In today’s world, we seem to have moved away from what we could call traditional or old-fashioned forms of entertainment.
With today’s streaming services, there is a constant flow of things to watch on television. The advances of video gaming can take the players to alternate universes, and times in history where battles and life can take you away from the humdrum of everyday life. Just ask parents who cannot get their children to stop playing and come out of their rooms.
When I was teaching my history courses in the classroom, in pre-pandemic times, just before class would begin, I would look over a sea of heads looking down at their phones, with no one conversing with the student near them. The art of personal conversation seemed to be lost among the current generation.
Of course, there was always the suggestion of going outside for some activities after one of your children came to you saying the well-used phrase: “There’s nothing to do.”
I am sure that same phrase was heard by parents more than a century ago. While the phrase might be the same, the forms of entertainment have changed.
Instead of PlayStation 5, children might have spent time with their parents in the parlor looking through a stereoscope (often called a stereopticon) at slides that mimicked three-dimensional scenes. Many of these were of international views, but the Broome County Historical Society has a collection of over 100 views of the local area dating from the late 1860’s to the early 1900’s. If you aren’t familiar the stereoscopic slides, and are over 50, think of the Viewmaster with its disk of images that you would insert and click to take a journey.
Aside from that entertainment, residents of all ages could go to somewhere like the Stone Opera House on Chenango Street to take in a show or go nearby to watch a magic lantern show, or visit a nickelodeon (which is more than a song performed by Teresa Brewer).
All of these were similar forms to the stereoscopic view, where the audience could sit and watch images being shown on a screen (this is pre-movies). Maybe this was their form of streaming services. However, the content was much less than what can be found on our televisions today.
The costs for these services were also less than today — usually just a nickel (hence the nickelodeon). That would be worth over $1.70 in today’s dollars. While that might not seem like much, the pay levels were also much less than today’s — so it was an investment in entertainment to enjoy these burgeoning forms of fun.
Not every form of fun was found in the home or a small theater. No, you could find other venues of entertainment, such playing a game of billiards at a neighborhood shop or store. Billiards that starts with “B” and rhymes with “P” (my apologies to Merle Wilson). Games of billiards and pool could be found all around the region, and that would continue well into the 20th century.
If you were around in 1869, and had some time and a quarter to spend, you could entertain yourself by taking a buggy ride to Cardiff, in the Syracuse region, and travel down the road to Stubb Newell’s farm. There you would join thousands of others for the opportunity to view the prehistoric, petrified man discovered on the farm.
Except it was a hoax perpetrated by Binghamton native George Hull. Hull’s Cardiff Giant was carved out of limestone, but the huge number of suckers out there paying a quarter each to view this “giant” brought $30,000 to Hull and his compatriots. He even made more money a few weeks later when the hoax was revealed in a newspaper interview with the two sculptors, and then Hull himself.
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While that might seem silly that people could believe that a giant man had been discovered and attract such an audience, think about some of the more prurient stories that have made the airwaves in recent years and are watched by millions.
Maybe, we should just go outside and enjoy a game of catch — that form of fun seems to have remained the same over the years.
Gerald Smith is a former Broome County historian. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.