Penny arcade

automatic vaudeville
automatic vaudeville circa 1904 (mcny)

Throughout the GQ books, Henry and Martin make frequent trips downtown to the arcade in Union Square to look at “peep shows” and play games. The arcade in the books is based on the Automatic Vaudeville penny arcade on Union Square which probably opened in 1903.

The arcade is a surprisingly deep room. Here’s a shot from inside the hall toward the front.

automatic vaudeville
automatic vaudeville circa 1904 (mcny)

And below is a row of Mutoscope machines, AKA peep shows.  Seriously, this hall looks endless!

automatic vaudevillle mutoscopes
automatic vaudeville circa 1904 (mcny)

Today “peep show” refers to nude imagery, at the very least, if not outright pornography or live sex shows. But in 1900, these visuals were referred to as peep shows because you…peeped at them. With your peepers.

Here is an example of a Mutoscope reel in action. Unfortunately, all the Mutoscope footage I could find was shot by people holding their phones up to the machine’s viewport, so the quality is not the best. But it will give you an idea of what this sort of flipbook movie was like. They’re not as herky-jerky as you might expect.

The most famous Mutoscope reel is called “What the Butler Saw,” and features a butler peering at his mistress undressing through a keyhole. I couldn’t find that online, but I did find this, an example of a blatantly risque reel of the same era (albeit on a different flipbook machine), which is definitely the sort of thing Henry’s friends are interested in.

And here’s what a Mutoscope looks like inside. It’s like a big rolodex, basically. (Do people even know what rolodexes are anymore?)

mutoscope guts
mutoscope guts

Here are some other era-appropriate penny arcade amusements:

Punching bag. There’s a dial mostly hidden behind the bag that shows how hard you punched.

punching bag
punching bag circa 1900

The fortune teller works as described in the book. The doll takes a card with a fortune on it and drops it in the bucket/chute to be delivered to the customer.

madame zita
Madame Zita fortune teller circa 1900

These lung testers seem like they’d be disease vectors with their unwashed mouthpieces shared by hundreds of people.

lung tester
lung tester circa 1905
electric lung and grip tester
electric lung and grip tester circa 1900


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