The precursors to the carousel carnival ride 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 ***** 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 historical 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. Woodworkers 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.