Try to call up a childhood memory of riding the merry-go-round: the lights, the mirrors, the band organ playing circus tunes. Do you remember what the horse you rode looked like, how well its musculature was delineated, or what was carved behind the saddle? Can you visualize the art on the structure itself, such as gargoyles and paintings of landscapes?
“The carousel carvers really let their chisels go wild here.”
You probably can’t recall the specific details, which is why you might not realize that some carousels are more magical than others. In a certain window of time, carousels were intricate, breathtaking works of kinetic art. And, like most things, over time new merry-go-rounds became standardized factory products. A handful of companies, such as The Carousel Works, are bringing the art of the hand-carved wooden merry-go-round back, but their unique artworks are outnumbered by the mold-made fiberglass carousels, which are cheaper and quicker to produce.
Today, the original antique carousels are endangered beasts. At the height of the Golden Age of Carousels (1890s-1920s), somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 hand-carved, hand-painted merry-go-rounds were spinning around the United States. Now, there are only 150 of these antique carousels in operation. And experts estimate that there are only a dozen left that could be restored to their full glory.
Part of the reason for that is the collectors’ market for hollow-bodied wood carousel animals as sculptures took hold about 40 years ago. It quickly became more lucrative to sell antique merry-go-rounds piecemeal rather than to restore an entire carousel, getting its mechanisms working, and bringing it up to modern safety standards. Rare antique animals, like the three-of-a-kind “Sneaky the Tiger” designed by master carver Charles I.D. Looff, sell for five figures today.
In response to this alarming trend, carousel lovers, preservationists, and history buffs got together in the 1970s and formed the National Carousel Association. Forty years later, the NCA is still advocating for full-carousel restoration, but has made peace with the collectors, who have also increased awareness about carousel history, knowledge of how the animals were made, and sometimes donated their collections to museums.
“Initially, our goal was to stop the breakup of carousels,” says Bette Largent, the association’s president. “The public wasn’t protesting the phenomenon at the time because most people lacked knowledge of carousel history. That is still a primary goal of ours. But we also accept the fact that those carousels that were broken up back then are broken up, and the collectors will have their own world. They collect them, they restore them, and they help us educate the public on topics like carving styles and so on.
“The collecting community was pretty active in the ’80s and early ’90s, when the value of the animals peaked, and then the prices started dropping, because the market was saturated,” she continues. “Because of our efforts, people were more aware of preserving the whole carousel. So instead of collecting the individual figures, the more affluent are collecting the entire carousel, keeping it intact.”
“There’s something special about the emotional bond that people have with these things. They’re not just chunks of wood.”
The name “carousel” derives from “carosello,” an Italian word for “little war,” referring to a medieval game Turkish soldiers used to play on horseback. They’d form a circle and toss a perfume-filled ball at one another, trying to keep the ball from bursting. After the Crusades, English and German soldiers brought this concept home, but adopted it as a way to train knights on spearing with their lances. Eventually, European armies came up with a hand-pushed mechanism, featuring four saddles hanging from a cross, and boys who wanted to become knights would ride it to practice spearing a metal ring with their lances.
By the 1800s, hand-cranked and horse-driven carousels were built exclusively for amusement, with hand-carved wooden horses, and the inventions of steam and electric power only made these rides more enticing. Spearing practice became a game to grab a metal ring, and if the ring you grabbed was made of brass, traditionally, you’d win a free ride.
It wasn’t until these European craftsmen made their way to the United States in the late 1800s, that they really had the time and resources (as in, vast acres of virgin forests) to explore this art form to its fullest. Master carvers took the opportunity to express their whimsy in wood.
“They really let their chisels go wild here,” says Pam Hessey, a professional artist who runs Hawk’s Eye Studio in Kingman, Arizona, and restores carousel animals for both individual collectors and merry-go-rounds at parks. “In America, we have carousels with tigers, lions, giraffes, camels, cats, dogs, and pigs. In Europe, the French were the only ones that really put non-horse ‘menagerie’ animals on their carousels, mostly for smaller kids. And they didn’t move up and down. The French animals stayed static on a flat platform that spun around.”
The carvers that immigrated to America took special care to make their horses believable, with the muscles, movement, and facial expressions of the horses they knew.
“The men who carved these saw a lot of different horses every day, they knew horses intimately,” Hessey says. “Outside their carving studio, dray horses pulling wagons would be going by all day long, and the carvers would see people riding through the park. Master carousel carver Marcus Illions had a favorite horse that was an Arabian, and a lot of his pieces looked very much like an Arabian, with that fire and vitality that the breed has.
