NEW YORK – Who, as a child, hasn’t whirled merrily like a top? Or spun a playground merry-go-round and hopped onto it for a thrilling ride? Carousels, which feature creatively-shaped mounts on rotating circular platforms, are the ultimate spinning amusement for fun-seekers of all ages.
Surprisingly, they originated in medieval times, when mounted knights, to hone their skills, tossed balls to one another while galloping in circles. Indeed, the word carousel originates from Italian and Spanish terms for “little battle.”
By Elizabethan times, circling jousters speared small, suspended rings. Within a century, similar ring-tilt carousels sprang up at fairgrounds across Europe. Wooden horses, suspended from central canopies, replaced riders. These popular amusements, powered by ponies or rope-pulling youngsters, however, had no platforms. So as they gained speed, the horses pushed outward centrifugally, flying free.
Their wooden stick-legs, heads and bodies, adorned with rabbit-skin manes and tails, were crude, wrote George Sanger in Seventy Years a Showman. But bright-white and “plentifully dotted with red and blue spots,” they thrilled the crowds.
By the mid-19th century, newer models, featuring carved riding horses fixed to round platforms suspended from central poles, replaced flying-horses. Like earlier ones, however, these were pulled by man or beast.
When the first steam-driven carousel appeared a decade later, its impact was profound. A Halifax Courier journalist described its … “huge proportions, driven by a steam engine which whirled around with such impetuosity, that the wonder is the daring riders are not shot off like cannon- ball, and driven half into the middle of next month.”
Soon afterwards, Frederick Savage, an enterprising British engineer, incorporated farm machinery into fairground rides — including carousels. According to Victorian fairground manufacturer Frederick Savage, The Platform Galloper, his best-loved carousel, “imparted a vigorous rocking motion to the mounted horses via a series of eccentrics under the platform.” Later models featured platform slides — which swang poled-mounts concentrically as carousels gained speed — as well as gears and off-set cranks, which created up-and-down “galloping.”
Eventually, Savage carousels were also enhanced by “vivid scenic painting, exuberant scrollwork, carved Baroque dream images, plush upholstery, engraved mirrors, barley-sugar brasswork, gaudy hues and gilt. The emphasis was on unashamed opulence.” As traditional British trading fairs gave way to public performances and amusements, Savage carousels thrilled crowds far and wide. They were also exported around the world.
French carousel carvers, including Gustav Bayol and Limonaire Frères, fashioned charming figures, like prancing donkeys, long-eared pigs, cockerels, and cows with brass horns. German carvers usually created gentle-faced, prancing horses, while others fashioned whimsical pull, wind-up, or wind-driven toy carousels.
Gustav Dentzel, a German immigrant, introduced carousels to America in the mid-1800s. Most of his large, decorative, Philadelphia-style machines featured elegant, realistically carved horses, along with menageries of rabbits, roosters, bears, and other beasts. Carvers, including E. Joy Morris, D. C. Muller & Bro., and the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, created similar creatures.
Glamorous Coney Island-style carousels, fitted with bright lights and glittering mirrors, also featured flamboyant horses adorned with multifaceted jewels and gilded trappings. Lavish Looff, Carmel, and Stein & Goldstein equine creations are especially appealing.
Prolific North Tonawanda, New York carvers, like C.W. Parker, Charles Dare, and Herschell Spillman, created small, easily transportable county fair -style carousel animals for the seasonal Midwest county fair circuit. Their elegant though substantial pieces generally inhabited permanent amusement park carousels.
Whatever their style, American carousels usually featured three rows of mounted animals. Visible, outer rows usually boasted grand, colorful stationary horses with lavish, finely carved manes, gilded trappings, and decorative images on their flanks. Inner rows, in addition to accommodating ornately carved chariots and smaller animal mounts, featured “ galloping” poled horses in prancing (front legs up) or jumping (all legs up) positions.
Until the Great Depression, thousands of American fairs, towns, cities, and amusement parks hosted carousels. Afterward, many were closed, destroyed, or abandoned. While some reopened as the economy improved, they were overshadowed by more thrilling rides and were no longer main attractions. Today, some 400 are believed to exist.
Due to extensive use and exposure to the elements, most carousel mounts were repaired and repainted every few years. Since those in original or near-original condition are very rare, those that have been restored — stripped to their natural wood, repainted with original colors, or featuring brighter “park paint” hues — are the ones most likely to reach the collector marketplace.
For those who dream of owning an entire carousel, the price is steep. In 2012, RM Sotheby’s auctioned a huge, extraordinarily ornate, custom-built example featuring a menagerie of 42 historically accurate, hand-carved animals and two chariots, along with a Wurlitzer 153 Band Organ and 10 music rolls. It realized over one million dollars.
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