- The word Carousel/Carrousel is derived from 'carosello', the old
Italian word meaning "little war". This describes the Arabian game
Spanish crusaders witnessed and brought to Italy. They saw skilled
horsemen tossing and catching clay balls loaded with scented oil. The
losers of this game were quite evident and carried their defeat with
them for days.
- The form of this game found its way, by means of royal emissaries,
to the court of the French king, Charles VIII, and was soon transformed
into an event of magnificent pageantry called 'carrousel'. By 1662,
when Louis the XIV held "Le Grand Carrousel" in a square still referred
to as "Place du Carrousel", several other games had been added. One of
these was the medieval sport of ring piercing once played by the Moors.
It called for great concentration and excellent riding ability, for the
participant had to pierce a small ring with his sword while riding at
full speed. To practice for these events, models of horses were placed
on beams that encircled a central pole. Power was supplied by a horse
or servant while the riders attempted to spear the ring hanging outside
the perimeter of the horses. This practice machine soon became popular
with other members of the court including ladies and children. As
local craftsmen began to produce these relatively simple devices they
found that demand was not limited to the nobility.
- The popularity of this ride spread throughout Europe, appearing in
both small local parks and in such places as Tivoli Gardens. However,
the weight and size of the carousel was limited by the strength of the
power source. It was not until 1870 when an Englishman named Frederick
Savage put steam power to the "roundabout" that it took on the stature
that we know today.
- The most distinguishing characteristic of English carousel animals
is that the outer or "romance" side is on the left. This is because
English carousels travel clockwise. American and other European
carousels travel counter-clockwise, allowing riders to grasp for a
brass ring with their right hand. The English carvers realized that if
their carousels went counter-clockwise, riders would tend to mount
their steeds improperly, and as any equestrian knows, a horse must
always be mounted from the left.
The First Carousel
- In it's Simplest form, the carousel entertains its patrons by
spinning them around a turning pole while they cling to the end of a
rope. Although it is not known exactly when these devices were first
developed, a game of this sort appears in a Byzantine Bas-relief from
500 AD. Accounts of these rides continued to filter into Western
Europe from travellers who had ventured east, but it wasn't until the
17th century that the beginnings of the modern carousel first appeared.
Catching the Gold Ring
- Spearing a ring has been a part of the carousel tradition since
its earliest appearance. Competing Arabian and Turkish riders trying
to catch perfume-filled clay balls eventually inspired the French to
catch gold rings with their lances. This sport was, in turn, adapted
to amusement devices that became popular in Europe by the late 1700's.
- In America, catching a brass ring for the free ride, was part of
the carousel's allure. Unfortunately, in today's liability insurance
atmosphere, this feature has all but died out.
United States Carousels
- There is evidence of carousels in United States as far back as
1825. But it was not until 1867 that the seeds of the American
carousel industry took root, when a young man named Gustav Dentzel
built his first carousel.
- In the mid 1880's the newly developed electric trolley had a
profound effect on the amusement industry. When the major American
cities built this new form of public transport, they did their best to
plan for future expansion by constructing the trolley systems well past
the city limits or out to a natural barrier such as a beach or river.
The trolley companies soon found that they needed something to entice
hesitant riders to use their system on a regular basis. What better
enticement to pique their interest than some form of entertainment
situated at the "end of the line". These areas proved to be ideal
locations for amusement parks, since the land was cheap and access was
easy. They began to spring up all over the country acquiring the
befitting name of "Trolley Parks".
- With the creation of trolley parks the carousel industry
flourished. At that time, the carousel was the only sophisticated ride
available. The golden age of carousels lasted form 1880 to 1930 when
the financially crippling depression put an end to this uniquely
American art form.
- The popularity of animal figures on the early carousels is not
hard to understand, when you remember that during the early history of
carousels, the European clientele were mainly from an agricultural
society. The American carousels occasionally represented animals but
they never attained the wide popularity of their European counterparts.
Still, their was a fairly large representation of animals that were
included on the American carousels during their heyday, such as:
bears, buffaloes, camels, cats, chickens, deer, dogs, donkeys,
elephants, frogs, giraffes, goats, hippocampus', kangaroos, leopards,
lions, mules, ostriches, panthers, pigs, polar bears, rabbits,
roosters, sea dragons, storks, tigers, wolves, zebras, etc.
