A funfair or simply fair (e.g., "county fair", "state fair") is a small to medium sized traveling fair primarily composed of stalls and other amusements. Larger fairs such as the permanent fairs of cities and seaside resorts might be called a fairground, although technically this should refer to the land where a fair is traditionally held.
In North America, a fair is sometimes called a carnival or exhibition, although in Europe and other parts of the world influenced by the Catholic church, a carnival is a procession usually held around Shrove Tuesday which is sometimes accompanied by a funfair, but which is known in the United States as Mardi Gras. One strand of the medieval fair has diverged to become the agricultural show which often still has a funfair attached. Increasingly, funfairs are appearing as additional attractions alongside any large gatherings of people such as major sporting events, music festivals, and civic celebrations.
In the United States, regional companies own large and sometimes overburdening investments in rides and games. They book schedules of fairs with multiple units of machinery and staff on the road throughout a lengthy season that runs from mid-February through December, typically beginning in the southern U.S. and traveling north as summer approaches, then becoming active again in the south with the arrival of cooler fall weather. The relative costs and profitability of such long-distance operations are largely impacted by gasoline prices; when prices are unusually high, smaller operators often resort to spending long stretches in shopping-mall parking lots, drumming up what business they can as they wait to accumulate additional funds or for prices to fall.
In the 19th century, before the development of mechanical attractions, sideshows were the mainstay of most funfairs. Typical shows included menageries of wild animals, freak shows, wax works and theatrical shows.
Up until the 1960s, boxing shows were a common feature of British fairs, but they went into decline when in 1947 the British Boxing Board of Control ruled out appearances of licensed members in fairground boxing booths. An echo of the boxing booth remains with boxing or punch ball machines being common around fairgrounds. The very last traveling boxing booth was still making annual visits to the Great Dorset Steam Fair until 2006. Unfortunately, the owner, Ronnie Taylor, died a few weeks before the 2006 show, and the future of this unique attraction is now uncertain.
Most stalls feature games of skill or strength. The most traditional example being the coconut shy in which players throw balls at coconuts balanced on posts, winning the coconut if they manage to dislodge it.
Other sidestalls range from the trivially easy, such as hooking rubber ducks from a water trough in which nearly every player is expected to win a prize, to the deceptively challenging, which includes games which utilize optical illusions or physical relationships that are difficult to judge. In the United States, the funfair is one of the few arenas of public life in which classical hoodwinkery in the form of outright fraud can be perpetrated by the light of day. Highly profitable (and therefore timeless) games include:
Much of the true thievery has been driven out of funfairs in the twentieth century, and combined with an increasing emphasis on the role of families and small children in such entertainment, contemporary showmen often find greater profit in pricing their games far above the value of the prizes being offered, with complex formulae for upgrading to the large prizes that advertise the game and instill desire among those strolling by. The rises in pricing of many sidestalls must often reflect the overheads of running fairground equipment - the cost of swag (see below), diesel, staff and rents.
Typical prizes change to reflect popular tastes. A traditional fairground prize used to be a goldfish in a small plastic bag, but these have fallen out of favor; partly because goldfish are no longer seen as exotic, but also because animal welfare concerns are frequently raised. Many stalls offer cuddly toys as prizes — many teenage romances are established at funfairs, where thrill rides provide ample excuse for embracing. Displays of skill at shooting and winning a cuddly toy for your girl/boyfriend is a rite of passage for many young men. In showland, the prizes are known as swag and are supplied by a swagman.
