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Street Carnival

Street Carnival (1902)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-23027


Maxwell Street Days brings to mind efforts to encourage outsiders to think of Madison as a destination for shopping and tourism that date back more than a century. Beginning on October 16, 1900, the city held its first week-long carnival. Tens of thousands of visitors swarmed into the city, many finding lodging in the homes of citizens, since all the hotels were filled to capacity. As reported in the Madison Democrat: “Madison’s great and first carnival opened auspiciously Monday evening with the city in brilliantly spectacular carnival attire, bands playing, shows showing, fakes faking… Thousands of electric lights on the Capitol dome, on the arches over the streets, and in the scores of booths around the Park presented a scene of electrical magnificence surpassing the expectations of all.” There were 100 free street performances daily, a Mammoth Mystic Midway, a Ferris wheel on the Square, political speakers, fireworks, and a Mardi Gras and Masked Carnival. This event marked the first time the Capitol dome was illuminated by electric lights; it was visible over twenty miles away.

Some aspects of the carnival were controversial.

Judge J. B. Winslow of the Supreme Court wrote to the Wisconsin State Journal on October 19: "I am credibly informed that there are at least four shows which are running night and day which are absolutely vile, and that this is well know to the mayor and chief of police and to the carnival committee. Gentlemen of the highest standing in this community made an effort today to have these sinkholes of vice closed by the authorities but failed. Why? Incredible as it may seem, these gentlemen found that the proper authorities would take no steps to put a stop to the debauchery of the morals of the young… He cannot repair the mischief already done to young boys who have crowded to these indecent exhibitions, nor can he restore the impaired moral tone of the community. The damage is done, morals degraded, vicious tendencies accelerated, vile passions aroused, flood gates of vice opened which can never be closed."

Mayor Hoven declined to act, claiming he had no power to do so. Such was not the case with Police Chief Baker. “Last night every person who walked the streets was the target for hundreds of little balls, made of hollow rubber and fastened to a rubber string which brings them back to the thrower. Young men lined up on each side of the walk along the Square had more fun than a box of monkeys pelting the balls into the faces of passersby.” Chief Baker instructed his officers to arrest any parties either selling or throwing the “little nuisances.”

Mark Gajewski