- Strangely enough, with the immense popularity in the United States
of cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, etc., there
is no American Examples of this type of carousel figure! Mexico and
Europe though, seem to have been more impressed with this uniquely
American contribution, and have many representative examples that have
appeared on their carousels.
The Carousel Animal
- Those magical childhood moments spent whirling through a myriad of
lights while perched atop a fiery steed remain as precious memories
throughout life. Yet, if those memories are examined closely they may
not tell us that those horses were ornately carved with flying manes or
that they moved up and down. Were they even horses at all? Perhaps
some were fanciful rabbits or ferocious lions or tigers, or even
snarling monsters from the sea. Since, as children, these details were
superfluous to the enjoyment of the ride, they tend to fade with time.
However, with the renewed interest in carousels, many people are not
only rediscovering these details but are for the first time seeing the
artistry that went into making these finely crafted carvings from our
- The selection of horses on Fantasy Island's carousel were
carefully chosen to offer an array of carving styles from the most
talented artists of the time. The styles vary, just as the
personalities of their creators did, leaving future generations with a
legacy of flashing hoofs and flying manes.
- Throughout the history of the carousel, the horse has been and
continues to be its most popular animal. When people remember riding a
carousel, they invariably recall sitting on a horse. This is not too
surprising since over eighty per cent of the animals carved in America
- Animals other than horses first appeared in the late 18th century,
but it wasn't until Charles Looff introduced an assortment of creatures
on his first carousel in 1876 that these figures began to be popular.
Soon carousels throughout both Europe and America had a variety of
animals leaping among the horses.
- Despite Looff's early start, the two companies which were to
become best known in this field were Dentzel and Herschell-Spillman.
Dentzel created very realistic and intricately carved animals,
sometimes captured in dramatic poses, while Herschell-Spillman is noted
for a wide variety of animals ranging from frogs to storks to zebras.
Since each animal was hand carved, no two are identical. The master
carvers who created these marvels of the midway were proud of their
work, and that pride shows in the exquisitely crafted detail. Detail
that went beyond the creation of a mere ride, but was a medium of
expression for true artists who sculpted in wood. Most of the skilled
carvers were immigrants of European descent and their patriotic pride
in their new homeland was very often represented in their work.
- When these animals were first constructed, their creators had
little idea how they would be abused over their lifetime. To fully
comprehend how carousel animals have suffered, it must be understood
that their primary function was as part of a ride -- a device to
attract and entertain the public while making a profit for the
operator. If an animal was damaged or came apart, the economics of the
situation dictated that repair be as swift as possible. This led to
the use of nuts and bolts, nails, screws, tin and fiberglass patches,
and anything else that would hold. These types of repairs coupled with
as many as ten to fifteen layers of paint gave many animals the
appearance of being ready for the scrap heap.
- By the late 1960's many people began to discover the rich cultural
and artistic heritage embodied in the carousel. Attempts were made to
restore both fully operating carousels and individual animals to their
original splendor. This process involved stripping the old paint,
removing all foreign substances like metal or plaster, replacing
missing or rotten parts, and building up worn surfaces to their
- Community awareness and concern has prompted the rehabilitation
and maintenance of many local carousels, while both private collectors
and museums have painstakingly restored thousands of individual
animals. This enthusiasm has come none too soon, for of the 3,000 to
4,000 wooden carousels that once graced this land, there are now fewer
- Several organizations have formed over the past few years,
offering information about carousel history, carving styles, and repair
techniques. These groups give carousel enthusiasts and collectors an
opportunity to restore and retain an important piece of Americana while
allowing others to explore those childhood memories of riding through a
world of fantasy on their favorite animal.
What Happened to the Horse's Gender
- During the early years of the golden age of horse carving, the
talented carvers tried to emulate live horses as realistically as they
could. The carousels created during this period had stallions chasing
the mares as nature dictated. But this was in the Victorian age and
the ladies were offended by this blatant sexual display. Bowing to
this pressure, the stallions were gelded. Even to this day, carousel
horses are created without any apparent gender.