A funfair generally includes:
Funfairs in England, Scotland and Wales are not the property of one owner, but a collaborative effort between families of fairground travelers. Descended from the medieval strollers and players, who have followed this way of life for generations, they have a distinct culture related to their trade and nomadic existence. The routes they travel are usually inherited and are much the same from year to year. The average fairground is made up when a Lessee (usually the owner of a large ride) sublets ground and pitches to other families who bring their own rides, stalls and shows to make up a fair. This involves much negotiation and bargaining over who gets to put their stalls and rides where, although in many well established fairs 'standing rights' are recognized and passed down through the generations. Once the fair is over, the families go their separate ways, but will cross each other's paths regularly. Their sense of community is strong and few 'marry out' of the trade. Showmen as they are known are proud of their heritage and have their own language, Parlyaree (a mixture of Lingua Franca, Romany, Yiddish, Thieves' Cant, sailor slang and backslang) e.g. words such as flatty (meaning someone not from the showman community). Those showmen who don't travel with the fair still remain showman, being said just to be settled down. The community is clannish and a little insular, the received wisdom being that one cannot just become a showman, but must be born into it.
This by definition makes running fairgrounds a family business and as such family names are synonymous with fairgrounds in certain areas. E.g. Breeze, Hirst, Fleming, Vanner, Hatwell, Atha, Danter, Marshalls, etc., in West Yorkshire. The Show/Fairground community is close knit, with multiple ties often existing between the older families and a vibrant social scene centered both around the summer fairs and the various sites and yards used as winter quarters. Hosting an estimated 80% of all Scottish showfamilies, Glasgow is believed to have the largest concentration of Showpeople in winter quarters in Europe, centered mostly in Whiteinch, Shettleston and Carntyne. However, new zoning laws and planning difficulties posed by Glasgow City Council look set to push many of these long-established facilities out of the city in the near future.
Since the late nineteenth century, fairgrounds in the UK have been run by a guild known as the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain and Ireland. This lays down rules for managing and running fairs, helps them organize fairs and settle member disputes and serves to protect them from deleterious legislation. Uniquely for an industrial body, membership is awarded on a hereditary basis. A new breed of showmen are now appearing. These people are usually fairground enthusiasts and can own preserved older rides. Although they travel and show their equipment, the Guild does not allow them to join. They are connected to the Show communities around Britain but only loosely. They, therefore, have their own organizations.
Fairgrounds are very common at British seaside resorts, usually run by fairground families who have decided to settle down, in whole or part. Showmen who run fair equipment at the seaside are referred to as sand scratchers
British sidestalls simply sell food and confectionery, with candy floss (cotton candy in North America) stalls being especially associated with funfairs. Sweets are known as fairings and include such things as brandy snap, Grantham ginger bread, toffee apples and at Nottingham Goose Fair, cocks on sticks. Of savory food, the mainstays are hot dogs, burgers and, in the Midland and the North, hot peas served with mint sauce.
Fairgrounds have sharply declined in popularity over the last few decades, although many families continue to follow their unusual lifestyle.
The largest British (and European) fairground is The Hoppings on Newcastle Town Moor, which is held annually in the last two weeks of June.
The language of German showmen contains elements of Sintitikes, Rotwelsch, Yiddish and other old minority languages. Their children are almost always sent to a small set of showmen-friendly boarding schools where they can remain in contact with other showmen's children; during school holidays, they travel with their parents. In the west of the country, there is some overlap with Dutch showmen. A relatively small number of "showmen dynasties" run most of the medium- to large size amusement rides at funfairs around the country. There have been some allegations of forced marriages among them in recent years.
Very common are the so called "Volksfeste", which are mainly held in the larger cities. They consist of a funfair and a beer festival at the same place. The largest and best known of them is the Oktoberfest in Munich, the largest fair of the world. The second largest is the Cranger Kirmes in Herne in the eastern part of the Ruhr Area. Another famous "Volksfest" is the Cannstatter Wasen in Stuttgart and the Rheinkirmes in Düsseldorf.
North America's (and the World's) largest, and one of longest running exhibitions is Toronto's Canadian National Exhibition, it takes place at Exhibition Place from late August to early September. Most carnival fairs are run by traveling companies that move town to town with their rides and exhibits. Conklin Shows is the largest and oldest organization of its type in North America.