Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Historical Development of Themed Space: Susan Ingram on Industrial Europe and the Commodification of Leisure

Authors note: this is the first in a series of articles that weigh how different eras of themed entertainment have been influenced by their historical context. In Theme Park, Lukas (2008) asks a question of central importance to the study of the history of the modern theme park: how does the creation of the artificial reflect the society that creates it? Lukas posits that “we must understand the trajectory of the theme park in the form of historical whispers, thematic shouts in the night and rhizomatic influences of direction and misdirection” (23). In agreement with Lukas’s thesis, these articles will attempt to piece apart different examples of how themed entertainment has illustrated greater societal trends, aspirations, and concerns.

The nineteenth-century saw pervasive societal change in Western and Central Europe as a massive wave of industrialization transformed the continent’s urban centers and power structures. The dominance of Smithian economics at the turn of the century contributed to a new industrial order defined by laissez-faire policies, the division of labor, and mass production. These forces combined with many others to form commodity culture, defined by Marxist political theory as the widespread assignment of economic value to objects previous void of economic meaning. This commodification had effects on the quality of life for the citizens of urban Europe but also on the structures that defined their life, including recreation. This is the topic that Susan Ingram focuses on throughout her three contributions to the collection Placing History: Themed Environments, Urban Consumption and the Public Entertainment Sphere.

The commodification of leisure can be seen early in the Industrial era in British pleasure gardens and music halls, in which public entertainment was privatized. These gated experiences had entrance fees and competed with each other for patrons, presenting new and innovative programming to lure urbanites to their grounds. They raised the stakes for leisure by taking many different recreations and combining them under one gate and charging a premium for that convenience. In “Public Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London”, Ingram (2003) details the wonders found at Cremorne, one of the most popular pleasure gardens in London in the mid-nineteenth century (see Fig.1): a shooting range, circus, theater, dance hall, bandstands, and boating were spread across 12 manicured acres supplemented by theming elements like temples, pagodas, and even primitive animatronic animals (45-6). Just like the mass produced tools and goods that emerged as a result of new industrial practices, these recreations were commodified by their being combined under a single price tag. In the case of each pleasure garden, the product was not each individual recreation but the greater experience defined by the business’s brand.

Figure 1: Cremorne Gardens, London, England; Cremorne was typical of pleasure gardens in operating several recreations inside of a quasi-public space, gated and commodified by an admission fee. So strong was its brand that a “franchise” was opened haring its name in Melbourne, Australia (Levin, 1864).

To trace the larger history of this commodification, we must pay special attention to the world’s fairs of the nineteenth century. Though the exact introduction of commoditized recreation is debatable, England’s Great Exhibition of 1851 can be cited as the moment of its broader recognition. This was largely due to how its message of industrial progress and modernity (embodied in the fair’s most famous structure, the Crystal Place) was paralleled by the introduction of its new patron, the consumer. Says Ingram, “Charging admission fees across the board without exception, then, served to establish industrial standards of identity, encouraging patrons to view both themselves and others by the size of their wallets” (2003a, 56). Just as industrialization destabilized the old political and social order with the introduction of the capitalist bourgeoisie, the introduction of the concept of the consumer within the fairgrounds revolutionized the state of recreation in London.  Ingram summarizes this in another article, this one titled “Theming and the Crystal Place: An Historical Perspective”: “Visitors [of the Great Exhibition]… were confronted with and had to make sense of a new, dislocating reality, in which they found themselves under the roof of the same building, occupying subject positions based not on traditional social status but rather on purchasing power and disposable income” (2003b, 143). Through this, the Exhibition not only prophesized the creation of a new industrial order but enabled it through its treatment of its patrons.

These world’s fairs also marked some of the earliest imaginings of themed entertainment as it is understood in its contemporary form today. The Great Exhibition of 1851, in its egalitarian approach to recreation, utilized theming as a tool to further its pro-industrial message. Says Ingram, “Commodified exhibits had to appeal to the greatest number of visitors possible. The ones that succeeded were the ones with multiple significations, those which could bridge the instruction/ amusement/ commerce divides” (2003b, 144). Though the exposition created a space in which all patrons were presented as consumers, its organizers catered to the diverse preferences of the varied classes attending by crafting a method of presentation that was sensationalist and yet also carried meaning (see Fig. 2).

Figure 2: The Crystal Palace, interior; the most significant structure of the 1851 Great Exhibition, the Crystal Palace symbolized the achievements possible through industry and commerce both in the engineering marvel of its structure and the theming elements of the attractions within (McNeven, 1851).

