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Carnival in the United States has very different connotations to that of European or Caribbean traditions of carnival. Intimately connected to and partially developing out of nineteenth-century American circus culture, American variants of carnival were posited primarily on a financial, not a cultural, basis. Rather than a festival or annual celebration (the "time out of time" of European carnival modes, for instance, in which normal duties, routines of work, and social hierarchies are suspended), U.S. carnival was centered in the fantastical through the display of "freaks," the construction of vast rides and technological wonders, and the development of fantasy worlds of entertainment. The lure of making profits by way of exhibitions of the perceived abnormal in sideshows and freak shows, for example, grounds American carnival forms within particular fields of contrived and manipulated vision. The world of the traveling carnival, its development in the nineteenth century masterminded by men like P. T. Barnum (1810–1891), showman and proprietor of the New York–based Museum of America, insists by its very nature upon a culture of continuous carnival as opposed to the weeklong festivals that were tied to religious observances or fertility rituals in other parts of the world. A staple American entertainment form from the 1860s—Barnum took his museum of oddities on the road after a fire destroyed his New York base on 2 March 1868—to the middle decades of the twentieth century, when its hold on the American public's imagination was challenged by the rise of television, the traveling carnival brought the fantastical and the spectacular to Americans across the nation. By the end of the twentieth century the ritual exhibition of "freaks" for amusement and financial profit had almost completely vanished, with only a handful of such shows left in the United States.

World's Fairs Culture

Circuses, carnivals, dime museums, or world's fairs in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were closely interlinked events and entertainment arenas, despite their nuanced differences of presentation and content. While the American world's fairs (particularly the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893) displayed technological or imperial gains within the tradition of the great exhibitions begun at London's Crystal Palace in 1851, the carnivals manipulated the world of the spectacular and of the unknown in their production of novelty shows. Developing in tandem with American world's fairs of the period, the carnivals produced versions of reality that perpetrated some of the most deceptive illusions of the day. Alongside those exhibits deemed to be "born freaks" (e.g., Siamese twins, or the boy with flippers for arms) were placed contrived shows of human "monstrosity" and deformity for the titillation of the paying audience. One of the main features of the sideshow worlds of the carnivals was the midway, a section dedicated entirely to the housing of the "exotic" or the "monstrous." The first midway appeared at the 1893 Columbian Exposition: the "White City" of this fair was a space of technological and cultural innovation where the first Ferris wheel battled for visual primacy with the carnival midway exhibits of alleged cannibalistic African tribes and similar exhibits of nonwhite, non-American identities that owed their presentation and their construction to the racialized methods of seeing and display culture of the period. This fair also collected together a range of traveling showmen whose renown and reputation were spreading throughout the nation (e.g., Buffalo Bill's Wild West show).


Although the golden age of the traveling carnival can be dated roughly between 1870 and 1920, the first circus that was self-promoted as a traveling circus or carnival was that of Waring, Raymond and Company in 1837. Carnival circus culture grew exponentially between 1850 and 1900, but declined by the 1920s with the development of resorts and amusement parks in major cities, such as Luna Park (created by Frederic Thompson and Elmer "Skip" Dundy in 1903) and William H. Reynolds's Dreamland of 1904. The various elements that had made up the traditional circus—jugglers, clown shows, trained animals, high-wire performers—were joined in the traveling carnival, and eventually superceded by the display of human oddities; what had stood originally as the sideshow attraction to the main circus event began to take center stage. More famous circus companies such as Ringling Brothers also included minstrel shows, in which mostly white (but on occasion black) performers "blacked-up" to perform song-and-dance routines to entertain the audience during interludes at their attractions from the 1880s. In essence, this was a variation on the freak show form in that they capitalized on the display and exaggeration of "Otherness" within American culture through the burlesquing of black identity. Elsewhere, a freak show or museum of human oddities accompanied the traveling Ringling Bros., Barnum, and Bailey Circus until 1956.

Carnival, then, was an alternative to, but was clearly intertwined with, American circus culture. That it now holds a rather tawdry reputation is due mainly to its use of freak shows.

Traveling Carnival

Developed as the upshot of other amusement cultures in the late nineteenth century, traveling carnivals provided smaller American towns with their own miniature amusement parks, an annual incursion of the outside or urban world into the American heartlands. As a collection of games of chance, waxworks, museums of oddities, and rudimentary mechanically operated rides (smaller variations on the Ferris wheel for instance, or miniature versions of New York's Steeplechase Park's horseracing attraction), it shared a modicum of the ethos of more famous carnival events such as Mardi Gras. Usually, such carnivals were not owned by one person, but were organized by a group of individuals and proprietors; indeed, it was not until the early 1890s that an amusement-company culture came to the fore. Barnum brought out on the road the formula that had been successful at his Museum of America in New York: the Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, had been housed there in 1860; Charles Stratton, more famously known as Tom Thumb, was another major attraction; among other displays, Barnum staged reenactments of Native American ceremonials, and constructed a waxworks that reflected the growing temperance ethos within society depicting the individual's inevitable death resulting from one sip of alcohol. Following the 1868 fire, Barnum toured his museum of oddities, continuing to add various attractions to his exhibitions.

