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The Nostalgia Of Carousels

Updated on February 25, 2010

Remember the scene in Mary Poppins when Mary and Bert embarked on a no-holds-barred merry-go-round romp? Therein lies the allure of these old-fashioned wooden menageries made up of fanciful horses, cats and ostriches. Intricately carved, delicately bejeweled and painstakingly painted, the "standers" and "jumpers" take us up, up and away, to a simpler time and place. You get to be a kid again. No one is in a bad mood on a carousel. And that includes the hesitant riders who opt for the stationary swan or cushioned chariot.

Carousels first appeared in medieval Europe, where simple center poles held whirling basket seats. Horses were added to simulate cavalry training. Production of so-called "antique" carousels began in the late 1880s and flourished until 1930. This period is considered the Golden Age of carousel production. Famous carvers and designers include Marcus Illions, Gustav Dentzel and Charles Looff and companies such as Philadelphia Toboggan and Hershell-Spillman. Each had their own particular style and technique.  Unfortunately, after the Great Depression, many carousels were abandoned, destroyed or dismantled. Today, about 200 carousels exist in North America.

Carousel enthusiasts travel the country to inspect and relish these works of art. Carousels these days are often lost in two ways: by fire or by auction. Sometimes carousels are auctioned off piece by piece. Then those prices are added together, along with a buyer's premium, and the carousel is sold as a unit. The cost? More than $1 million. And there's no guarantee that the carousel will remain intact once it's sold.

In fact, an authentic 1909 Illions giraffe can command upwards of $30,000; a Looff stander $50,000. (But don't worry, a Gustave Bayol jumping French pig, circa 1900, goes for a mere $7,000.) These high-end prices make it difficult for communities to keep their vintage carousels alive.

A spectacular restoration exists in Chattanooga, TN, where students of the legendary Horsin' Around carving school spent 10 years meticulously re-creating a 1895 Dentzel "menagerie" carousel, now situated in Coolidge Park along Chattanooga's riverfront. They had to rebuild the machine, a double-floor step-up. All the animals were carved, since the originals were long-gone. It was quite a project by lots of dedicated people.

In Soddy-Daisey, TN, headquarters of Horsin' Around, artists can create their own masterpieces. The teachers provide the rough model and teach students how to hand-carve with chisels and mallets. Another notable carving school is Carousel Magic!, where craftsmen and women can attend a five-day workshop through the Merry-Go-Round Museum in Sandusky, OH. Along with the Merry-Go-Round Museum, the vintage whirligigs are admired at the Hershell Carrousel Factory Museum in North Tonawanda, NY, the New England Carousel Museum in Bristol, CT, and the International Museum of Carousel Art in Hood River, OR.

Although the animals are certainly the primary focus of most carousels, there's a burgeoning interest in the original canopy buildings, the elaborately painted scenic panels, the neoclassical castings and the booming Wurtlizer band organs that, long ago, made sure everybody knew the carousel was twirling. And don't forget the group of carousel miniaturists who are dedicated to reproducing that lucky lead horse or jaunty giraffe.

Go ahead. Grab the brass ring... and enjoy the ride!


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