The precursors to the carousel may be as much as 1,500 years old when baskets lashed to a center pole were used to spin riders around in a circle in ancient Byzantium. During the twelfth century in Turkey and Arabia, men and their horses played a game in which delicate balls filled with perfumed water were tossed between riders. Losers would sport a definite aroma, and winners were presumably the better horsemen. The game was called carosello, or little war in Italian. At the French court in about 1500, this game blossomed into an elaborate pageant with spectacularly outfitted horses and riders. Horsemen added the challenge of trying to lance a small ring while galloping at full tilt. If the rider snagged the ring, it pulled away from a tree or posts with a stream of ribbons behind it. Contestants could practice this game by mounting wooden "horses" that were legless and resembled vaults used in gymnastics and that were mounted to a circular platform. As the platform rotated, the riders would try to spear the brass ring.
Craftsmen observed this play among the nobility and began building platforms with wooden horses mounted on them for commoners and their children to ride. These carousels were quite small because the power source for turning the carousel was a mule, man, or horse. In 1866, Frederick Savage, an English engineer, combined steam power with his carousels and drew crowds to the European fairs he toured with his machine. Steam-driven carousels reached the United States in about 1880. Savage was also responsible for developing the system of overhead gears and cranks that allow the suspended horses to move up and down as the carousel turns and simulate an actual ride on horseback. As carousels became more popular, they acquired a number of names including karussell (Germany), carrousel and manages de chevaux (France), gallopers and roundabouts (England), and merry-go-rounds, whirligigs, spinning or flying jennies, dip-twisters, and flying horses (United States). Today, preservationists tend to prefer the name carousel over these others for its historic context.
The jewels of the carousel have always been the horses. Thanks to the stream of immigrants from Europe, the United States had a thriving carousel industry by the 1870s. Expert carvers, such as Gustav Dentzel from Germany, had practiced cabinetry and carousel crafting in their homelands and quickly established businesses in America. Carousel factories like The American Merry-Go-Round & Novelty Company were full-time manufacturers, but other makers including Charles Looff and Charles Dare in New York City, Dentzel in Philadelphia, and Allan Herschell in upper New York state transformed their furniture businesses and machine shops into at least parttime carousel production. Wood workers and carvers prided themselves on fashioning beautiful crested horses with flashing eyes, flying manes, realistic poses (for both standers and jumpers), and ornate ornamentation from flowers to heraldic crests, French fleurs-de-lys, jeweled saddles and tassels, and patriotic symbols like eagles and profiles of presidents. Of the carousel figures made in the United States, 80% were horses and 20% were made up of a menagerie. The Herschell-Spillman Company produced kangaroos, pigs, giraffes, sea monsters, frogs, and dogs and cats.
The carousel's zenith in America was from about 1900 to the Depression. During this period, jobs were plentiful, motor transport was available, and amusements for the family were sought. Craftsmen were also still in demand, but as technology advanced, it also invaded the carousel business. Factories began to build cast aluminum horses (and animals cast in fiberglass and plastic soon followed), and the carvers had to find other trades. Repair work was available as the wooden horses aged, but often amusement park operators resorted to patchwork maintenance instead.
In the early 1970s, the National Carousel Association was formed. Antique horses began to sell on the auction blocks of Sothebys and Christies at phenomenal prices, and collectors sought to acquire originals by carvers like Salvatore Cernigliaro or Marcus Charles Illions. For those with smaller pocketbooks, bisque porcelain figures and small-scale carousel horses also became collectible. Today, only two or three carousel makers practice their craft in the United States although there are many hobbyists who carve their own horses and refurbish antiques.
The carousel revolves around a stationary center pole made of metal or wood. An electric motor drives a small pulley that is controlled by a clutch for smooth starts. This pulley turns a drive belt and a larger pulley that turns a small-diameter, horizontal shaft. The end of the shaft is a pinion gear that turns a platform gear. The platform gear supports a vertical shaft that turns another pinion gear and final drive gear attached to the support beams of the carousel, called sweeps, which extend outward from the center pole like the ribs of an umbrella and support the platform, horses, and riders. The sweeps hold cranking rods that are turned by small gears at the inner ends that are driven by a stationary gear on the center pole. Horse hangers are suspended from the cranks, and as they turn, the horses move up and down about 30 times per minute. A typical carousel platform with horses and riders may weigh 10 tons and be driven by a 10-horsepower electric motor. After the motor's revolutions are reduced by the series of gears, the riders on the outer row of mounts will gallop along at about 5-11 miles per hour.
Carousels, with colorful figures attached to a revolving horizontal mechanism, have amused the masses since the end of the 1700s. By 1800, carousels were advertised as amusements as well as an activity that got the blood circulating. After the Civil War, a number of merry-go-round manufacturers started up businesses and popularized the carousel.
The griffin depicted here is the product of Hershell-Spillman Co. of North Tonawanda, NY, a well-known carousel manufacturer nearly a century ago. It is part of a 191 3 merry-go-round now operating six months of the year in Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. With its one-man band mechanism playing charming turn-of-the-century tunes, this carousel remains a great favorite. It was a "park-style model," manufactured for permanent placement in a park. (Some, like one still operating in Story City, Iowa, were designed to travel and were not for permanent installation.) Children can ride horses, lions, tigers, zebras, and even leaping frogs—all exquisitely carved and painted. Today, carousel figures are treasured for their colorful beauty, and carousel figure collectors pay thousands of dollars for a single animal.
Nancy EV Bryk
The two primary materials for a carousel are metal and wood. The metal mechanism includes the electric/hydraulic motor, gears, bearings, and crankshafts. Horse hangers and platform suspension rods are metal with brass sleeves, and the center pole is steel. The wood parts of the carousel include the
Design of a carousel begins in the middle at the center pole. A bearing at the top of the pole bears the entire weight of the carousel. The sweeps (arms or umbrella-like ribs) of the carousel are suspended from the top bearing, and two rods extending down from each sweep support the platform. About half-way down the center pole is a center bearing or hub that keep the works from shifting from side to side. The motor, of course, spins the whole umbrella structure around. From the midpoint, a series of diagonals keep the center pole aligned with a cross-brace that rests on the ground. A center pole that is 15 in (38.1 cm) in diameter will support about 50 horses and riders.
The basic process of manufacturing a carousel has not changed despite the fact that few are built today. No new carousels
According to carousel maker Chuck Kaparich, carousels and carousel animals are experiencing a resurgence. Thanks to the drawing power of the colorful carousel display and music, historic town centers and shopping malls are commissioning new carousels or refurbishing their old ones to attract customers to these areas. Kaparich expects the romance of the carousel to always remain with the American public, but, realistically, he acknowledges the limited demand and the likelihood that the present resurgence may only have a lifespan of 10 to 20 years before carousels are again temporarily forgotten. It is hoped that new generations of carousel aficionados will recall the current boom and add the magic of their mounts, music, and motion to a bank of undying memories.
Fraley, Nina. The American Carousel. Benicia, CA: Redbug Publishing, 1979.
Fraley, Tobin. The Great American Carousel: A Century of Master Craftsmanship. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994.
Fried, Frederick. A Pictorial History of the Carousel. Vestal, NY: Vestal Press, Ltd., 1964.
Marlow, H. LeRoy. Carving Carousel Animals From 1/8 Scale to Full Size. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 1989.
Carousel News & Trader. http://www.carousel.net/trader/ .
Chuck Kaparich, Carousel Man of Missoula, Montana. http://www.carousel.netlkaparich .
Classic Carousel Collectibles. http://www.finest1.com/carousel/ .
— Gillian S. Holmes