“Zoos were just starting, so the carvers were able to see tigers, lions, camels, and giraffes,” Hessey continues. “They would go study these exotic creatures and make drawings to carve them from. Illions got especially close to these animals. He had run away from his home country, Prussia, because he was about to be drafted. In England, he got a job with a showman who intended to bring his show and a carousel to America. The animals that were in the circus boarded the ship with them. Crossing the Atlantic to New York City, Illions was in the belly of the ship with these animals, still carving their portraits for the carousel.”
Often, the most elaborate carousels were designed for parks at the end of trolley lines. These parks, which also featured live pony rides and band shells for live music, were popular during Victorian and Edwardian times, when workers only had Sundays to amuse themselves.
“The early carousels were pretty risqué for a Victorian woman to ride,” Hessey explains. “Of course, she’d sit side-saddle, but her suitor would be able to hold on to her waist to steady her while the carousel went around and look at her ankle, which was exposed. The carousel also had chariots for the faint of heart or the older women who didn’t want to climb up onto a horse.”
Three distinct styles of carousels were born in America: Two for permanent park carousels, and one for merry-go rounds built to travel with carnivals from town to town, across the countryside. The styles can be distinguished by not only the bodies, manes, and tails of the horses, but also the embellishments of their trappings—the harnesses, saddle blankets, and any other ornamentation, such as hoods or small creatures lurking behind the cantles, the raised backs of saddles.
“Country-fair style is very basic,” says Hessey, explaining that Charles W. Parker and Herschell-Spillman dominated the carnival market. “These carousels were made to be taken apart easily, and the animals themselves are a bit primitive-looking, like folk art. The animals often had parallel legs so that they could be taken off the machine, put onto a long board, and transported to the next country fair. They’re small, compact, and fairly simple in trappings. The really early ones had sulphide-marble eyes instead of glass eyes.”
“There were three companies in Philadelphia—the Dentzel Company, Muller Company, and then the Philadelphia Toboggan Company—that made park carousels,” she continues. “Philadelphia style is the most classic and realistic, and the carousels got very complex and detailed over the years. And they often did not have any glass-paste jewels on them.
“I’m blessed with a machine designed when Looff didn’t care if people broke the horses’ legs.”
“Which is a contrast to the Coney Island style, which was very flamboyant, with complicated, bejeweled trappings and sometimes even gold-leaf manes and tails,” Hessey says. Marcus Illions, W.F. Mangels, Charles Carmel, Stein & Goldstein, and the Looff Company were all based in Coney Island, New York. “Illions’ horses often have flying manes as if they were running and leaping. Looffs have wind-swept manes with a lot of detail and tendrils.”
The way the animals moved on carousels evolved over the years, too. Horses on the earliest carousels hung from chains or poles, and as the carousel turned, the horses would fly out from the center. This “flying horses” concept became the basis for the modern chair-swing ride. Later, a revolving platform was added to the bottom of carousels, and the animals and their poles would be affixed to it. Finally, another mechanism was invented that allowed animals connected to the platform to move up and down.
“At first, platform carousels held standing animals, with three or four feet on the platform, and prancing animals, with two feet on the platform, and two feet up,” Hessey says. “When the jumping mechanism was patented in the United States, many standers and prancers were sent back to the factories. Their legs were cut off, and jumping legs were put on. Some of them look quite awkward because if the musculature of the original animal was made for a standing animal, and you put jumping legs on it, it looks cramped. New or restyled carousels would have standing animals outside and jumping animals on the inside row or inside two rows.”
“Early carousels were pretty risqué for a Victorian woman to ride.”
The detail and decoration the carvers put into a carousel often depended on what the operator was willing to pay for. The amount of embellishments on each horse—and specifically, the side of a horse—was also determined by what a viewer looking at the carousel from the outside would see. Horses on the outside row, usually standers, would be the most decorated; and the side of the horse facing the crowd, known as the “romance side,” would be more elaborate than the other side.
Because English merry-go-rounds go clockwise to imitate proper riding style, the “romance side” of their carousel animals is the left. In America, the carousels turn counter-clockwise, so that it is easier for right-handed riders to try and grab a metal ring in the brass-ring game. For this reason, the romance side of an American carousel animal is the right.
