Antique Carousels

Guest Post by Richard Brawer

We have all ridden a carousel either at a traveling fair or at an amusement park.  Where did the word carousel come from?  Who invented carousels?  Where did the makers get their inspiration?

From the latter part of the 1800s to the mid 1930s five thousand hand-carved wooden carousels were built in the United States.  About 170 exist today.  An operating antique carousel can bring a million dollars or more at auction depending the size and condition.

It is generally believed the English word, carousel, came from Italian words, carosello meaning ball game, and garrosello meaning little war.  Those words referred to a Renaissance game where participants rode in a circle and threw clay balls filled with perfume at each other.  A hit eliminated an opponent.

Eventually the French picked up on the Italian game.  In 1662, Louis the XIV held a tournament to impress his mistress.  Like everything Louis did―think Palace of Versailles―his tournament was extravagant.  The participants were dressed in lavish costumes and the horses outfitted in opulent splendor.  The gala event was captured by an artist who called his painting Le Grand Carrousel. (Note the two Rs in the French word where in the English word there is only one R.  You can find the picture by Googling Le Grand Carrousel and clicking image at the top of the opening web site page)

To keep the horses from getting worn out or injured during practice, someone invented a machine where newcomers would sit on a wooden log hung from a wheel atop a pole and turned by a plow horse.  When the aristocrats saw the thing they thought it was fun and had seats resembling fancy carriages attached to the wheel and an amusement ride was born.

The first carousel built in the United is credited to William Dentzel.  He emigrated from Germany in 1864 and three years later opened a factory in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.  His first carousel was installed on Smith Island in the Delaware River.

Inspired by the Le Grand Carrousel painting, Dentzel created elegant carousels.  His horses had regal poses, and the carvers who worked for him, the Muller Brothers and Salvatore Carnigliaro, were perfectionists, carving the details―muscles, lips, tongues, eyelids, ears and flying manes―that looked almost real.  Like in the painting his horses were decorated in bright colors, but he did not embellish them with glass jewels and gold leaf.    Dentzel carousels became known as The Philadelphia Style.

In contrast to Dentzel, the carousel makers in Brooklyn―Charles Looff, Marcus Illions, Charles Carmel, Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein―tended to make their machines on the gaudy side, bedecking their horses with costume jewels, gold leaf and high pommels and cantles on the saddles.  The Brooklyn makers sold their machines to amusement parks like Rye Playland and Coney Island, thus their carousels became tagged the Coney Island Style.

However, two things Dentzel and the Brooklyn manufacturers had in common were:

(1) While their horses had powerful legs, sweeping tails, flowing manes, arched necks, open mouths and large teeth; and they all used some kind of trappings such as cherubs, eagles, flowers, swords, guns, hitch-hiking trolls, foxes and parrots, the expression on the horses’ faces seemed pretty, even sweet so as not to scare the children.

(2) Carousels revolve counter clockwise.  The right side of the horses face outward.  The artists call the right the” romance side” and carved it more elaborately than the left, especially on the standers―horses that do not move up and down―which were typically on the outer ring and the first horses seen by the customers.

Carousels for traveling fairs made by Allan Herschell and Charles Parker were a total deviation from Dentzel and the Brooklyn makers.  Their horses tended to have large heads and necks so they could be seen from a distance to attract riders.  The saddles were long and flat with very little detail, maybe a star or gun.  The horse’s legs were disproportionate to the body, being long and stretched out so they could be easily stacked and transported from one fair to the next.  Thus their creations were dubbed the Country Fair Style.

There is much more to a carousel than the horses.  There are also chariots, or simply put, fancy booths, for those who do not want to sit on a horse to ride the carousel.  In the center of the carousel, hand painted panels hide the operating mechanism, called the “truck” mechanism.

Then there are the “sweeps” or beams which extend from the center pole of the carousel to the outer ring of the platform. (Think of an open umbrella with support poles extending down from the tips of the ribs to keep it from falling over if stood up by its “center pole”)  Hand carved “rounding boards” in jesters, clowns, and mirrors accented in baroque scroll work circle the ends of the “sweeps” to hide the structural framework, and thousands of light bulbs covered the “sweeps” turning them into a blaze of color.

Then of course there is the band organ which plays what today we call circus music very loud to attract riders.

And don’t forget that brass ring machine.  Catching the brass ring came from earlier Moorish tournaments in Spain where riders would try to spear a ring hanging from a cord.  Applied to the carousel, it became known as a symbol of good luck and those “spearing” a brass ring got a free ride.  Today, only a few carousels have brass ring machines because insurance companies worry about riders falling off as they leaned out for the ring thus making liability insurance costly.

Also there are other animals to ride on―tigers, elephants, dogs, pigs, zebras, lions, pandas etc.  I concentrated on the horse because it is the most common animal.

So, the next time you ride a carousel, take a closer look.  Even the steel ones with plastic animals made today copy the original makers.

If you are curious to see if there is an antique carousel near you check out these web sites: (American Carousel Society) and (National Carousel Association)

Richard has published five novels in mystery, suspense and historical fiction genres.  When not writing, he spends his time golfing, sailing and growing roses.  He has two married daughters and lives in New Jersey with his wife.

Read about Richard’s novels including “Murder Goes Round and Round” where an antique carousel is the motive for the murder at:  Click mysteries at the top of the home page.


Posted on May 22, 2012, in History. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed the history. Author of Ghost Orchid and more

  2. What an interesting post. A few of the things you mentioned I knew, but a whole lot of it I didn't know and was glad to learn. And reading the blurb about your book, Murder Goes Round and Round, does make me wonder why the antique carousel is a motive for murder.

  3. This is surely a wonderfully researched and fascinating essay, Richard! I'm especially interested in the French connection–since I'm living in revolutionary days in my own writing at this point. Greedy old Henry XIV! Huzzahs for this post! Well written, too, of course. (Nancy)

  4. Great post. I would never have known about trappings used to keep from frightening the children (though I have to admit those horses still scared me when I was a kid).

  5. I remember the carousel rides on summer visits to Coney Island and never wanting the horses that didn't go up and down. What a pleasure to learn this history, Richard.

  6. Such an interesting article. My son polished the poles of the Cafesjian's Carousel now at Como Park in Minnesota. I remember all the poles around the shop. This carousel was at the Minnesota State Fair for many years and our family always rode it.

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