This is Cade's Story, Touch. Let's go back in time to the fascinating world of 19th century carnivals. If you’re like me, you also love the research behind the stories, so I’m going to share some with you now.
When I researched carnival slang one of the first things I learned was that ‘carnie’ and ‘barker’ were names used by people who never actually worked in a carnival. Also that dead-freak-in-jar collection, as Kit called it, was known as ‘pickled punks.’ The pickled part referred to the fact that everything in that kind of attraction was in a jar and was pickled. The punk part referred to the age. Punk was another word for child. Most of the exhibits were of the fetal or stillborn variety so curiosity tents came to be known as pickled punks. Of course, no showman would actually use what was considered a ‘vulgar’ term in the presence of outsiders. The correct term was ‘curiosity show’.
The dream of all boys back then was to run away and join the circus, the way Cade did. This happened so often, carnivals started to get a seedy reputation for taking children which was definitely not good for business. However, the workers did realize that for some children, a carnival was their best chance for real life. They had an easy way to tell the difference between someone who thought carnival work was an adventure vs someone like Cade, who was alone and desperate.
When a child declared their intentions to join, he was immediately put to work doing all the dirtiest jobs, like cleaning up behind the animals, scrubbing chamber pots and just doing the jobs no one else wanted to do. Children who were from good families soon grew tired of this and returned home on their own. Boys like Cade stayed and worked hard, grateful for the chance to prove themselves. Once it was determined that the boy’s plight was desperate and no one was coming to look for him, he was usually assigned to a couple to raise in the tradition of the show. Since no one wanted Cade, Tomaz decided to take him in and raise him himself. Though Harry helped, too Cade Tomaz was ‘Father’ and Harry ‘Uncle.’
Though many people today think freak shows exploited their attractions, and some did, most didn’t. Back then, ‘Freaks’ were considered performers, on par with regular performers, which admittedly, also wasn’t very high in most people’s minds. Where it differed was with the fact whereas you could always find another actor, having to replace a popular freak was next to impossible. Once the freak performers figured that out, they often claimed exorbitant amounts or they’d walk.
This made freaks some of the highest paid performers of their day. This is also why some young men who grew up as orphans were willing to have things done to their body to become the freak they weren’t born to be. Cade understood that Leo’s spots were tattoos, but didn’t think that merited suspicion because of this practice.
A lot of people asked me why Tomasz needed a Patch. Traditionally, patches went into town ahead of carnivals and bribed local law enforcement to look the other way. Even though Tomasz only allowed legit games, (and until the book’s start his show didn’t even have games,) he still needed a patch for two reasons. The first reason was because back then, towns were warry of outsiders and especially of people who traveled on a regular basis.
Also, how you were allowed to treat human remains varied from town to town and was impossible to keep straight, so Harry’s Pickled Punk tent would have been in volition often. However, Tomasz wasn’t about to let a little detail like that upset his longtime friend and lover, not to mention close his highest grossing attraction. Patches were often the highest paid people in the show, but were worth every penny.
The Billboard Cade mentioned was a magazine for the entertainment industry, covering businesses such as circuses, carnivals, fairs, and burlesque shows. It not only had stories and industry news, it told where everyone was going to be when. In a world where all the shows competed for limited dollars, this was important information to have. It was even more important in the winter, when most traveling shows headed south. Wagons were home, but trying to brave mounds of snow in a wagon was suicide.
The Billboard also acted a post office for the workers who didn’t have a permeant address. They’d hold the mail at their office until the person in question came to pick it up. This is how Cade was able to keep up with his book club reading. He could have gone into town to get books, but he’d heard so many stories of how towns treated outsiders he didn’t want to take the chance. It was also fun for him to go down to The Billboard office the few times a year they were in town and come back with his big stack of books.
Possum bellies were special storage compartments underneath a wagon. They were rather large. So large they could hold two people laying down on top of each other. Calling someone a ‘possum belly queen’ meant that a woman liked to do it in the possum belly. However, most people just used them for bedding and the good dishes. Now, I made up the part about their being a special design for a Runaway’s Wagon, but it’s not too much of a stretch to think some of them might have outdoor latches both for runaways and for dalliances.
Malcom’s carousel was one of the newest on the market. True, carousels had been around for several years at this point, but the up and down motion they are famous for was a relatively new idea. Until then, they just went around in a stationary circle. The organ music was a variation on a player’s piano, only with a small organ. It’s been said that player pianos were the first computers, because they used a type of ‘punch card’ to know what song to play. Whereas player pianos were available to buy, player organs like Malcom’s had to be custom made. That didn’t frighten him though. His carousel and killing was his life.
Though new at the time of this story, carousels quickly became ingrained in carnival life. They were used for gatherings, (since you could sit on them,) announcements, and most of all, weddings. Two people riding forwards on the carousel meant you were married. A single person riding backwards signaled divorce. Carnivals were one of the first cultures in America who felt sometimes marriages didn’t’ work out, and either partner, man or woman, could dissolve it without the other’s consent or needing to justify it. Carousels were also used as emergency signals at night. Malcom loved the way his carousel was the center of carnival life.
During this time, Edison’s Menlo Park was turning out inventions right and left. Referred to as an ‘invention factory,’ it gave us many of the things we take for granted today. Two such things mentioned in the story were the phonograph, and the microphone. Tomasz loved new gadgets, so for him, buying one of those newfangled microphones was a no brainer.
Just the way we have photographer’s studios today, back then, you would have a ‘record studio’. People came in to make a recording of their voice that they could always keep with them. The recording fee wasn’t much, but the business made its money by selling the phonographs themselves and often had a variety to choose from, from low end to high end. After all, what good is a record if you can’t play it?
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