Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Antique Carnival Items: Signs, Games, Punks, & More

Hurry, hurry, step right up and see my latest find: a huge lot of antique carnival items!  Most of the pieces are from the 1930s, and have seen heavy use in traveling carnivals. With their handmade nature and patina of age, they have a folk art quality that is very appealing.

First up: this hand lettered wooden sign for a coin toss game,
5 feet long:

Here's a closeup of the hand lettering, 
a fascinating art form:  


And, if you look closely at the "5", you can see where the old price of "10" cents was painted over, I'm guessing during the Depression years.

One of the most unusual pieces in the lot was this gigantic wooden sledgehammer, almost 3 feet tall, with a head a foot wide. The bands around the head are thick steel. It was used in the classic carnival High Striker, or bell ringing game, in which a fair goer would attempt to ring a bell at the top of a tall platform by hitting the base. This hammer is so heavy, I have no idea how anyone would have managed to swing it. I had to drag it up my stairs, stopping for a rest along the way...

One of the most interesting finds was another classic game, the milk bottle knock-down. The 7 inch wooden milk bottles were heavily dinged and scraped from decades of use. The game came with a basket full of its original, accompanying baseballs.

The goal was to knock the 3 bottles over with a tossed ball. It sounds simple, but in actuality, it hardly ever happened. Turning over the bottles reveals why: one has been hollowed out, and a lead weight inserted. The hole was then plugged, and the weight made it very difficult to knock over. In the photo below, the gaffed bottle is on the top of the pile.

Some of my favorite items in the find were an assortment of 3 carnival punks, or knock down dolls. In a game similar to the milk bottles, customers tried to knock the punks over to win a prize. The most common form of punk was a clown with a crazy halo of hair, which was made of wool in the earliest examples, like these 11 inch varieties:

The other punk was very unusual; I've never seen one quite like it. Measuring a very large 21 inches tall, it features a hand painted cat on green canvas, with the word "Lux" prominently spelled out, and yellow tassled fringe adorning the sides. It's a little spooky...

Another big sign, a bit more recent than the first and not as skillfully painted, was this 10 cent candy advertisement:

From a selection of shooting gallery targets, I chose this cast iron duck, 5 1/2 inches wide. Like the hammer shown previously, this target is so heavy, I don't see how it could ever have been successfully struck. Its age, wear, and weathering have given it a wonderful primitive charm.

Also from a shooting gallery came this double squirrel target, made of wood, cast iron, and steel, measuring 7 inches tall by 10 inches wide. It would originally have been one small segment in a wide shooting range composed of many similar pieces. After knocking the squirrels over, a hit on the center white circle target makes them pop back up again.

Here's a closeup of the squirrels, 2 inches tall: 

This last item is a bit more recent than the others, probably from the 1950s. It's another great hand lettered sign, 16 inches wide, most likely from a ticket booth.

It's an incredible feeling to hold these items and imagine the places they've been and the people they've seen...I can almost smell the cotton candy and hear the screams of riders on the roller coaster.


  1. I can also imagine being there in those early carnival days. How wonderful!

  2. Great pieces Tracy! I can imagine being there too! And it was when the carnival was a fun thing and not just a way for them to drain the money from your wallet like they do now!
    I just love your much whimsy!

  3. Thanks for sharing all of the carnival items. It's so nice -- back when things were made of wood and metal! Oh the days.

  4. Hi Tracy
    Fab stuff, I am hoping to make a shooting range one day,
    Is there any chance of you taking photos of the Squirrel target mechanism
    and sending me.
    Robert Davies
    Cornwall U.K.

  5. Hi Robert,

    I will try to get you some photos as soon as I can.

  6. Hi was wondering if anyone knew how old and how rare this is? this is a box that would use like I think at a carnival but I'm not sure and it would have a animal hit or poke at the clowns eyes and then if it did the right one it would dispense a reward like a pellet or? I am trying to find what something like this would be called any ideas?
    I can send pics if someone would like to see it? thanks Jim

    1. They once had something like that at Playland By The Sea in San Francisco back late 50's.

  7. I'm sorry: I've never seen anything like that. Sounds cool though!

  8. Can you authenticate a vintage sign for me? Ty

  9. Can you authenticate a vintage sign for me? Ty