This was done most significantly through the exoticizing of Other (foreign lands, cultures, and peoples). Regarding the use of Other, Ingram continues, “The panorama-type displays and the exorcized cafes and restaurants were all instructional, offering forms of what would become increasingly sought after knowledge about far-away places, while at the same time amusing through difference and spectacle” (2003b, 144). Cross-continental travel was still limited to a small class of elites and capitalists that could afford it, and so the appeal of reproductions of foreign places among lower class Europeans was a popular element of pleasure gardens and other proletariat entertainment options. By bridging the “instruction/ amusement/ commerce” divide, the theming of the 1851 Great Exhibition took these reproductions, used them to provide information, and then framed this information to attach meaning relating to the fair’s message of progress through industry and commerce.

The whimsy of such theming proved apt in simultaneously carrying positivity towards industrialization and shedding the weight of the realities that industrialization wreaked on the urban working class. Ingram elaborates: “theming enacted a kind of sublation, serving to relieve what Alexander McClung has referred to as ‘the tensions and anxieties of the present” (83)…Modernizing urban expansion thus found in the world exhibition its first major outlet, a temporary respite from the pressures to which it gave rise…put otherwise, they can be considered a heterotopia, ‘a compensatory space defined through its difference from the sites and work of the everyday’ (Phillips 91)” (144). In this sense, the 1851 Great Exhibition was hugely successful in promoting positivity towards the new industrial order, introducing industry and commerce as sources of solutions to the problems they had created. Theming sold the industrialized masses on the urban situation in which they found themselves.

If the exoticizing of Other in theming seems familiar, it is because they are found in most themed spaces following the Great Exhibition. Ingram states, “By the next universal exhibition in Paris, in 1867, there were exotic restaurants with ethnic music, spicy dishes and waitresses in national costumes, and people were displayed as parts of exhibits for the first time, something which would become standard and very popular practice” (2003b, 142). Nations saw that they could market difference and exaggerate exoticism in their pavilions to draw profit. Theming began to be used as a tool for sensationalism rather than conveying a specific message. This is evident in the changing nature of world’s fairs over the latter half of the nineteenth century. Ingram notes, “Beginning with the 1867 Paris exhibition, themed attractions appeared in the grounds outside the pavilion buildings, and with the introduction of a ‘midway’ at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, they were given their own separate space” (2003b, 142). Theming no longer had to exist attached to meaning, it could now operate as meaning in itself. Indeed, as corporate influence increased at the fairs, this separation of theming accelerated (2003b, 142). In “Meet me in Vienna (Alt-Wien), Meet me at the Fair”, Ingram says, “The increasing dominance of the midway zones would lead one to believe that the world exhibitions seem to have been less about forming citizenries than they were about opening up new markets or forming new customers” (2003c, 89). In this way, theming was commodified by offering itself for sale independent of any meaning attached. The product was the experience of the theming itself.

Figure 3: Adventureland, Disneyland, California; a contemporary example of using Other as commodity. The left image shows various referential architecture loosely based on traditional styles from Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands. Exoticism is used to sell itself, with no additional meaning attached. The right image illustrates the blatancy in which the commodity of Other is marketed (Slater, 2010).

From Ingram’s work we can thus see how the commodification of leisure in Industrial Europe lead to the rise of themed environments as we know them. Theming, first used as a means of proliferating a positivity towards the industrial order at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, became self-sustaining as a commodity itself through its representations of an exoticized Other, and could thus be used as a vehicle for profit outside its original use. This solidified itself as a tool in the arsenal of designers for commercial projects worldwide, and has significant connotations in the themed entertainment industry today. Understanding this industrial past allows professionals in themed entertainment to recognize how theming is affected by its context and yet exerts its own forces as well. This series of articles will continue to examine the path of themed entertainment through history, adding further insight to the field’s contemporary state.



Ingram, S. (2003a). Public entertainment in nineteenth-century London. In S. Ingram & M. Reisenleitner (Eds.), Placing history: Themed environments, urban consumption and the public entertainment sphere (pp. 34-77). Wein, Austria: Turia + Kant.

Ingram, S. (2003b). Theming and the Crystal Palace: An historical perspective. In S. Ingram & M. Reisenleitner (Eds.), Placing history: Themed environments, urban consumption and the public entertainment sphere (pp. 137-144). Wein, Austria: Turia + Kant.

Ingram, S. (2003c). Meet me in Vienna (Alt-Wien), meet me at the Fair. In S. Ingram & M. Reisenleitner (Eds.), Placing history: Themed environments, urban consumption and the public entertainment sphere (pp. 83-99). Wein, Austria: Turia + Kant.

Levin, P. (1864). The Dancing Platform at Cremorne Gardens [Painting]. Retreived from

Lukas, S.A. (2008). Theme park. London, England: Reaktion Books Ltd.

McNeven, J. (1851). The transept from the Grand Entrance [Lithograph]. Retrieved from

Slater, S. (Photographer) (2010). [Untitled photograph of the midway of Adventureland, Disneyland, California]. Retrieved from

Slater, S. (Photographer) (2010). [Untitled photograph of a sign in Adventureland, Disneyland, California]. Retrieved from

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