The Traveling Freak Show
The American freak show can be traced back to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. The Fair included an area for games of chance, mechanical rides, freak shows and burlesque. This area of the Fair was called the Midway Plaisance, and the use of the term “midway” to describe a sideshow was born from here. Due to the popularity of the Midway Plaisance at the Chicago World’s Fair, traveling carnivals began touring the US, and by 1937 there were over 300 known traveling carnivals.
The traveling freak show consists of two distinct territories: its temporary fairgrounds setup and the caravan of vehicles used to transport the equipment and the members of the carnival. The boundaries of the fair grounds are clearly delineated – the carnival is fenced in so as to monitor entry. The land must be rented from either a private owner or the nearest municipality, and the carnival stays for a limited period of time, packing up every piece of equipment used and leaving nothing but marks in the ground where it stood.
The caravan is the permanent home of the carnival and its population. It is compact and mobile, and though it advertises the carnival on the sides of its vehicles, the vehicles themselves are most likely not open to the public.
The traveling carnival must have a complex relationship with the towns that it visits. It has to secure the land for its fairgrounds and it probably needs to acquire some sort of vendor’s license in order to set up. Historically, carnivals have been thought to be dishonest and were often shunned by both the general public and the local authorities.
The members of the carnival may be the most fascinating of all. In the early 20th century, joining a freak show was one of the only viable options for a physically deformed person. The population is a group of outcasts, with being outside the norm the one thing they have in common. An interesting point of study would be to find out how this population interacted with the towns they visited outside of the fairgrounds. Some must have traveled in to town to get supplies and such, but how could the freaks leave the fairgrounds without compromising their monetary gain? Why pay to see a freak at a carnival when you can see him walking around town for free?