One of the things I love about working with the collection at the Coney Island Museum is its focus. Sometimes we will come across items in our collection that despite their size offer complete information on what existed in this neighborhood many years ago. Our collection is suggestive of Coney Island’s History in its bits and pieces.
I really love when researchers visit our collection, because it gives me an opportunity to really dig into our collection and get an even deeper understanding of what these objects represent.
Recently, we were visited by a couple of scholars who are working on an upcoming exhibition of artistic depictions of Coney Island from the 19th century until today. They were looking to see exactly what was on display at the Eden Musee when it moved to Coney Island from Manhattan. Luckily for them, we have the souvenir program that was published when the Eden Musee came to Coney Island. It is one of our many objects that offers a real window into what was here long ago.
The Eden Musee originally opened on 23rd Street in Manhattan in 1883. At that time, the lavishly decorated museum featured much more than wax figures. It was intended to be a highly cultural and educational center. It had its own gallery and hosted frequent concerts by the Eden Musee Orchestra. Among its wax tableaus were the recreations of major historical events, and the likenesses of important figures like Cleopatra and Napoleon.
In 1915, Samuel Gumpertz, showman and proprietor of Coney Island’s Dreamland, bought many of the wax figures and tableaus at auction, when the Eden Musee closed its doors. Gumpertz promptly reopened the Eden Musee, on Surf Avenue, in Coney Island. The Coney Island version of the Eden Musee was much more sensational, doing away with the concerts and art exhibitions and focusing on the Chamber of Horrors and the likenesses of famous people and recreations of events.
The Eden Musee burned down in March 1928, destroying the wax works. Though it was a complete loss, it was not the end of wax museums in Coney Island. In 1926, Lillie Santangelo and her husband opened the World in Wax Musee. It followed the same tradition of displaying wax figures of famous people and an elaborate Chamber of Horrors. It remained open until 1984. The tradition of wax museums have continued in tourist trap towns throughout the country and are always a treat to visit.