Carousels: A Brief History
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Carousels: A Brief History

The darling of almost every amusement park--the carousel has a long and interesting history. Who, as a young child, has not thrilled to the sights and sounds of a fanciful carousel, and delighted at the up and down twirling ride that brought a joyous smile to the face. Sadly, in our modern era of hig-speed thrill rides that dominate the amusement park landscape, carousels are in decline.

The darling of almost every amusement park--the carousel has a long and interesting history.  Who, as a young child, has not thrilled to the sights and sounds of a fanciful carousel, and delighted at the up and down twirling ride that brought a joyous smile to the face. 

Sadly, in our modern era of high-speed thrill rides that dominate the amusement park landscape, carousels are in decline.  But before the jet age, carousels were considered the height of beauty melded to amusement.

The carousel's origins can be traced back to the medieval ages where crusaders watched young Arabs play games on horseback called "carosella" or "little wars".

In the France of the 1500's, riders on horseback galloped full speed to spear a golden ring with a lance.  This was called "carousel".  Such games were often used to train the military.  For example, medieval knights sat on wooden horses supported by a large central pole or beam to train for various maneuvers on horseback. 

The word carousel has many foreign derivatives: the Italian "garosello", and the Spanish "carosella", as well as the French "carrousel".  Part of the courtly festivities from the 16th century were "horse ballets" called carousels where mounted participants put on huge musical spectacles for entertainment. 

By the 19th century, at fairs and gatherings in England and Europe, carousels were being built and operated.  Called by different names: merry-go-round, galloper, roundabout, and flying horses, early carousels had no platforms.  The carved horses or animals hung from poles by chains, flying outward from centrifugal force as it turned by animals walking in circles, or people pulling a rope or cranking. 

Then, with the advent of steam power, carousels were powered by that method instead of live animals or people.  Finally electricity replaced the steam power at the turn of the 20th century, and carousels were lit up with colored and white lights.  Music was added.  Cranks and gears were added to the poles and shafts to make the up and down motion.

As carousel construction advanced, the poles and their fixtures were brass, with fancy glass mirrors being added for further decoration and flash.  Platforms of wood were added.  The horses and animals were carved from wood and painted.  This was to become a very valuable art form and many carousels became known by their artist creators.  Today, wooden carousel horses and animals can be valued up to $80,000 depending on their condition and where they are from and who created them. 

Many carousels had a combination of bench seats, and ride-on animals.  The horses and animals were usually on the outside where the public could see them.   The benches or "lovers seats" were on the inside.

While carousels rose in popularity all over Europe in the 19th century--the 20th century became known as the Golden Age of the carousels in America.  In 1860's Philadelphia, Gustav Dentzel opened a carousel and cabinet workshop in Germantown.  Through a tradition of building reliable and durable mechanisms, and lavishly beautiful horses and animals, the Dentzel works became one of America's greatest carousel manufacturers.

American carousel makers began to distinguish themselves from their European counterparts by creating more highly expressive figures--horses tossing manes, postures of jumping and leaping, and animated eyes and faces.

Another novelty of carousel manufacture was the invention of double-decker carousels.  The first carousel built at the famous Coney Island amusement park, was manufactured by Charles I.D. Looff, a Danish woodcarver, in 1876. 

Carousels enjoyed a robust burst of popularity through the first half of the 20th century, but by the end of World War II, many carousels were falling into disrepair and more modern forms of entertainments were replacing the more mundane carousel. 

The oldest operating carousel in the United States is in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, and it was built in 1893 by the Dare Company, and was known as the "flying horse" machine.

The first solar powered carousel was built by William Henry Dentzel III in Hopland, CA, in 2005. 

Like all great American icons, carousels have a museum---The Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum in North Tonawanda, New York. 

Sydney, Australia, is home to a very rare Edwardian carousel--The Darling Harbor Carousel, in New South Wales.  It operates by a classic steam engine from the Golden Era--1980-1920. 

So, next time you are visiting your favorite amusement park, if they have a carousel, hop on and take a ride back in time.

Citations:

www.chevroncars.com

www.essortment.com

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/carousels

Leslie Pryor is a published author, teacher, and freelance writer.  Go to my websites for further information: www.lspryor.com or www.wisdomtheprinciplething.com.

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