The season is upon us! The fairground Carousel comes alive. We anticipate the happy carnival-type music calling us to run over for a ride and the rotating circular platform with hand-carved wood horses whirling around under a colorful canopy with smiling children of all ages astride animals or seated in gold-trimmed “chariots.”
We already can smell funnel cake, hot dogs, and French fries, and know our fingers will be sticky from cotton candy as we hang onto the pole securing us to the mount while we lean far out to grab a brass ring that gets us another ride free.
It’s all as American as apple pie. Right?
Not quite. Real life versions of what became a simple children’s delight existed as far back as 600 CE in Byzantium and later in 12th century Europe and Asia, but the modern adaptation was inspired by 17th century events called “the little batle” (English) garosello (Italian) and carosella (Spanish). At that time, expert jousting horsemen rode at high speeds and tried to spear small rings hanging from overhead poles and rip them off.
When jousting no longer appealed to sportsmen, cavalry horsemen took their place by continuing to play comparable games. Commoners then imitated the cavalry events but, being working men with skills, imaginatively went on to simulate real games in the form of “Carousels” with hand-carved wooden horses for children.
Many historians consider the Carousel to be the oldest “amusement ride” ever invented.
In 18th century England and Central Europe the charming phenomenon (called a “Round-About” in England) started appearing at fairgrounds, and the wood steeds were off and running to general popularity albeit on platforms still turned by a horse, mule, or human hand. Finally, Englishman Frederick Savage solved that problem by inventing a portable steam engine (1860s) to turn the platform and installing overhead gears to provide an up-and-down motion for “Jumper” horses.
European (especially German) immigrants brought their carving skills to America in the early 19th century, and Carousels — usually called “Merry-Go-Rounds” in this country — prospered and proliferated through the 1920s.
Then, over the years, the Great Depression, accidents, fires, storms, and neglect took their toll. Horses, menagerie animals, and chariots came to be cast in aluminum or fiberglass as master carvers faded into the past and cheap substitutes replaced the genuine articles. Still, around 300 handcrafted carousels operate in the U.S. today. American Carousel animals are considered most desirable by knowledgeable collectors because of their superior aesthetic and workmanship quality. Viewed by some as folk art, Carousel horses in particular are believed to have risen from a craft to fine-art status because of the superb level of carving by highly accomplished artisans.
Three styles evolved over time in America: the classically elegant works of G.A. Dentzel Company, the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, and the D.C. Muller and Brother Company became “The Philadelphia Style”; heavily jeweled and lavishly gilded animals of Charles Loof, Marcus Charles Illiions, Charles Carmel, Soloman Stein, and Harry Goldstein became “The Coney Island Style”; and simpler animals suitable for traveling to rural outskirts by the Herschall-Spillman (New York) and C.W. Parker Company (Kansas) became known as the “County Fair Style.”
Menagerie animals could be anything from pigs to lions, giraffes, camels, and tigers or any other real or mythical creature a carver could dream up. Of greatest importance, however, was and remains the horse, the animal that in real life inspired the Carousel’s creation.
These fantastical hand-carved wooden horses came in differing sizes, shapes, and breeds according to placement from the outside edge of the circular platform to the inside row. The lead horse is always the biggest and most decorated. It is often a military or war horse, and if a chariot is included in the set-up, the first horse behind it will be the lead horse and can be either a “Stander” or a “Jumper.” Standers have at least three feet on the platform and “stand” on the outside row, and Jumpers have all four feet off the platform allowing them to “jump” and “gallop” the entire length of the ride. “Prancers” have both rear feet on the platform and the two front feet lifted in order to “prance.” Other horses including bucking broncos and dappled Indian Paints are mixed here and there in the middle row. The one other important horse is the “Inside Jumper.” Full of playful personality, this spirited steed is a bit smaller than the lead horse but always jumping its heart out with energetic enthusiasm, which is why it has been this writer’s favorite from the age of five until (when at 50) my husband bought my first choice at auction as a birthday’s gift.
When purchasing a collector Carousel horse, it is best not to restore it, and my Philadelphia Toboggan “Petunia” is just the same as the one many workers who tended her over her 100+ years of living and giving pleasure to children every summer. Who knows what care-giver flamboyantly burnished her mane and tail with metallic gold or gently and unobtrusively repaired a knee with a fiberglass bandage? Plus, she has all of the trappings that make a Carousel horse extra special: a shield, a bed roll and knife (for the rider!), a girdle and protective breast piece, a blanket under her saddle, many sparkling jewels, and an alert head with intelligent glass eyes. Clearly carved by a master, the expressive details of her body and face are stunningly beautiful.
Whatever the age one counts in years, when riding a chosen steed on a “Merry-Go-Round” to the tinkling sound of circus music and laughing with glee while reaching for that brass ring, everyone becomes an excited child while enjoying the singular art of a Carousel horse.
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation (www.art-21.org). She has written for many publications, including "Reader’s Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "Adamas." For more on Alexandra York, Go Here Now.
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