Sunday, 12 August 2012

Cones and Carnivals – A Perfect Pairing!

Carnivals are widely popular celebrations of local history and culture that are celebrated all over the world.  The early versions of these carnivals are fairs, which are as old as recorded history.  Fairs were used as both market places and places for entertainment.  In the 1700s, the British combined these trade fairs with what were known as “agricultural improvement societies” to develop what we would recognize as our still-popular agricultural fairs.  These fairs were brought to the colonies by the earliest British settlers.  In a predominantly agrarian society, the conceptof the fair was enthusiastically embraced. 

The first agricultural society in Canada was founded in 1765 in Nova Scotia and in 1792, the Agricultural Society of Upper Canada was established in Niagara on the Lake.  By the mid-1800s, agricultural societies were springing up all over Ontario, and these groups enthusiastically planned and participated in enormously popular fairs that were a way to promote and celebrate advances in agriculture.  The Rockton Agricultural Society first held a fair in October 1852 offering an impressive $194.50 in prize money.  The fair was so successful and popular, that in 1878, local author Andrew Kernighan commented that the Rockton fair should be called the “World’s Fair” because the whole world seemed to attend.  This fair and others like it have continued to be an important tradition in Ontario and across Canada.

The concept of a world’s fair had its roots in the 1844 French Industrial Exposition, held in Paris.  The success and acclaim of this event prompted many imitators, and the scale of these events became increasingly ambitious.  The Great Exhibition in London, held in 1851, was the first to open its doors to exhibitors from all over the world.  The central purpose of this and other world fairs was to both educate and impress the masses with new technological innovations and to introduce them to international cultures.  The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, unprecedented in its scale and content, introduced a new concept – the midway.  Prompted by a need to create additional revenue, the “Midway Plaisance,” was an area designed purely for the purpose of amusement.  In addition to the first Ferris Wheel and a carousel, the midway featured tented side shows, comedians, musicians, gymnasts, fortune tellers, animals, food concessions and spectacles of all descriptions.

Although small travelling circuses had been around since the mid-19th century, it was the tremendous success and popularity of the midway at the Chicago World’s Fair that spurred the development of large numbers of travelling carnivals and related attractions.  By 1905, there were close to fifty carnival companies operating in the United States, and many of these companies traveled north to take advantage of the Canadian market.  The rapid growth of railways lines facilitated the movement of these carnivals.  Carnival-like amusements were also added to the traditional offerings of agricultural or historical festivals.  The largely attended agricultural fairs guaranteed crowds for the carnivals, and generated significant revenue for the fairs.  It was a sometimes uneasy, but mutually beneficial partnership.

Carnival companies offered a diverse collection of rides, animals, tented side shows, games and food concessions.  In The Midway on the Margins: the First Half of the Twentieth Century, it is noted that Vaudeville stage shows comprising comedians, musicians, and variety acts were common features of early twentieth-century carnivals, as were gambling booths and other games of chance.”  Due to the expense of moving large equipment, rides were less common in the early days.  

Carnivals and related fairs were, and continue to be, places where one could enjoy “fun” foods not normally eaten.  At the turn of the century, carnival and fair visitors could enjoy many of the foods we still associate with carnivals and fairs today – ice cream, cotton candy, caramel apples, popcorn, soda and lemonade.  Fun seekers also snacked on baked potatoes and pickles. 

Ice cream cones were, and continue to be, an enduring feature of fairs and carnivals.  Since their dramatic rise in popularity following their introduction at the 1904 St. Louis world’s fair, this sweet, cool treat will forever be associated with the delights of a day at a carnival.

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