The advent of the railroad connected these traveling shows with a wider range of American towns; carnivals could then appear at times coordinated with local festivals and fairs. In the new century's first decade, the attraction of guaranteed audiences nationwide persuaded certain showmen and promoters (prime among them Otto Schmidt) to develop the idea of what would become the twentieth-century traveling carnival, which kept to a tour itinerary that traversed the United States. Indeed, agricultural fairs, begun in the early nineteenth century, provided ideal occasions and locations for a visiting carnival show, with most states and local counties having their own fair at a designated time in the year, depending on seasonal conditions and regional preference. Financial considerations were negotiated locally, with some carnivals paying a fee for their inclusion at a fair while others handed over a percentage of their takings. In 1902, seventeen carnivals were on tour; by 1905, this number had risen to forty-six, and by 1937, there were an estimated 300 traveling carnivals in the United States. This rising success of the carnival can be directly related to a decline in circus culture; simultaneously, there was a transfer of particular exhibits from the circuses, replacing lesser-freak exhibits, such as the geek show (an abject spectacle in which a caged man was reduced to the dismemberment of chickens and even rats on occasion—for which purpose he was equipped with razor blades concealed in his palm). It was inevitable that sideshow elements from the circus would leak into carnival culture, finding a new home within a slightly altered realm of visual entertainment. Before their popularity waned by 1940, the central feature of any good carnival was its freak show.

From Circus to Freak Show

Where clown shows perform a comic transgression (e.g., a spoof robbery, or a ludicrous attempt at some physical feat) that is ultimately denied, American freak shows were forged around the presentation of racially transgressive identities. As Robert Bogdan points out in Freak Show, such exhibitions were "the formally organized exhibition of people with alleged and real, physical, mental, or behavioral anomalies for amusement and profit" (p. 110). Barnum was the innovative and creative force behind the early forms of both American circuses and freak shows, but was later rivaled by the success of the Ringling Brothers. Barnum was also the creator of the three-ring circus, a design principle central to the development of Disney's theme parks in the twentieth century. His "Greatest Show on Earth" was the most elaborate and renowned of the traveling carnival shows, collecting together aspects of the carnivals throughout the United States: from human oddities such as the Bearded Lady and purported midgets or giants to exhibits more in keeping with circus culture, such as performing animals or exotic creatures not indigenous to America. Amid the falsifications on display, such as the woman purported to be a mermaid, were placed individuals who suffered from either physical or mental disabilities. One of the longest serving was the performer known as "Zip, the What-Is-It?" and doubts remain as to his exact identity: he was either an intelligent black man (William Henry Jackson) born with a physical deformity, or he was William Henry Johnson, born in 1840, suffering from microcephaly and exhibited by the Barnum circuses and at Coney Island between 1860 and 1926. This individual was placed in a variety of manipulated and, later, farcical situations including boxing matches and musical performances. Displayed as "the missing link" between humans and apes, the racial dimension to his exhibition status should not be overlooked. Indeed, it was the black coloring of this man that facilitated such carnivalized renditions of his identity.

Amusement Resorts

With increasing immigration and the exponential growth of America's cities, particularly on the eastern seaboard, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, town planners and America's carnival and circus proprietors turned to the development of amusement resorts. Designed to entertain the urban masses, locations such as Coney Island in New York or Asbury Park and Atlantic City in New Jersey appeared, fitted out with the latest technological and mechanical amusement innovations, twinned with the more traditional elements of the American carnival. Roller coasters sprang up in the 1880s, the first at Coney Island in 1884 built by LaMarcus Adna Thompson, soon followed by the dedicated theme parks of Thompson, Dundy, and Reynolds. The ability of these fixed locations to develop and enhance their rides and attractions over time counteracted the traveling carnivals' success: unable to keep up with the changing times and technologies and limited in the amount of equipment and staff that they could move about the country, the traveling carnival entered the period after World War II with a diminishing horizon of possibility ahead of it. With the majority of the American population now living in urban areas, and with increasingly easier access through the automobile and other transportation methods to the growing number of amusement resorts dotted across the United States, the old carnival forms entered an irreversible decline.

See also: Coney Island; Impresarios of Leisure, Rise of; Mardi Gras; Urbanization of Leisure


Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Brown, Bill. The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economies of Play. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Culhane, John. The American Circus: An Illustrated History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990.

Gresham, William Lindsay. Monster Midway: An Uninhibited Look at the Glittering World of the Carny. London: Gollancz, 1954.

Gresham, William Lindsay. Nightmare Alley. 1946. In Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s. New York: Library of America, 1997.

Kasson, John. Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.

McGowan, Philip. American Carnival: Seeing and Reading American Culture. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Philip McGowan