Quote: “The earliest carousel is known from a Byzantine Empire bas-relief dating to around 500 A.D., which depicts riders in baskets suspended from a central pole. The word carousel originates from the Italian garosello and Spanish carosella (“little war”), used by crusaders to describe a combat preparation exercise and game played by Turkish and Arabian horsemen in the 1100s. In a sense this early device could be considered a cavalry training mechanism; it prepared and strengthened the riders for actual combat as they wielded their swords at the mock enemies. European Crusaders discovered this contraption and brought the idea back to own their lands, primarily the ruling lords and kings. There the carousel was kept secret within the castle walls, to be used for training by horsemen; no carousel was allowed out in the public.”
Royalty, loving their amusements and clever gadgets of exotic origin, had to have carousels of their own and contrived to have some small versions built for them in their private gardens. Here contests centered around the carousels were held among the court and those Chatty Cathies were so delighted this “secret training device” soon became a popular entertainment.
Quote: The contests were tests of dexterity and equestrian skill involving the tossing of fragile perfumed clay balls from one rider to another. The object of the game was to deftly catch the delicate balls to avoid the unmanly mark of the loser — a bath of sweetly scented fragrance (which reportedly lasted for days).
The popular games spread to France; and, by the sixteenth century, they had expanded into lavish tournaments of pageantry and drama called Carrousels. Designers, wigmakers, seamstresses and artisans of the court spent months preparing elaborate costumes and decorations for these spectacles. Le Grande Carrousel, the most celebrated of all Carrousels, was planned by Louis XIV in 1662, to impress his young mistress, Louise de la Valliere. Cheered by thousands and heralded by choirs and trumpet fanfares, quadrilles of cavaliers demonstrated their equestrian talents as allegorical dances and scenic displays were performed.
In the late seventeenth century, young French noblemen, astride legless wooden ‘horses’, trained for spearing contests by lancing rings as they rode around a center pole. This training device appears to be the forerunner of our present day carousel and its game of ‘catching the brass ring.’ As the ride evolved into a popular form of entertainment, French peasants paid to ride crudely constructed carousels, while the aristocracy circled in elegant seats resembling fancy chariots, bicycles, or boats.
Until the late nineteenth century, rotation power was supplied by a horse, mule, or man pushing, pulling, or cranking the mechanism. The amusement flourished in England, and it was there that the invention of steam as a motive power revolutionized the development of the carousel.”
-Charlotte Dinger, from Art of the Carousel as reprinted in FMR magazine, 1991.
The carousel proved an extremely popular part of local fairs and circuses all over industrialized Europe, and eventually America (where, thanks to an influx of skilled European carvers, the form reached its pinnacle). In as much the device went by many names. Quote: From caroussels and maneges de chevaux de bois in France to the United Kingdom where they were called roundabouts, gallopers, and tilts. In the Netherlands they were called stoomcaroussels and torneos in Italy while in Germany they called them karussels. By the time they reached the United States they were being called everything from flying horses to carousels, whirligigs and steam riding galleries, carry-us-alls and flying and Spinning Jennies, not to mention hobby horses, and, of course, merry-go-rounds.”
In Europe carousel figures took on a dizzying array of shapes and styles. There were pigs, ostriches, roosters, elephants, chariots, dragons, lions, dogs, cats, warhorses, sea horses, mermaids, fish, centaurs, camels, and on and on. In America it seems the classic horse was the vastly preferred form, perhaps owing to a fondness for our own “wild west” legends or perhaps because even then our children were coddled imaginationless little twerps, and carousel owners didn’t want to scare away the customers.
One side of carousel animals was generally more elaborately carved and decorated than the other. The side facing outward, which was called the “romance side.” On American carousel animals this is the right side because our carousels always move in a counter-clockwise direction, where as English roundabout horses move clockwise.
A few more design tidbits are as follows:
Quote: “The fast-moving platform provided a forward thrust that determined the action of the animals. Figures in static poses were meant for young children, who were strapped into position. The other figures, usually on the outer rim of the platform, were designed for more daring riders, and the brass ring also attracted older children to the outside positions. In later years, the up-and-down action of the animals provided an extra thrill.
Softwoods, especially white and yellow pine, were most suitable for the carrousel animals. Pine was easily worked, and greater speed of execution meant the figures could be produced quickly in great numbers. Little sanding or polishing was necessary in the detailing of the head, mane, and tail portions. the rounded areas of the body which required sanding were turned over to assistants and apprentices. Finally, the figure was ready for painting and gilding. These carrousel animals received the same bright-colored treatment as the circus wagons. Frequent refurbishing was necessary to maintain their attractiveness, and often much of the original intention of the artist was obscured.”
-From Treasury of American Design, 1950.
And what of those largely anonymous men who actually carved these beasts? What would they think about the fact that all these years after the carousel’s golden age, owing largely to scarcity, their functional handiwork has been elevated by collectors and historians to an art form?
Quote: “Some of the artists and carvers worked alone, or ran small studios and carving shops. Others were employed in the factories and workshops of the roundabout manufacturers. The degree of creative license allowed by their customers or their employers varied, but in every case their art was strictly functional. With few exceptions these artists and carvers saw themselves as craftsmen and certainly their income largely reflected their comparatively humble status. The fact that their work is now perceived to be ‘art’ would have surprised many of their number, but no doubt would have delighted them all.”
-Geoff Weedon and Richard Ward from Fairground Art, 1981.
Though I’ve only just skimmed the historical surface here I hope you enjoyed.
The images from this post are all from the following sources:
Fairground Art by Geoff Weedon and Richard Ward.
FMR magazine 53, Vol XI. Photos by John Lei.
Treasury of American Design by Clarence P. Hornung.
American Memory Collection page for the Glen Echo Park, Dentzel Carousel.
For more on carousels see: