When the carnival arrived in town in 1820’s America, it was, for the townsfolk one of the major events of the year. Everyone thronged the streets to watch the ‘carny’ parade into town.
The ‘grind men’ and the ‘outside talkers’ would walk in front of and beside the parade beguiling the locals with fantastic talk of the wonders to be found in this years “all new amazing show” all done to create an atmosphere of excitement and wonder, guaranteed to generate ‘alfalfa’.
In advance of the parade the ‘24 hour men’ would place the arrows that would lead to the field they would call home for a week, ensuring that every ‘mark’ in town could find their way to the ‘arch’.
They were amazing marketeers; in one stroll through a town they captured the imagination and therefore the disposable income of everyone. They hid their ‘ten-pointing’ ‘bally’ and ‘cake cutting’ from view by creating their own language that added mystery to the ease they separated folk from their hard earned dollars.
After a while though, success breeds imitation.
Smaller travelling ‘carnies’ learned that just by changing the way the arrows pointed they could take full advantage of the marketing provided by the big annual fairs.
Ensuring that they captured a market share at their lesser show with a much smaller ‘midway’.
Were the ‘marks’ disappointed?
It didn’t matter.
By the time they had realized that there was no ‘magnetico man’ or ‘human lizard’ they had spent up and were on their way home with a goldfish that had cost the weeks housekeeping.
As often is the case, necessity gave birth to innovation and the bigger travelling shows invented the billboard to market their shows.
These huge hoardings placed at the point of heavy traffic of local folk, told you the name of the show, listed the delights and amazements to be found on their midway and had as a centerpiece a colourful image of the main attraction.
They used phrases that displayed their competitive advantage and their differentiation strategy; they also conveyed immediacy, urgency and energy.
You knew what they were, where they were and what to expect from the experience.
They soon followed this up with the practice of giving out handbills as the carny paraded through the town, small ‘half letter’ sized copies of the billboards.
Over time the ‘24 hour men’ who were no longer required to put the arrow signs in place were put to work walking through the town throughout the week wearing A boards with a mid sized version of the billboard.
Times have changed the world is faster, we all have more competition but the principles remain the same.
Alfalfa – Paper money.
Arch – main entrance. Marks queued here paying to get on the midway.
Arrow/24 Hour Man Arrow was a paper sign, consisting simply of a large (usually red) printed arrow, used to mark the route between towns. Taped to the posts of road signs by the ’24-hour man’ the day before the show moves. Can be placed in any orientation: straight-up arrows every few miles to let you know you’re on the right road, a single tilted arrow to warn of an upcoming turn, and two or three tilted arrows in a group to indicate where to turn.
Bally – In addition to its use in the sideshow sense, ‘bally’ might also refer to small prizes placed in boxes of candy as inducements to buy.
Cake – Money made by short-changing customers at ticket boxes.
Grind – In the “outside talker’s” spiel from a show front, the compelling and rhythmic verbal conclusion meant to move the patrons into the show. It differs from the opening bally, which is meant to get the attention of midway strollers and “build a tip”, or sell them on the show they can see. Also means to stay in the joint and work even though there’s almost no business.
Mark – A townsperson you see as a conspicuously easy victim. When a carny, often the ticket-seller, spotted a towny with a big bankroll, he would give him a friendly slap on the back leaving a chalk mark so other carnies would know that this customer had lots of money.
The Midway – the game and sideshow area between the main ticket booth and the entrance to the big top, literally “midway” between the two.
Ten-Pointing – this cheat is for an age-and-weight guesser, with a mark probably in her mid-fifties to mid-sixties, to write “561” and cover either the 5 or the 1 when displaying the written guess, allowing him (with the game’s two-years-either-way spread) to win if she’s anywhere from 54 to 63.