by Jessica Kosinski
Most of us have been to a fair or carnival on more than one occasion. Fairs can be a lot of fun, especially the games. Some carnival games that originated many years ago are still popular today, but many of them have been altered from their original forms to keep up with the changing times. Some of them have even been retired completely. Some of those early carnival games, and even early carnival game prizes, are quite popular and can fetch a pretty penny at antiques shops and auctions today. Let’s take a peek at some fair favorites.
A Quick History of Carnivals and Fairs in the U.S.
Games and amusements for the public, according to some sources, originated during the Renaissance. However, they may go back even further than that in some parts of the world. But in the United States what we now know as a local fair or carnival began with side shows and traveling magicians in the 1800s.
Those small circuses and side shows were few and far between and not at all standardized, but that all changed at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. That is when people in the United States really became enamored with the idea of the Midway. The Chicago World’s Fair featured the first area with booths that each featured games of chance. From there, games and the prizes given for them expanded, with each amusement feature having some unique games, but some popular games like the test of strength and ring toss quickly caught on and became staples of almost any fair that featured midway games.
If you enjoy antiquing then you may already know what carnival glass is. It is glassware made with a particular type or iridescent appearance. What you may not realize is that it was first produced under the name “iridill” in 1908, and shortly after that it became a staple prize for games of chance at carnivals and fairs. Iridill was originally expected to sell well and be comparable to high-end glassware of the time, but it didn’t catch on.
Makers of iridill quickly had to rethink their market. It is a bit unclear how iridill came to be used as prizes for games of chance at fairs, but the move worked well. Fair owners bought large amounts of iridill, and adult fair goers played more games in an effort to get more pieces for their sets.
Of course, you don’t see carnival glass at today’s carnivals. Production of it stopped almost completely by the early 1930s, and fairs began to be marketed more as destinations for children and families after that point. That’s why today’s fair prizes are primarily toys and stuffed animals. Nevertheless, carnival glass collectors today love to get their hands on early pieces, and they are so popular that Fenton actually produced newer lines of carnival glass for a while before it closed its doors in 2007.
The Wheel of Chance
Many very early carnivals and fairs featured a game called the “Wheel of Chance.” Each fair goer simply had to spin the wheel to see if they won a prize. Today’s carnivals don’t usually feature a wheel of chance, but early wheels are still available for sale online on websites like eBay. Depending on condition and age, they can sell for anywhere from $100 to $300 or more.
Another popular early fair game involved tossing a bean bag through a usually flat and wooden depiction of a clown—although, the clowns were sometimes three dimensional and made out of other materials—typically the game involved just a clown head, and the object was to throw the bean bag through the open mouth. However, some clown toss games had depictions of entire clowns and multiple holes through which the bean bags could be tossed, with each one being worth a different prize or number of points.
Although the bean bags from those early games did not stand the test of time well, many of the wooden clowns themselves still exist today. They are popular with carnival memorabilia collectors, as well as people who simply want to bring a bit of an old fashioned carnival into their own home.
Some clown toss game clowns are quite inexpensive and excellent for at-home use because it’s easy to make new bean bags for them. Others, depending on how large they are, how intricately they are painted, their age, and their condition, can sell for hundreds of dollars and are better suited for collectors who want to display them.
The Ring Toss Game
One popular fair game that still exists today is the ring toss. The object today is simple enough. The player must throw small wooden and then plastic rings over glass bottle necks to win prizes. Occasionally the ring toss game is done with larger rings and some sort of larger target as well, but the small rings and bottles are the most popular.
In early carnival days the ring toss game rings were not made out of plastic but were made out of wood. Also, they were not always thrown over bottle necks. Instead, there were often elaborate man-powered machines with depictions of clowns or other people or animals raising their arms or paws up and down. Players were tasked with the difficult process of trying to throw a larger ring over a moving target. Most early ring toss rings for bottle games are quite inexpensive. That makes them easy and fun collectibles for fair lovers that want to recreate their own carnival games at home. However, finding a vintage ring toss game with moving parts can be quite difficult. If you do find one, you can expect to spend a lot of money on it.
Of course, there were many other popular carnival games throughout the years, some of which are still seen today. The milk bottle game where players have to throw balls to knock down wooden representations of milk bottles (or metal bottles in more modern times), the strength test (officially called “High Striker”) where players have to pound a machine with a mallet, and many others can bring back fond memories whenever we think about them. Mallets, balls, and wooden “bottles” from all of those early games still exist today and make excellent collectibles for carnival lovers.
If you want to collect carnival game memorabilia then you should know that many early carnival game signs have also survived to the present day. You can make your collection even more interesting and authentic feeling by finding one or more of them. The best place to do that is online, since there are many auction and sale websites that have extensive lists of carnival-related merchandise. Just be aware that many of the games are still being duplicated today, which means that you may have to do some work to verify that the pieces you are purchasing are actually authentic.
Jessica Kosinski has been a freelance writer specializing in writing short articles for 15 years. She is also an avid collector of both antique books and Star Wars memorabilia. Although she is not in the antiques industry professionally, she has learned a lot about antiques over the years by periodically helping out at her mom’s antiques shop in Greenville, NH. She currently balances maintaining the antiques shop’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/MallofNE, and working on various freelance writing assignments. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.