The American Beauty Rose Story
- One poignant moment in the long list of interesting facets of
carousel history deserves to be mentioned. Floral designs have long
been a part of the decorations that the carvers utilized to beautify
- The first usage of the American Beauty Rose as a decorative item
seems to have been originated by Samuel A. Robb. A Brooklyn carver,
originally famous for his cigar store Indian carvings, took up carousel
horse carving as a logical expansion of his craft. When his young wife
died, he placed a single red American Beauty Rose on some of his
creations as a memorial to their love.
English Word Contributions
- The word "headman" and the phrase "go for it" have their roots in
the carousel industry.
- "Headman", which now means leader or chief, is derived from the
practice of a carousel company reserving the head and neck of a horse
for the master carver of the firm to complete. The apprentice carvers
would be allowed to carve the rest of the animal.
- "Go for it", which means to give something your best effort, was a
common expression used to prod a hesitant carousel rider to try and
catch the brass ring. This required the rider to stretch out and reach
for the ring which was at the end of a wooden arm. At times this
effort occasionally caused the rider to lose his balance and fall off
his horse or possibly break one of his fingers when he misjudged. It
is no wonder that this feature of modern carousels has been eliminated
because of the excessive liability claims that seem to plague our
The Carousel Artisans
- When you look at the animals on Fantasy Island's carousel,
remember that they quite literally represent the period during which
they were carved. That period from 1870 to 1920 is the age of the
immigrant. During that era in history, when the industrial revolution
had finally arrived from England, we, as a nation, truly felt that this
was the land of opportunity. Nine million immigrants in thirty years
arrived at our shores and, like children, they too believed in a dream.
Their vision was of living their lives free from the constraint of a
ruling class, free to try for something better.
- From this immigrant horde came the men who carved horses, with
skills and concepts born in European roots. We owe a tremendous debt
of gratitude to someone like Frederick Savage of London who had so much
to do with improving the mechanism that made it all possible. His
improvements made larger and more elaborate rides feasible. Carousels
were being carved in England and Germany in fair sophistication before
they became popular in America.
- What a unique amalgam is this carousel! It is a mechanical
device, a product that joyously expresses its industrial roots.
Propelled by electricity, a conglomerate of meshing gears makes this
wonderful machine go round and round. If you ride a carousel without
the overriding sounds of the band organ music, the voice of the machine
is clearly heard. Decorating the outer rim of this metal tribute to
the foundryman's skill, are the remnants of a period of handicraft, of
skills that were being driven out of existence by manufacturing and
retail trade. When the railroads reached small-town America, the
craftsman was turned into a merchant, selling the products of the big
city's factories. The carousel gave employment to a small group Of
artisans and gave them an opportunity to continue to express their
feelings through their artistry. What they expressed was that they
lived in America.
- Unfortunately, the carousel industry began to fade away in 1920.
The production of Looff's horses ceased when he died in 1918. Stein &
Goldstein moved on to other endeavors, and Carmel's shop went out of
business. Mechanical carving devices became popular with Dentzel, the
Philadelphia Toboggan Company and Spillman Engineering Corporation.
Only Illions carved by the old methods, but even he could not survive
the depression and closed in 1929. William Dentzel died in 1928; the
remains of his company were bought by the Philadelphia Toboggan
Company. Many of the carvers did what they could by repairing or
recarving parts for operating carousels, but work was scarce. Although
the Philadelphia Toboggan Co. ceased making carousels in 1934, they
continued building amusement park rides and are today one of the
leaders in the industry.
- The demise of the hand-carved carousel animal came slowly over a
period of twenty years in three distinct stages. When the age of
mechanization produced a device which could rough carve the heads and
bodies from a preset pattern, many carousel manufacturers began
producing animals of identical design. Although a number of carvers
were put out of work it was nonetheless a boon to the industry. When
the depression arrived, the demand for carousels declined sharply. The
companies that survived either ceased making carousels, or like Allen
Herschell and Parker Companies, produced very simple machines. The
final blow came in the 1940's with the widespread use of aluminum and
the advances in the casting process. The last of the wooden steeds
were carved as patterns for aluminum horses. Most of the traveling
carnivals that now appear at local fairgrounds have metal carousels
produced by the Chance Manufacturing Company which bought out the Allen
Herschell Company. Many of the fine examples of carving from the
golden age of carousels have been copied in fiberglass and are
beginning to appear on machines in parks across the nation.