The vibrant colors and bright lights of a traveling carnival can evoke strong emotions is people. Memories erupt at the sight; the thrill of being spun around at top speed; the sticky sweetness of cotton candy; the joy of carrying home a huge stuffed bear won at a game booth.   Where did the traveling carnival get its roots in the United States?

Midway Traveling Carnival; Photo by Andreas Praefcke, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo by Andreas Praefcke, Source: Wikimedia Commons

The History of the Traveling Carnival

In 1893 Chicago hosted the world’s fair which was billed as The World’s Columbian Exposition.  One of the attractions of the fair was an area that was close to the Midway Plaisance which consisted of various thrill rides, food vendors and game booths along with sideshows.[2]  When the world fair ended, a showman, Otto Schmitt formed the Chicago Midway Plaisance Amusement Company and took 13 acts on the road; traveling the northeastern United States.  Before the first year passed, the show folded, but some of the members started their own company.  Thus, the traveling carnival was born; and the term “midway” became part of the “carny” culture.[2]

The popularity of these carnivals increased even though many believed the games were rigged and the carnival workers unsavory.   By 1902 there were 17 traveling carnivals; 46 in 1905 and an estimated 300 by 1937.[1]   The term “mark” was originated from the carnivals.  Dishonest operators would find people they believed they could entice to continue playing games that were rigged.  Once a likely candidate was spied; the operator put his hand that held chalk, on the back of the person, thus “marking” the person for game operators. [1]

Elements of the Traveling Carnival

Most carnivals or midways include a variety of thrill rides and games of skill or chance along with several food booths. Generally a carnival offers a few rides for young children and several bigger rides for older youth and adults.  The majority of carnivals have a Ferris wheel and at least one ride that involves g-force.   Each ride has its own music and is usually brightly painted to attract riders.  Popular food booths include cotton candy, popcorn, candied or caramel apples and funnel cakes.

Traveling Carnival at County Fair; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commons

Game booths are another staple of a midway.  These games vary in the degree of skill required and some are purely based on luck.  There is usually a game that calls for shooting.  Throwing darts to bust balloons; squirting water into the mouth of a clown, or shooting moving duck targets with BB’s are some examples.  Often there is a game where the participant is required to toss a ring around the top of a bottle or a coin onto a plate that is atop bottles.  Some games offer prizes to participants regardless of how well they do; however, the bigger prizes are reserved for the most skilled players.  Many games offer a type of tier winning where a player wins small prizes that can be exchanged for larger ones as the player advances in wins.  

Sideshows found their place in the history of the carnival; modern carnivals no longer feature these acts.  The sideshows consisted of mostly human acts such as sword swallowing, fire eaters, or fortune tellers; and of course the “oddities” often called “freakshows” such as humans with extra limbs or deformities.  These acts were usually in a tent and people were charged extra to see them.

Many of today’s carnivals are independently owned and vendors contract with the owners.  The independent owners pay a percentage of their “take” for their ride to the carnival owner. The large operators own the majority of the rides at their carnivals, but sometimes contract out for game and food vendors.[1]

Modern Day Traveling Carnivals

The nomadic Carnivals make their way across the United States via trucks.  They set up in open fields or parking lots and stay for an average of a week.   Most state and county fairs have a Dunk Tank at Carnival; Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy, Photographer: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Daniel Viramontes, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy, Photographer: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Daniel Viramontes, Source: Wikimedia Commonsmidway set up on the grounds for the duration of the fair.   The touring carnival has produced an off-shoot in that many organizations will conduct a small one or two day carnival as a fund raising event.  These usually don’t offer thrill rides, but do offer food booths and several game booths.  The “dunk tank” is a popular feature of these types of carnivals.  They often include booths where artists sell their crafts.

Bright lights and vibrant colors lure people into the world of the midway carnival.  Thrill rides attack the senses and games entice those wanting to try their luck or show their skills.  Traveling carnivals offer much in the way of satisfying many aspects of the human condition.


 The copyright of the article The Traveling Carnival: Yesterday and Today is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.


2012 Prince William County Fair