I am fascinated by the old traveling carnivals. Filled with all the usual games, rides, and food but with the special bonus of the sideshow. I'm not sure whether seeing my first pickled punk or watching the 1932 movie 'Freaks' sealed the deal but as I dug deeper into the oddities that graced the stage, my interest grew.
Unfortunately the tradition of the sideshow mostly died out. If you happen to find such a show (at least in the US), the 'freaks' usually consist of contortionists, fire-breathers, blockheads, and the occassional geek. I admit that these people are talented and definitely are a rare breed, but they lack the punch-to-the-gut awe that human oddities created upon first sight to the small-town folks who paid to see them.
I have a small, but growing, collection of books and pitch cards consisting of the wild and weird people that displayed themselves for money. Some of these people were basically bought by carnival owners for their unusual looks, but many joined because they couldn't find work anywhere else. Many of these folks were making hundreds of dollars per week at a time when most people earned an average of $0.22 an hour (in 1910).
I have huge respect for people who can put themselves on display and especially those who turned their disabilites into advantages. There was one such man who always stuck with me- Prince Randian.
Known as The Human Caterpillar or The Human Torso, he was born without arms or legs. Yet he could shave, write, paint, and roll a cigarette. He could even take a match from a matchbox and light the cigarette. He also spoke four languages. Eventually, he married and had five children- a difficult feat for any person but imagine doing it with no arms or legs. Huge props to him :)
If you want to see Prince Randian in action there are several Youtube clips from his role in 'Freaks' (1932).
Geeks have also been of particular interest to me. I wouldn't mind having a chat with a person who could bite off the head of a live animal, or eat lightbulbs and maggots as if they were candy. I have to wonder how the person came to realize that they have a knack for such a thing.
My favorite site to read about these amazing, inspirational people is http://thehumanmarvels.com/. J. Tithonus Pednaud has done a wonderful job of creating a site that embraces human differences.
If you just like the old banner art of the traditional sideshow, I would have to recommend 'Freakshow: Sideshow Banner Art'- by Carl Hammer. It not only has vibrant illustrations but also essays about each of the artists.
I could go on for pages about all things carnival, but I think that you would have a better time researching this fading world all on your own.
Like the hoochie-coochie girls say, "Don't forget your two bits for the blow-off."