· 1899 Pin-Back Buttons ·
A couple of weeks ago, I received two electronic images of exaggeration postcards and one of a collector pin-back button. They were sent by an old-time collector but new friend, Morgan Williams. He co-authored an excellent book on exaggeration postcards in 1990 titled, Larger than Life: The American Tall-Tale Postcard, 1905-1915.
Williams is fascinated with exaggeration images even before they first appeared on postcards in 1906.
The image that created the greatest interest to me, and I don’t collect pinned buttons, was a photograph of a button dated from the year 1899. It illustrated two carnival clowns, holding a giant ear of corn almost as tall as them and with this inscription: “Wichita’s Street Fair & Carnival, Oct, 16-21.” In the background is the Arkansas River and a silhouette of city buildings, including two with active smokestacks, no doubt promoting the city as a thriving metropolis (population 24,671 in 1900).
Since historical research is one of my favorite hobbies, I checked on the Kansas Historical Society’s website and was soon reading a Wichita Daily Beacon newspaper from 1899. By the way, back then the paper cost ten cents a week delivered by a carrier (2019 purchasing power $3.06).
I had never heard of the Wichita Street Fair & Carnival, but I was familiar with and have attended the city’s Riverfest Festival (begun in 1972).
Both public events, over a hundred years apart, had a common goal—promoting Wichita. In the process, the community has been brought together, increasing community pride.
It wasn’t long before I’d read a week of newspapers beginning on October 16th. The long list of exhibits and events promoting Wichita was comparable to the “official” Kansas State Fair, held in Hutchinson since 1913.
In Hutchinson the exhibitors set up on spacious grounds while in Wichita the activities were in the heart of the city from Main and William, south to English, east to Market, and west back to William.
Today some schools in Reno County give the children a day off for “Fair Day” while other schools organize field trips to the State Fair. In 1899 the Wichita school district also encouraged the youth to attend by having half-days off school Monday through Thursday and no school on Friday.
The Wichita Street Fair of 1899 had agricultural exhibits including poultry and colorful displays of fruit, while local businesses heavily promoted their wares.
For the fair and carnival, the city streets were illuminated by 4,000 electric lamps.
The Santa Fe Railway exhibit was considered the most elaborate with a depiction of “King Corn.” The immense figure of the king sat on a massive throne holding his scepter. The distance from his crown to the ground was 32 feet. The figure, throne, and pavilion were all decorated in corn. Inscriptions bragged that “Kansas leads all the states” and that it “harvests one-sixth of the U.S. corn crop.”
Some of the entertainment was advertised as free. The daily balloon ascensions, one during the day, the other at night, were by Baldwin and Carrow at the corner of Elm and Main Streets. The aeronauts carried trained animals, which like their trainers, made parachute descents.
“Itrebo” the trapezist and tight rope performer gave illuminated appearances on a wire stretched from the top of Hotel Metropole to the top of the C. E. Potts Drug Company building.
There was also a snake charmer, Madame Winona. Unfortunately, she was bitten by one of her copperheads. Fortunately, she survived after her hand had swollen “many times its natural size.”
There were parades with elaborate floats, especially the huge Flower Parade, and there were band concerts.
On the first night of the street fair it was estimated that 15,000 people attended. By the end of the first annual event, one reporter guessed a total of 185,000 people had walked through the street fair arch during the week, 42,000 of them having ridden the train. It was unofficial, maybe even exaggerated, but it was estimated that the fair brought over $700,000 to Wichita (2019 purchasing power $19,600,000).
During my reading of a week of ancient newspapers, I discovered two brief articles that referred to the street fair and carnival badges or buttons. I learned the buttons were sold for ten cents each and that there were at least four versions, only two being “official” and designed by decorator Searle. Apparently, unlike Riverfest, the buttons were purchased only as souvenirs.
Today, if you’re interested in owning a Wichita Street Fair and Carnival button from 1899 or from the street fairs during the early 1900’s, be prepared to spend more than ten cents. Online the prices range from $90-$160.
Until next time, happy writing and reading!