Cotton candy, the screams of joyriders, and the tinny music of the merry-go-round and Ferris wheel—long before the modern-day amusement park, the carnival was summer’s go-to place for a good time. These well-worn collections of thrill rides, shooting galleries, games of chance, sideshows and entertainment traveled from place to place. When the carnival came to town, people turned out in droves, eager to have serious fun.
Carnivals had a single goal: Get customers inside the tent. Likewise, the games of “skill” that lined the midway did their best to entice passersby. Barkers shouted out challenges—“Step right up and win a prize!” More often than not, the prizes were chalkware figures—dogs were particularly popular. Lads eager to impress their gals or to one-up the competition stepped up to the counter to test their skills and win one of the molded plaster of Paris figures. The better the performance, the bigger the prize.
Once won, the coveted prizes often met ignominious ends. Not only were they easily broken, many became targets for slingshot practice, and young girls used the broken pieces to make sidewalk hopscotch games. By the 1960s, chalkware had been replaced by stuffed animals, which were less expensive and didn’t break.
When Disneyland opened in 1955, it created a new and more elaborate venue, bringing family entertainment into the technological age and sidelining carnivals, relegating them to the status of curiosities—much like the chipped and dusty chalkware pup shoved to the back of a closet or tossed into a box in our grandparents’ garage.
Photograph by Mark Compton