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Carousels In America - Things You Didn't Know

Updated on February 17, 2017
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Ms. Inglish has 30 years experience in medicine, psychology, STEM instruction, history, and aerospace education for USAF Civil Air Patrol.

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Carousels I Remember

  • First, I remembered having trouble climbing up onto a carousel horse and hanging on to it as it moved up and down in a simulated lope on an ancient merry-go-round at the tiny Gooding Amusement Park on the grounds of the old Columbus Zoo. My head only came to the bottom of the stirrup at the time.
  • The second thing I recalled was the wonderful children's chapter book published in 1950: Prance, a Carousel Horse. It's about talking carousel horses after their ride was dismantled, and their lives afterwards.
  • The third item that came to mind was an old amusement park in eastern Pennsylvania, which was turned into a shopping mall. The carousel horses were removed from the ride and hung from the ceiling of the mall in an amusement park décor. I thought it odd and sad that the park had been completely eliminated for retail sales, but enjoyed the décor.
  • Now a fourth wonderful thing to consider is an old video of a 14-year-old Wayne Newton singing on the Lawrence Welk Show on a carousel. Ladies in wide skirts held long, wide ribbons attached to a May Pole rig near which Wayne sang, and the women and their beaus danced the circumference of a carousel-like set during the song. The dancers rose up and then bent their knees in accompaniment to the music, appearing like carousel characters. It was fun to watch.

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My favorite character, a black charger,  on the famous Illions-Mangels carousel at the old Columbus Zoo. First located at Olentangy Park in Clintonville not far from the end of the train line in the Short North (park is now an apartment complex)Carousel at Night
My favorite character, a black charger,  on the famous Illions-Mangels carousel at the old Columbus Zoo. First located at Olentangy Park in Clintonville not far from the end of the train line in the Short North (park is now an apartment complex)
My favorite character, a black charger, on the famous Illions-Mangels carousel at the old Columbus Zoo. First located at Olentangy Park in Clintonville not far from the end of the train line in the Short North (park is now an apartment complex) | Source
Carousel at Night
Carousel at Night | Source
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Carousels and Crusades

In the Middle Eastern nations such as Persia (Iraq), Arabia, and others of around 300 AD, a sport was played by horsemen of the military and royal families in order to hone their skills for war.

The sport involved horses galloping at full speed with riders spearing their lances through small rings attached to nearby trees. It is what Europeans made into jousting tournaments later in history, but without the element of lancing another horseman. The Latin-based language speakers called the activity little war or carosella in their languages.

Europeans marched into the East during the Crusades and marched back with ideas about this Middle Eastern sport that was based on war. It became a children's game as well, though still based on war and competition.

The French named the activity carrousel and built a contraption in order to confine the area of the sport and game, operating the device on steam power. An added feature was "grabbing the brass ring" from a pole at the outside of the circle of the carousel. Success became a ticket for a free ride or a confection. America took these ideas and expanded them.

Visit the National Carousel Association online and learn more about how America's 150 carousels are preserved.

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Real Carousel Horses

  • Carousel Center Mall: 9090 Carousel Center Drive; Syracuse, NY 13290
  • Buyer's Guide and Fakes Warning - Carousel.Com. Life size, miniatures, antiques, tag sales.
  • The World Carousel Center - Duane Perron, owner. 4647 Lost Lake Road, Hood River.

American Carousel Man

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The San Francisco Zoo, founded in 1929, houses a historic Dentzel Carousel built by William H. Dentzel in 1921. It is intricately hand-carved wood throughout. Since the 1930s carousel animals were metal and fiberglass, but this is wood.Photos public domain, US National Park Service.
The San Francisco Zoo, founded in 1929, houses a historic Dentzel Carousel built by William H. Dentzel in 1921. It is intricately hand-carved wood throughout. Since the 1930s carousel animals were metal and fiberglass, but this is wood.
The San Francisco Zoo, founded in 1929, houses a historic Dentzel Carousel built by William H. Dentzel in 1921. It is intricately hand-carved wood throughout. Since the 1930s carousel animals were metal and fiberglass, but this is wood.
Photos public domain, US National Park Service.
Photos public domain, US National Park Service.

