The smell of the carnival


Much of human learning about social interactions apparently occurs fairly early in life. In keeping with the concept that what you read in “The Weekly Packet” will be old news, I would like to propose a little time-travel back to northeast Ohio in the early 1950s.

I’m a kid around 11 years old, wearing jeans and plaid shirts. In the summer, I wear Converse hi-tops. (We will deal with footwear at another time, but you just don’t wear sneakers under galoshes. Period.) I’ve recently come to realize that the circus, the carnival, and the county fair are three very different kinds of events, and I’m working on getting them sorted out.

I have pretty firm ideas about the circus because I saw one pull in on a train, set up the “big top,” and perform. In the tent, the circus has rings, and the performers, human and animal, actually put on a show. While you watch one ring, the next act is setting up in a different ring. Basically, you pay money to get into the tent and they entertain you; it’s a value exchange. You get money for working, like delivering papers, and you give some of that money to them for their work. At the end of the show, you file out feeling happy about the spectacle. This goes in the OK category.

Carnivals, as they were in rural Ohio anyway, were not such a good deal. They were set up to provide a one way street where your money left you and went to the carny people. I took a pocketful of my hard-earned newspaper money and handed it over to throw baseballs with off-center weights at wooden milk bottles, or to shoot pellets at ducks immortal as the Furies. Sometimes someone, probably a shill, might win a stuffed toy from China, but not often. Worse yet were the “shows,” where you walked through in the gloom to gaze briefly at the unfortunate folks or critters “on exhibit.” At the end, you headed home feeling vaguely cheated; you spent your money of your own free will and got nothing of value in return except the realization that you were no smarter than the other yokels. Carnivals went in the not-OK category.

County fairs were the Mulligan stew that comes when you mix some circus with a lot of carnival, and add in 4-H Club competitions and harness racing. Among their great virtues is exposing large numbers of farm kids to non-toxic doses of a carnival. My Dad liked them.

Some sixty years later, all three of these great American institutions are fading away, and we are losing something. I’m not going to mourn the demise of the traveling circus, since that’s an economic problem. And there are still state fairs that you can drive to in as little time on the Interstate as we used to spend going east from Alliance through Damascus and Salem, up to the Canfield Fairgrounds. No, I’m missing the carnival. I miss it not because it was fun, but because of what I learned there. The smell of the circus and the fair was the smell of honest manure, the droppings of working animals. The smell of the carnival was the rank, raw scent of snake oil.

The carnival was institutionalized self-deception.

With the loss of the carnival, have we lost our communal nose for snake oil, that magical incense with the smell that makes us believe that we CAN knock down the bottles, decimate the ducks, and go home with the giant panda when we know that it isn’t so?