Carnival and Medicine Wagons

The other night, while watching the offbeat, but visually beautiful Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus by Terry Gilliam, I was charmed by the impressive Imaginarium wagon that the movie characters travel and live in. While the wagon in the movie (best known as the late Heath Ledger’s last performance) is whimsical and transports visitors to realms of fantasy, the basic idea of the carnival/sideshow and medicine show wagon is included in the tall, elaborate structure.

The rural areas of North America in the 19th century enjoyed traveling sideshows and medicine shows as their entertainment – welcome during the time of the Great Depression. These shows included circus performers, burlesque, vaudeville, Wild West spectacles, oddity exhibits and theater productions. Medicine shows traveled around delivering “miracle cure” medications and other products between various entertainment acts. Many of these types of shows traveled in horse drawn wagons decorated with elaborate paint and filigree to add to the flair of the production. Because of the transient nature of the job, many of the performers lived in these wagons full time. Movies like 1932’s Freaks and shows like HBO’s Carnivale give a glimpse into how these people lived on the road.


Very few of these wagons exist today, but some can be found refurbished and used as decor or displays. Even modern day fortune tellers like Suzie Kerr Wright, aka Astrogirl, has a recreated carnival wagon where she reads palms and interprets the Tarot.










Photos by Scifi-Universe, Dreams, Legends of America, Go California, Dr. Solar, j_pidgeon, Astrogirl12, Frogpond, Moses Lestz


By Christina Nellemann for the [Tiny House Blog]

15 thoughts on “Carnival and Medicine Wagons”

  1. Oh, thank you for sharing these pictures; they’re fabulous. I love the big structure; is this really a house? Wish there were interior pics of it; truly fascinating. But I can’t help but wonder if this structure is taller than 14.6; I mean, how does it navigate bridges. Lol, as you can see, I’m a true TH person; always thinking in TH terms. Thanks, again. And if you have any more like this in the future, don’t hesitate to post them!

  2. This was the most fun post I have viewed in a long time. I love the eccentric lives people can lead. Perhaps this will inspire some of the Tiny House Builders to get their “freak” on, too. It makes me thing that perhaps some of the Burning Man buildings have a direct lineage to these wagons of another time.

    The “Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is a favorite of mine. Besides, I am a looong time Tom Waits fan.

  3. While recovering from a freak accident that left me with a badly broken arm, I’ve been reading Miss Read’s “Thrush Green” series, set in a small village in England. The first book centers around a traveling fair, and the proprietress, Mrs. Curdle. One of my favorite bits is the description of the inside of her ‘gypsy’ wagon, and her morning and evening routines in it. I wish there had been pictures. Love these photos here!
    By the time of the sixth book in the series, when the fair was no longer able to sustain itself, Mrs. Curdle’s wagon found new life as a beloved guest cottage in her grandson’s back yard, in the little village she had loved so much.

  4. Brings to mind, “The imaginarium of Doctor Pernassis” Hope I spelled that right. A wonderful movie, much of which takes place in a huge wagon, much like the first picture above. I have to watch it again, to see if it’s the same wagon.


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