Mary Syrett - December 2010


Carousels: Art & Science in Motion
Mary Syrett


Lions, tigers, bears and panthers are on display, as well as camels, rabbits, pigs, horses, hyenas and an occasional sea monster. Welcome aboard a classic carousel and its menagerie of magical animals designed to entertain young and old alike. Carousels have long been a cornerstone of Maryland amusement parks and have found a home today in urban shopping malls.
A carousel, generally defined, is an amusement ride consisting of a rotating platform with seats for passengers. The “seats” traditionally appear in the form of wooden horses or other animals, which are moved mechanically in an up-and-down manner to simulate galloping, accompanied by circus or county fair music.
While the terms are often used interchangeably, an authentic traditional carousel features horses only; merry-go-rounds include all sorts of animals, and have bench seats as well. “Carousel” is the name most often used in North America, while in Europe the term “merry-go-round” is more common; however, both terms are generally understood to mean about the same thing. Merry-go-rounds and carousels are often housed in an enclosed building called a hippodrome (from the Greek word hippodromos – a stadium originally built for horse and chariot races).
History - The earliest known carousel is depicted in a Byzantine Empire bas-relief sculpture showing figures projecting from the background, dating from around 500 A.D. This depiction features riders in baskets suspended from a central pole. The word “carousel” itself originates from the Italian garosello and Spanish carosella, meaning “little war,” used by European crusaders to describe a cavalry combat preparation exercise engaged in by horsemen in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This exercise prepared riders for actual combat as they wielded their swords in warlike poses at mock enemies. Crusaders brought this idea of combat preparation back from the Holy Land to their native lands. There the carousel was largely kept secret within castle walls, where it was used to train horsemen. In time, carousel-related activities were installed to entertain royalty in private gardens.
Accompanying the development of European craft guilds, carousels were built and operated at fairs and social gatherings in central Europe and England. For example, by 1745 A.D., wagonmaker Michael Dentzel had succeeded in converting his wagonmaking business in what is today southern Germany into a carousel-making enterprise. Animal figures were crafted during the winter months, and the family and workers then went touring in their wagon train throughout the region, operating their menagerie carousel at various venues.
In this country, the first carousels were put together by farmers who wanted to create moving playthings for their children. These farmers attached primitively carved horses to a simple merry-go-round that was powered by a horse or mule. In the 1870s, the spinning playthings became more like the carousels we know today, accompanied by music and turned by engines that lifted the horses as they spun around.
Around the turn of the century, towns placed picnic groves at the end of trolley lines to attract riders and then began turning the picnic grounds into amusement parks. These facilities oftentimes featured a carousel.
During the Great Depression years, many amusement parks closed and people sought bigger thrills provided by such things as Ferris wheels and roller coasters. Carousels became old-fashioned. Many were dismantled and the carved wooden horses discarded, except for the ones that were retired to homes or park employees and other enthusiasts who came under their spell. Some 40 years ago, as carousels began approaching endangered species status, people began collecting them in earnest.
Between 1885 and 1930, American craftsmen created more than 3,000 hand-carved wooden carousels. Fewer than 150 are still “alive” in the United States and Canada today.
Woodworkers spent most of their time carving those horses that rode the outside of the carousel rather than the inside. That’s because these horses are larger – there’s more room on the outside of the carousel – and because these were the ones that people watching from the fairgrounds would most often notice. The horse that is on the outside directly behind the chariot is referred to as the ‘Lead’ or ‘King’ horse. These are usually the fanciest on the ride. Benches for people who do not want to hold the ‘reins’ of a horse are called ‘lover’s seats’ or ‘chariots.’
Craftsmen carved their horses in three distinct styles. Country Fair Style animals, built by such carvers as Allan Herschell, were produced for rural fairs and traveling carnivals and were made to be simple and durable. The horse’s ears, for example, were carved flat against the horse’s head to protect them from bangs and bumps encountered during transport. The Allan Herschell Co. in North Tonawanda, New York, was once the largest manufacturer of carousels in the world. The Herschell firm produced some unique menagerie figures, including the only carousel frog. The company also carved sea monsters.
Coney Island Horses, built by carvers and companies such as Charles Looff, Charles Carmel and Stein & Goldstein, are known for their flowing manes and rose bouquet features. The name derives from the place where these horses once frolicked: the Coney Island, New York, amusement park. These are large, passionate-appearing animals that have their ears pinned back, nostrils flaring, eyes wide and tongues hanging out.
Carved horses done in the Philadelphia Style are the most realistic appearing of all carousel creatures. These are horses so lifelike they look like they could enter an actual horse race and compete against living, breathing animals.
Many antique carousels are considered artistic masterpieces exhibiting intricate hand-carved features and original paintings. Antique carousels built by the William Dentzel Co. of Philadelphia, in particular, are considered classic carousels for several reasons.
Dentzel’s father, Gustav, arrived in the United States from Germany in 1860 and opened a cabinet shop in Philadelphia. Later, he built his first carousel. Gustav set the stage for a thriving American industry. The G. A. Dentzel Steam and Horsepower Carousel Company was established in 1867; soon thereafter, a unique series of carousels went into production.
By 1903, the company was building as many as six carousels a year as amusement parks operated by city trolley lines began popping up in great numbers in and around American cities. Apart from horses, deer were the animals carved most often by the Dentzel Company. Because of the deer’s widespread appeal and gentle nature, a number of Dentzel carousels featured primarily deer and horses.
Dentzel carved only one lion and one tiger when making a menagerie carousel. Appearing on the outside stationary row of fiures, both of these animals are striking in their lifelike appearance.
Human or humanlike carvings, known as side figures, often appear on the animals. A Dentzel carousel that once operated in Dearborn, Michigan, featured a tiger with a side figure depicting Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill. That animal is today in the hands of a private collector. Dentzel carousel horses featured real horsehair on their tails.
Carousels are more than just fun and nostalgic amusement park rides; they’re actually a fascinating combination of science, history and art at work. Remembering the days of the incredible, decorative carousel, our minds revert back to wonderful thoughts. The exquisitely carved carousel animals and the calming chariot rides on a merry-go-round will remain a part of vivid childhood memories forever, mine included.