Monday, December 10, 2012

The History of the Carousel

I've always wondered about the provenance of the carousel horse, those lovely creatures that you saw at the carnival as a child, the local fair or even in a museum today.  How did they come to be?  What happened to them?

The history goes way back, to the 12th century to be exact.  Carosello was a 12th-century game played by the Arabs and the Turks on horseback. They used scented balls tossed from one to another and anyone who missed a catch was readily identified by the perfume they were doused with when the ball broke on impact.  The crusaders brought the game back to Europe where in time it became very popular, although greatly modified.

Carosello was adopted by the French into an exhibition (now called carousel) of many types of horsemanship pageantry and competition including spearing a ring suspended from a post or tree, while riding at full speed.  A practice machine was created to help young knights prepare for this competition - a series of legless wooden horses attached to a rotating platform (driven by human power or horse power).  When this practice machine proved to be as popular with women or children as it was with the knights, the carousel was born.  

By the late 1700's there were many carousels throughout Europe but they were built soley for amusement and were small and light. The carousel gained even more popularity when steam power was harnessed to drive the platform around so that the carousel was not limited to just the size and weight that could be managed by a horse, a mule or a man.

The real "golden age" of the carousel was from around 1880 until about 1930 although the first US patent issued for a carousel was issued in 1850.  Gustav Dentzel was the man who pioneered the modern carousel in America in the 1860's.  

There were many companies making them during the "golden age" including C.W. Parker, the Dentzel Company, Philadelphia Toboggan Company or PTC, M.C. Illions, Herschell-Spillman, Stein & Goldstein, and Loof, just to name some of the bigger players.  None of the old carousels of Europe could match the product of the American craftsmen, many of whom, came over from Europe. 

There were some master carvers whose companies bore their names (above) but there were also some famous carvers who worked for various companies at different times such as Daniel Muller, Charles Carmel, John Zalar, and Salvatore Cerniglario.  Regretfully, many have not survived and today there are less than 200 still around from the "golden age."  There are conservation organizations out there who have done a lot to help save these from further destruction and decay such as the National Carousel Association.  

Interestingly, there are different types of carousels.  Here are a few definitions:

Coney Island Style - a carving style mostly represented by the works of Illions, Carmel, Looff and Stein and Goldstein.  Associated with fanciful or spirited horses/menagerie animals, many which had wild, flowing manes and highly decorated trappings, often with flowers or jewels.

Philadelphia Style - a carving style primarily represented by the works of Dentzel, Muller, and the Philadelphia Tobaggan Company.  This style is associated with very realistic-looking horses/animals who normally were carved with very lifelike poses and expressions.

Country Fair Style - associated with smaller, very stylized horses that were intended to be transported from place to place and not installed on permanently-placed carousels.  Works were created by Dare, Armitage, Herschell, Spillman, and C.W. Parker.

The golden age died with the advent of the great depression of the 1930's.  The decline of the economy wrecked havoc on the carousel market and used carousels were not worth much to anyone during this time.  The few remaining companies closed or moved on to make other products.  Many carousels were abandoned or destroyed.  

When the economy finally started to improve so did the technology for producing carousels.  No more labor-intensive carving.  New, cast aluminum and fiberglass produces arose.  The carousel was no longer the centerpiece of the carnival, it became only a children's ride.  Of the more than 4000 carousels built during the "golden age" less than 150 are in tact today.  Carousel animals and horses are highly collectable and worth many thousands of dollars on the antique market if you can find them.   

There are many stories there of people who have rescued carousels and restored them.  Jane's Carousel is one example.  This masterpiece was created in 1922 by the PTC (#61) and was installed originally in Idora Park in Youngstown, Ohio when it was a prosperous steel-making city.  It has now been fully restored and brought back to life.  Jane and David Walentas purchased the carousel at auction in 1984.  Their bid prevented it from being sold off piecemeal.  

Jane's Carousel

Jane began restoring it bringing it back to its original condition.  The carousel was installed in the Jean Nouvel designed Pavilion in Brooklyn Bridge Park and opened in September 2011.  Read more about this here.

Below are photos from Jane's Carousel:

This won't be the last you'll read here about these wonderful pieces of history. Who knew?

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