest clothing, and spontaneously bursting into performance. Rides were also mockingly renamed. Some amusement operators wore caps and gowns and called themselves professors of their particular sections of the “Institute.”
New York Times, May 24, 1909
These laws were eventually overshadowed by Prohibition, yet blue laws still exist in many places today, including nearby Bergan County, NJ, though I doubt such brilliantly silly, typically Coney Island workarounds are still in use.