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

<< Definitions and Brief History of Carnivals and Midways

By 1902 twenty-four carnival companies were operating in the United States. Many of these companies also travelled to western Canada as part of their route. The growth of railway lines, threading their way across both Canada and the United States, facilitated the movement of the carnivals. The companies offered a motley collection of rides and “freak” and “girlie” shows, games, and other concessions. The ride component tended to be quite small, mainly due to the expense of travel. The largest segment of most travelling carnivals was the tented sideshows. Vaudeville stage shows comprising comedians, musicians, and variety acts were common features of early twentieth-century carnivals, as were gambling booths and other games of chance.12

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

The partnership between agricultural fairs and carnivals was formed during the early part of the twentieth century and continues to this day. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, carnival companies realized that by negotiating contracts with larger agricultural fairs, they would be guaranteed a more secure income. The carnival season was May through to October, but most agricultural fairs took place from August to October, a practice that continues today. Carnival companies often struggled financially from May to August as they attempted to find “still dates,” smaller venues of short duration. Lucrative still dates were difficult to find. This sometimes led to debt acquisition or even bankruptcy for many smaller carnival companies before the official agricultural fair season had even begun.13

The alliance of agricultural fairs and carnival companies throughout most of the first half of the twentieth century was rarely harmonious. Each entity needed the other to survive financially. Carnivals were usually considered by agricultural fair boards to be “a necessary evil,”14 essential for the financial success of a fair, but ideologically contrary to the fundamental principles of the agricultural fairs, which were to educate the mainly rural fairgoers and provide a venue in which farmers could show their stock. The midway presence was seen as a distraction from these lofty ideals, and from the early 1900s onwards there were ongoing conflicts between moral entrepreneurs (in the form of agricultural purists, churches, and fair reformers) and agricultural fair boards and the general public, which supported the carnival presence, the former for financial reasons and the latter for entertainment purposes. A manifestation of these contradictory dynamics was the location of carnivals at the agricultural fairs. They were often positioned just inside the main entrance to agricultural fairgrounds in order to be the first to take advantage of the money brought onto the grounds. In the case of the Calgary Stampede, for example, most of the carnival games and sideshows were located at the northern end of the Stampede grounds, so that people entering at the main gates (northwest on the grounds) would have to pass by the carnival tents and games en route to the more “wholesome” agricultural activities and displays.15

Most opposition to carnivals centred on fears that the midways were dominated by con men (known as “grifters” or “fakirs”).16 There were concerns that female fair-goers would be lured into white slavery and men would be morally debased by the sight of the semi-clad women in the girlie shows.17 In contrast, little moral indignation was demonstrated towards the freak shows, no doubt a reflection of cultural beliefs dominant in the early twentieth century, which sanctioned the display of so-called human oddities with no concerns about exploitation.

The freak shows that comprised a significant portion of carnivals for the first half of the twentieth century consisted of both animals and people with abnormal physical features, such as “fat people, dwarfs, half men-half women, two-headed creatures, Siamese twins, and just about anything the mind could imagine.”18 Animals and people from “exotic” locales were very popular because most fair attendees (largely from the farming communities) did not travel much beyond their immediate regions and were duly entranced by live attractions ostensibly from foreign lands.19 Many of the people and animals were, indeed, imported by carnival promoters from around the world. However, a significant number of these live exhibits were quite bogus; for example, it was not uncommon for Aboriginal peoples to be presented as people from Africa or India, costumed in suitable clothing and makeup; as Scott claims, “historical [and geographic] accuracy [were] not always a strong point in the sideshow business.”20 Gambling was another source of contradiction and consternation.21 All the prairie provinces had legislation that discouraged gambling, but most exhibitions ignored the statutes, as they needed the revenue from gambling (in the form of midway games, as well as horse racing) to survive economically.22

Carnivals at the Calgary Stampede >>


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