A Circular Story: The History of the Carousel

Posted by Staff on Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Looff Carousel

Carousels may not be able to compete with many of today’s technically advanced rides, yet they are still beloved by amusement park visitors of all ages. They also play an important role in the evolution of amusement parks. As one of the earliest rides to appear at the fairs and amusement areas that were the blueprints for today’s amusement parks, they helped whet the public’s appetite for bigger and better amusement park rides. As was the case with the log flume ride and the gravity railway, carousels were originally designed for a practical purpose rather than entertainment.

The word “carousel” was first used to describe a game played by Arabian and Turkish horsemen in the 12th century. The game, which involved tossing a clay ball filled with perfume between riders, was played with such seriousness by the horsemen that the Italian crusaders who first observed the game called it a “little war” or “carosello.” The French adopted this game into their own variety of equestrian competition and from this comes the French word “carousel” that we use today. In order to prepare for these competitions, a practice device was created which featured legless wooden horses suspended from arms on a central rotating pole. The pole was rotated either by human, horse, or mule, while the horsemen mounted on the wooded horses practiced games such as spearing a hanging ring with their jousting lances. Traces of this game still exist in a few carousels that include a ring dispenser, such as the 1911 Looff Carousel at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The carousel ring game originally involved grabbing a steel ring out of a dispenser, with the occasional brass ring earning the lucky rider a free turn on the carousel. On the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk carousel, riders can also toss the ring into the mouth of a smiling clown.

The carousels used by the French horsemen attracted the attention of bystanders that thought the carousel looked like fun to ride. Before long, carousels were being built specifically for the purpose of entertainment. By the late 1700s, this suspended version of the carousel was making appearances at fairs and festivals throughout Europe; yet the size of these carousels was greatly limited by the power source, which continued to be either man or horse. This all changed on New Year’s Day, 1861, when Thomas Bradshaw opened the first steam-powered “roundabout” in Bolton, England. The newly incorporated power system would launch the golden era of carousels that lasted from the late 1800s until the Great Depression.

Looff hand carved Tiger

A Tiger Carved by Charles Looff. Image: Gary Nance

While the carousel has it origins in Europe, it was American craftsmen that guided it through the golden era. The American carousels were huge compared to their European counterparts and the woodwork of the horses was extremely elaborate. One of the earliest and most well known manufactures of carousels was Gustav Dentzel, the son of a German wagon and carousel builder, Michael Dentzel. Dentzel carousels were admired nationwide for their beautiful horses and reliable machinery (a fine example of a fully restored Dentzel carousel is housed at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which we recently covered here). With the mechanical innovations of the late 1800s came many of the more advanced carousel features we are familiar with, such as the up and down motion of the horses as they travel around the platform. The American craftsmen, not satisfied with only making horses, began to included other creatures on the rides, ranging from zoo animals to mythical beasts. In addition to Dentzel, other companies producing carousels included the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, M.C. Illions, Stein & Goldstein, and Charles I.D. Looff, who was also a pioneer in roller coaster design.

Carousel at Children's Museum Indianapolis

Dentzel Carousel at Children’s Museum Indianapolis

As was the case with most industries during the Great Depression, carousel builders found it difficult to continue production. In addition to the depressed economy, the rise of the roller coaster in the early 20th century began to overshadow the carousel’s place in the amusement park industry. They became marked as a “children’s ride” because they lacked the excitement of the newer rides. This combination of factors spelled the end of an era for carousel builders. Although more would be built once the economy recovered, they were no longer hand-carved, but instead cast in aluminum and fiberglass. However, since the 1970s, there has been a growing interest in restoring many of the old hand-carved carousels and preserving them for future generations. A very small number of carousels from the golden age have survived, but organizations such as the International Museum of Carousel Art are dedicated to preserving those we still have.

Sources:

International Museum of Carousel Art

University of Sheffield: National Fairground Archive

Fantasy Island Carousel History

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