Skip to main content

The Depression Era Carnival

Black and white photo of Chair-Plane ride with lit up entrance and exit signs

Chair-O-Plane Ride, Circa 1930s

The carnival that young Irvin would have attended in Brandon in the 1930s is very different from today’s carnival. Brandon is home to Manitoba’s Provincial Exhibition and one of Canada’s premier agricultural exhibitions with a history dating back to 1882.

Black and white photo of carnival midway featuring a roller coaster, ice cream stand and up and down spinning thrill ride

Lou Dufour Carnival, Circa 1930s

Black and white photo of carnival bingo game set up under a tent with many stools around tables, a wall of stuffed animal prizes and lights all around the top

Carnival Bingo Game, Circa 1942

Black and white photo of people standing behind counter for game prizes with a sign that reads One Winner has Choice of Any Prize

Prize Table for Carnival Bingo Game, Circa 1942

In the 1930s, Royal American Shows were providing the midway for the Provincial Exhibition. They were known as the World’s Largest Midway and one of the best carnivals operating at that time.

Conklin Shows would take over the midway in 1940 and all ‘Western A’ fairs in part due to travel restrictions and rationing during the World War Two. With no television and limited exposure to radio and books, for many the midway was a once a year attraction; a gateway to the rest of the world. Exotic animals, freaks, games of chance and skill, live music and delicious food made carnivals one of the few indulgences to separate people from their hard earned money during the Depression.


Black and white photo of a carnival bannerline, with people watching shirtless men on a stage, the banner with words physical culture written on it is in the background

Conklin and Garrett Shows Bannerline, 1928

Black and white photo of crowds of people at a carnival midway with many tents set up and carousel in the background

E.J. Casey Shows Carnival Midway with Tents, Circa 1940s


Black and white photo of carnival midway featuring people riding three Ferris wheels set up side by side among many tents and banners

Ferris Wheels at E.J. Casey Shows Midway, Circa 1940s

Black and white photo of people riding bumper cars featuring a young boy in front

Bumper Cars, Circa 1940s

Black and white photo of crowds of people at a carnival midway, featuring people riding a Tilt-a-Whirl ride

Tilt-A-Whirl Ride, Circa 1940s

Like almost all carnivals at the time, Royal American Shows travelled by train. Moving the equipment from the railway siding to the fairgrounds was part necessity and part marketing, always attracting a crowd. Walking through a 1930s midway, you would notice all of the tents at the backend with bannerlines and stages out front. Shows presented inside the tents were the star attractions. Outside ‘talkers’ on the stages would gather an audience and provide glimpses of the shows to get them to step inside.

The ‘talkers’ were also referred to as the ‘bally’, it was one of the great draws of the early carnivals. Lots to see for free.

The number of rides were growing on the 1930s midway. Along with the standard Ferris wheel, merry-go-round and whip (fast moving spinning cars), new rides like the tilt-a-whirl (large spinning buckets), bumper cars and chair-o-plane (spinning swing chairs) were slowly gaining prominence.