The USA entered the carousel design business with much gusto and innovation, Bigger, better, more characters than just horses. Some of the carousels' horses did not move up and down (finally, I would no longer fall off). Love seats and benches were added to the merry-go-rounds for adults to enjoy as well, especially if they wanted to keep an eye on the kids on the ride.

Carnivals and circuses all featured a merry-go-round or carousel in the later 1800s and early 1900s. Trolley Parks that hosted carousels and other rides were built at the end of the line of many trolley car lines, in order to gain amusement business. This lasted until the Great Depression. After World War II, America saw the return of the carousel to small carnivals and large circus midways. Zoos often enjoyed attached carnivals and midways as well. By the late 1960s, our giant amusement parks included them.

Mr. Gustav Dentzel developed what came to be known as the modern carousel in America during the American Civil War in the 1860s. This was the era in which my great grandfather fought in the Union Army and was preparing to work on the construction of the National Road in western Ohio. After the Civil War, the carousel was popular and after WWII they became popular once again.

The International Museum of Carousel Art works to being stored carousels out of retirement in order to restore them physically and to return them to active use. Once all hand carved from high quality woods, the characters were later made of metals and peeling paints that cheapened the concept of the carousel horse. Cheap metal and plastic toys worsened the image.

By the 1950s and 1960s, many grocery stores had a single mechanical horse ride, coin operated, just outside their entrances. The ride lasted about 60 seconds and kids screamed for nickels and dimes and later, quarters and 50-cent pieces for these machines.

However, in the latter 20th century, a new interest in antique and other high quality workmanship returned.

Carousel History in Mid-Michigan

The Midland Center for the Arts had reported on fine arts and craftsmanship for over 40 years and has made relevant presentations to the public. One of these is "Carousels: Art & Science in Motion."

The display travels around the country and is owned by Carol and Duane Perron, who live in Oregon with 1,000+ carousel animals and a museum.

As carousels became electrically powered with generators in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were easier to set up and tear down in America. Mid Michigan, particularly Saginaw, came to have several Trolley Parks at the end of its trolley car lines. The parks contained carousels and other money-making amusements that built business on formerly quiet weekends.

Carousel popularity continues until The Great Depression, when they passed out of affordability. They came back after World War II and declined with the advent of the giant amusement park, althought hey were still featured as kids' rides. Today, they are museum pieces, although a few antique carousels have been restored and returned to the carnival, the circus, and the zoo across the USA.

An older covered carousel is still available at the Children's Zoo in Celebration Square in Saginaw. Michigan.

Wooden horses.
Wooden horses. | Source

Carousel Wood Carving Styles in America

Wooden horse awaiting restoration.
Wooden horse awaiting restoration. | Source
  • Philadelphia:Characters are larger - strong and realistic. Carved by men from Germany in Philadelphia's Germantown. The first firm was begun by wood carver Gustav Dentzel. The German craftsmanship was also used for other wooden products in Philadelphia: cuckoo clocks, sleds, toboggans, and many others.
  • Coney Island: Characters are thinner and stylized, more like cartoon characters or even murals.
  • County Fair: Characters are much smaller, with very slender bodies, because they were made to be dismantled moved weekly. They are more like toys. The Herschell-Spillman Company of North Tonawanda, NY is the most famous of these manufacturers, featured at the New York State Museum (see photo above).

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Horses are not the only animals used on carousels.
Horses are not the only animals used on carousels.
Horses are not the only animals used on carousels. | Source

Carousel Preservation

Flying Horses! - in Martha's Vineyard

The Flying Horse Carousel at Watch Hill is purportedly oldest among American platform-style carousels, or so it states in the National Historic Register of the United States. Once hand cranked, it is now motoized.

A decade after the Civil War, in 1879, one of the popular post-war traveling carnivals broke down at Watch Hill. The owners had to move on and leave their carousel at Watch Hill, which evolved to Martha's Vineyard and a prosperous tourist Mecca. It is on display there now in the 21st century.

© 2009 Patty Inglish MS

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