Home  |  Info  |  Contact 

Home » History » Stories » Midway to Respectability

Definitions and Brief History of Carnivals and Midways

<< Introduction

Before exploring the various carnivals that have played at the Stampede, it is important to clarify what is meant by the term “carnival”3: “a traveling collection of amusements which include games of chance, sideshows, and thrilling rides”4 or (less formally) “a lusty busty bawdy bitch…who has kicked up her frolicsome heels and masqueraded under many guises and names.”5 The constituent parts of carnivals have changed significantly over the past century – changes that have, for the most part, been in response to a variety of technological advances and, more significantly, fluctuating beliefs about morality and decency. Fundamentally, however, the term “carnival” refers to the actual physical entities that have occupied midways since the late nineteenth century.6

It is also salient to contextualize the carnivals at the Stampede in a brief historical discussion of carnivals in North America, the genesis of which is located in the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago. Although small travelling circuses were common from the mid-nineteenth century onward, carnivals per se were non-existent until after the Chicago World’s Fair. The central purpose of the 1893 World’s Fair was to educate and impress the masses with contemporary technological innovations. However, a segment of the World’s Fair named the “Midway Plaisance” was devoted to many free entertainment attractions and side shows.7 This first midway, one and a half miles long and “a block wide,”8 comprised a Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, and other attractions such as “fat ladies,” fortune tellers, and games of chance.9 Thus, although the terms “carnival” and “midway” are often used interchangeably, there is a distinction: “midway” is the actual geographical location, while “carnival” refers to the entities that occupy the midway. Although the midway proved to be highly attractive to fairgoers and generated significant revenue for the World’s Fair, it was also seen as vulgar and somewhat immoral. It was, therefore, geographically segregated from “the serene and aristocratic Court of Honor,”10 despite being wrapped in a cloak of respectability through the use of an idyllic name for the assemblage itself and attempts to display many of the rides, sideshows, and attractions “in the romantic style of the fancy waistcoat era.”11

The financial success of the midway at the Chicago World’s Fair led to a proliferation of smaller travelling carnival companies in the ensuing years that continued to use the name “midway” to refer to their entertainment offerings. Most of these early carnivals did not survive for long, as their dependence on guaranteed crowds and money was significantly challenged by the sparse population outside urban centres in North America. Many of the smaller carnival groups joined together, thereby creating a single carnival company, which made them far more attractive to the general public and guaranteed them more bookings over the carnival season.

The Midway on the Margins: The First Half of the Twentieth Century >>


[ Back to Top ]