Monday, February 13, 2012

The Traveling Carnival

 Photo found here.

Hello folks! I’m doing something different here. I’ve decided to write a post or two about carnivals, the old time traveling kind. I have always had a fascination with them, and the sideshows, in particular. The circus never garnered my attention. I didn’t like the idea of it, and I hate clowns. And this was before my first encounter with Pennywise. 

 Photo found here.

 But the traveling carnivals would come by on the occasional warm, lazy summer afternoon, setting up their wares precariously. My parents would drive by the previously empty lot that was now blossoming with activity. Us kids would turn around and watch out the back window, trying to sneak a peek at what new rides were coming with it. These carnivals were mostly the county fair variety, but I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to go to one of the early twentieth century types of traveling carnivals. The kind with the wooden Ferris wheel and barkers that would try to get you to see the strange chicken boy attraction.

As I researched the subject, I found out so much more about them than that. 

 The Chicago World's Fair; original Ferris wheel. Photo found at Wikipedia.

Carnivals were basically born following the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The CWF was also the place of origin for the familiar term, the “midway”. The midway was where the sideshows and games were located. Some of the entertainment included chance games, wild west shows and burlesque shows. Back then they had a bad reputation for being seedy and unfair. It was common practice for a worker to scan the crowd, looking for someone that seemed to be ideal to rip off in games. Once that was verified, the worker would put a chalk mark on the persons back, signifying to the other booths that they were to try and pull this person in and take their money. 

 The London Eye. Photo found here.

 Photo found here.

A few of the more common rides that can still be seen today are the Ferris wheel, the carousel and the Chair-O-Planes. The history of the Ferris wheel dates all the way back to the 17th century where very crude renditions of the structure were devised for special occasions. The one we know today was first introduced in Chicago in 1893. It was designed and built by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., hence the name. It was 264 ft in height. Ferris had been educated as a bridge-builder, which explains his knack for the detailed construction. The Ferris wheel was comprised of 36 cars that held up to 60 people. Each rotation lasted for ten minutes. Currently, the tallest Ferris wheel is measured at 541 ft tall and resides in Singapore.

Photo found here.

 The carousel has its roots even farther back. In 500 A.D., a crude drawing was found on a Byzantine bas-relief. In the 12th century, it was probably used as a training device for riders in the military. At first the poles the various animal sculptures are impaled on would not be attached at the bottom, and would consequently fly out when the carousel turned. In the mid-19th century this changed to what we now know. Organs were commonly used to play the music as it was in motion.  

Photo found here.

Chair-O-Planes can be traced back to 1908 where an amusement park in California boasted the Flying Swing, which is based on the same principle. Chair-O-Planes, sometimes called by various other names, is a ride where chairs are suspended from chains that are attached the rotating top. As the top spins, the chairs swing outward. Some versions have a top that tilts as well.

 Photo found here.

An employee of the carnival was widely known as a ‘carny’. The carny runs the games and booths. 

 Photo found here.

Popularizing the traveling carnival recently was an HBO series titled, “Carnivale”, which aired from 2003-2005. This show took a traveling carnival and intertwined many supernatural elements and twists into the storyline. I loved the show, and am planning to devote an entire post about it to go along with the carnival theme.

One facet of the carnival was the specific lingo attached to those who worked there. The slang was immense and diverse. Some of the popular terms include:

Carny Barker - A guy standing outside the tent touting for business.

Hey Rube! - An exclamation used to summon help by a carny in trouble, either from police or disgruntled players. The term was used as the title of a sports column written by Hunter S. Thompson for in his later years.

Jump - Term used to describe the period of time when the carnies tear down, drive to another location, and set up again.

Mark - A customer that spends a lot of money trying to win a game. This term was coined because carnies would alert each other to the big spender by marking him some way (usually by patting them on the shoulder with powdered chalk in hand).

Mooch - Same as a Mark.

The Nut - The sum total (in cash) of a performance, or group of performances. The nut (or kernel) is also sometimes used to refer to the basic operating expense of the joint (including the "patch"). To "make your nut" is to break even, anything beyond that is profit (or tip). Historically, the 'nut' is thought to refer to the wheels of a wagon or carriage; when a carnival or circus set up in a town, officials would take a nut from the carriage wheel to prevent the performers from leaving without settling outstanding bills.

Poke - The Mark's wallet is known as their Poke. When a carnie tries to see how much is in a mark's wallet he will "Peek his poke"

Rousty or Roustabout - A temporary or full-time laborer who helps pitch concessions and assemble rides. In the 1930s, American roustabouts would work for a meal and perhaps a tent to share with other workers.

Scratch - The revenue from a concession, or money in general.

Shill - An employee who pretends to be a casual player sometimes pretending to win big prizes in order to make the game seem easily winnable. Shills may also stroll the fairground holding a large plush (stuffed animal) bragging about how easy it was to win it. Shills may also rush into ticket lines for sideshows or be the first to buy products for sale so that onlookers will feel less reluctant to do the same.

Sugar Shack - A concession or food-stand that sells cotton candy and other sugary treats.

These are only a few that I found on Wikipedia. If you would like to see a bigger, more detailed list, click here.

Come back and read my next post dedicated to the sideshows. It’s sure to entertain. ;) 

Also, a recent release of mine was a story in an anthology from Timid Pirate Publishing, titled, "Cobalt City Dark Carnival". Find out what happens when a city full of superheroes have the return of an evil carnival to deal with. 

To find out more about "Cobalt City Dark Carnival" or to purchase it, click  here. It can also be found at Amazon and other online retailers.

Do you have any memories of the traveling carnival you would like to share? Perhaps your relatives told you stories, or you may even have your own. I would love to hear them if you want to leave them in the comments below.


  1. Unfortunately we never had the true traveling carnival. But having family up north we were lucky enough to visit one a couple times.

    I loved the flying swing, house of mirrors, and the magic sideshow. Our older relatives would always tell us about the sword swallowing woman and a guy who would push nails through his hands but never bleed. I never saw it for myself, too bad.

  2. I bet those were some fun stories! I don't remember anyone telling me about those things, but I wish I could have seen a sideshow, back in the 20s or 30s, preferably. I think I was born in the wrong time, maybe. ;)

    Thanks for the comment, Shain!