It’s carnival time around here! The state fair will start in just a couple of days. My daughter’s school will have their Fall Carnival next week. Oh, joy. Bouncy houses and cheap prizes are in my future! Hopefully, there won’t be any more goldfish! We brought one home a couple of years back. That silly thing lived for over a year, well beyond the 2 days I had expected it to last! Have you ever wondered where people get the ideas for carnival prizes? I found out in a roundabout way.
Among the many treasures that came from my in-laws were two statues. (Ok, I am really beginning to wonder about all the stuff Ma Betty had! Was she planning to open a store?) One was a boy with a goose and the other a girl with a goose. They’re sweet but pretty dingy looking.
Boy and Girl chalkware
And it was another item I wasn’t inclined to keep, at first. The little boy’s face is chipped and worn.. They really are not extraordinary pieces of art. However, I found the motivation to do some research anyway. I guess I really do like research because Googling “boy and goose statue” barely got me anywhere! Well, I take that back. Apparently, children and geese are a very popular theme in artwork! There was one picture in the image search a few pages in that matched my statue. From that, I was able to find out, the two figures I had were made of something called chalkware.
Chalkware is a term applied to objects made from plaster of Paris. Because chalkware essentially will deteriorate when exposed to water, or most cleaning solutions, it is unusual to find intact pieces. I am really glad I found that tidbit before I decided to soak the dust off these two pieces! There were two main time periods when it was popular. The end of the 18th century into the beginning of the 19th (late 1790’s to 1800’s) was an era when chalkware was used for serious art. Very few pieces are still around from this time. During the 1930’s-1940’s chalkware was used for fun, casual, or cheap pieces. I think cheap is the key word here. The little girl and boy statues I have were actually carnival prizes!
I cannot imagine some little kid was too excited to get a statue for winning a game! It turns out that games of chance were not originally intended for kids to play. It might have been the gambling idea, I’m not really sure. But during the heyday of the carnival in the 1930’s (there were over 300 traveling around the United States in 1937!) prizes were aimed at adults. Not only could they win a lovely chalkware statue or plaque, people could win carnival glass dishes, hams, and even cigars! This is most likely where the saying “close, but no cigar!” Comes from. During the Great Depression and even into the World War II era, it was very difficult to come by many house hold items. Fair goers would line up for a chance to win a basket of groceries. One of the more popular games of chance was called the Country Store Wheel where the player would spin a wheel to see what shelf they could pick a prize from. I personally would have been much happier with a couple of punch cups than a live goldfish!
Another prize that was common on the midway of the 1930’s carnival was the iridescent glassware that became known as carnival glass. Sometimes called “the poor man’s Tiffany’s” manufactures had over produced the shimmery glass dishes in the 1920s. During the Depression carnival glass was sold for pennies a piece. They were snapped up by carnival owners to give as cheap prizes in games of chance.
Carnivals have a really interesting history! Some historians attribute their growth to the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair. The Midway, first seen at the World’s Fair, was copied in several of the traveling carnivals that sprung up in the following years. I wouldn’t say it was a quick growth, or at least it had a very slow start. In 1902 there were about 17 known traveling carnivals in the United States. Three years later there were 46 and by 1937 there were a whopping 300 traveling carnivals roaming around the States. Carnivals found their way into all parts of America, even the small, off the beaten track, towns. They provided a needed break from everyday life for many people. I wonder how many of our families have long forgotten mementos from those days sitting on shelves and bookcases. The next time you are visiting an older relative or friend, take a second to look around. Those old overlooked carnival prizes are stories of a happy time in someone’s life!