A Brief History of the Carousel
Carousels have been a part of popular culture for more than a thousand years. Back in the 1100's, Arabian and Turkish horsemen played a game on horseback. They took it very seriously, so much so that the Italian and Spanish crusaders who watched described the contest as a "little war" or garosello and carosella respectively. The crusaders brought the game back to Europe where it became, in time, an extravagant display of horsemanship, pageantry and finery that the French called carrousel.
The beginning of the carousel as we know it today most likely had its origin in France about 300 years ago. During that time, the French built a device to train young noblemen in the art of ring-spearing. The device consisted of carved horses and chariots suspended by chains from arms radiating from a centerpole. The object was to spear the ring. This is also the source of the phrase "grab the brass ring."
By the late 1700's there were numerous carousels built solely for amusement throughout Europe. It was apparent that other members of nobility, particularly ladies and children, and the general public were both eager to climb aboard this new "carrousel,'' (the device having taken the name of the royal pageants which inspired its creation.) Their size and weight was determined by what could readily be moved by man, servant, mule, or horsepower. However, with the invention of the steam engine, these restrictions no longer applied. It was the advent of steam power that made possible the more elaborate machines we now associate with carousels. It was during this period that the carousel started to pick up some of the many different names it is known by the world over: roundabouts, gallopers, and tilts, whirligigs, carry-us-alls, flying jinnies, hobby horses and merry-go-rounds.
The heyday of the carousel in America was between 1880 and 1920. It was during these years that carousels became bigger and more elaborately housed. Their animals and chariots were more beautifully carved and in a richer variety of styles. There were war horses, parade horses, Indian ponies, and horses straight out of a child's dream. There were animals of the jungle, the plains, the farm and the forest. There were even gods, cats, teddy bears, and mythical beasts. Any creature remotely rideable could be found on American carousels. Wherever a carousel was located, it became a central part of a magnificent social event, as crowds of people in their "Sunday best" would climb aboard a favorite steed or just sit and listen to the lively music while enjoying the breeze generated by the machine. The figures on these early carousels are large since it was mainly adults that rode them. Gustav Dentzel was the man who pioneered the modern carousel in America in the 1860's. His creations became the centerpiece of hundreds of amusement parks that sprung up in the cities and resorts of the United States. Six thousand (6,000) carousels were constructed in the United States during the golden age of carnivals in the early part of the 20th century. Today, only 150 of these carousels remain intact.
The golden age of the American carousel lasted until the great depression of the 1930's. With the decline of amusement parks and the economy in general, used carousels satisfied the small market. The few remaining companies closed or moved on to other products. Many carousels were abandoned or destroyed. In the 1970's, interest was renewed in carousel animals as collector items. Antique collectors are still the largest purchasers of original carousel figures today. The technology for producing carousels has changed. No longer is the labor-intensive hand carving of figures necessary. Today, cast aluminum and fiberglass are used to produce animals. The carousel moved from being a centerpiece in amusement parks to being a "children's ride." Hence, the size of the animal figures became smaller.
There is a National Carousel Association that holds a Technical Assistance Conference each spring. Their focus is to promote the conservation, appreciation, knowledge and enjoyment of the art of the classic wooden carousel and especially the preservation of complete wooden carousels. The city of Burlington in NC has an original wooden carousel as does Prospect Park and the city of St. Louis, Missouri.