“Around the turn of the century, craftsmanship was everything,” Hessey says. “And early American carousels have an amazing amount of craftsmanship into them. On these pieces, the side facing the crowd has a lot of detail. The reverse side is often fairly simple because that’s not the side that you see until you’ve already paid your nickel to get onto the carousel. But a lot of the reverse sides of these animals are incredibly fancy for what they needed to be. There will be a lock of the mane on the other side of the neck that was beautifully carved, and there’s no reason that it needed to be that detailed except that the carvers were into craftsmanship. They were making art.”
“He found the animal on the carousel and put his hands on it. He walked away in tears.”
The Shelburne Museum in Vermont displays the animals from a 1902 Gustav Dentzel carousel, with original paint, and when Shelburne founder Electra Havemeyer Webb purchased the carousel for the museum in the 1950s, she stipulated that it should not be ridden. The Dentzel animals are displayed as individual sculptures, but lined up as they would be on the carousel platforms. (The museum also has a Herschell-Spillman country-fair carousel from the 1920s, which visitors are encouraged to ride.)
“The animals on the outside row, they’re the fanciest part,” says Rick Kerschner, a conservator at the Shelburne Museum who has been overseeing the Dentzel animals for 30 years. “Even the non-romance side is fancier than the animals’ on the inside rows. An animal on the outside row will have the mane carved on both sides of the head. Whereas the ones in the very inside row, the non-romance side won’t have the mane carved because nobody sees it except the operator who’s standing. And of course, that’s labor-saving and money-saving. The public didn’t demand that they be fully carved on that side.
“Of course, you have three different sizes, too,” Kerschner continues. “Your outside horse is the largest, and your inside horse is the smallest because it’s in a smaller circle radius. To fit the same number of horses around, if you’re doing ranks of three or four, the inside horse has to be smaller.” Shelburne curator Kory Rogers explains it this way, “Because it was a three-abreast carousel, which means you had three of these animals next to each other on the platform, you tend to have the larger father animal on the outside, the mother in the middle, and then the child closest to the center of the merry-go-round.”
Even though the Shelburne’s Dentzel has three giraffes, three deer, three goats, a lion, and a tiger, the menagerie animals are way outnumbered by the horses (about two dozen horses in this case), which is true of all antique menagerie carousels. That’s why those animals are coveted by collectors.
Besides menagerie animals, one of the most collectible creatures on a carousel is the lead horse, which is the showpiece of the machine. “Often, a carousel has an extremely fancy horse, and sometimes the company would sign it or it would have a banner going across the chest that would say ‘Philadelphia Toboggan Company,’ that kind of thing,” Hessey says.
Like any antique, the artistry of a Golden Era carousel also serves as a time capsule, reflecting the sensibility of the decade it was made in. “Many of the immigrant carvers were classically trained, and they brought their nation’s personality, their style of folk art and color schemes, to the carousels,” says Bette Largent of the National Carousel Association, who restored and now manages a 1909 Looff carousel in Spokane. “Then, as the carvers progressed in creating the American style, they also followed the colors that were popular of the day. The early ones had a Victorian look; the horses were painted in dark colors and lavished with braid and paste jewels.
“That evolved into simpler designs,” she continues. “You have Arts and Crafts-style and Art Deco-style carousels. Mass production came along in the form of carving machines. Most of the makers were very good businessmen, and they knew how quickly they needed to produce it and what the cost was. I’m blessed with a machine that was designed when Looff didn’t care if people broke the horses’ legs climbing onboard. He liked the look artistically, so I had to repair a lot of legs in the restoration process. In the 1910s, the horses’ legs got more stretched out so the kids couldn’t climb on them.”
Italian carver Salvatore Cernigliaro, who worked for the Dentzel Company, specialized in carving figures like gargoyles on the side of animals, chariots, and the carousel’s decorative trim. Company owner and master carver Gustav Dentzel was known for making particularly realistic animals, so his 1902 carousel animals at the Shelburne have authentic touches, like real reindeer antlers on the deer.
“When you think about it, if you tried to carve antlers of wood, you know the kids are going to jump up and down on the deer, grab the antlers, and break them off,” Kerschner says. “What could be stronger than real reindeer antlers? They never broke at all in the 50 years the carousel was in operation. And Dentzel carvers went to the knacker and got horsehair tails for these horses, which have also lasted more than 100 years.”
The trappings on a carousel animal might have a specific theme such as a knight’s horse. When King Tut’s tomb was opened in 1922, Egyptian-themed animals like sphinxes and camels became popular.
“The Muller brothers, who also were from the German-area of Pennsylvania and worked with Dentzel, developed military-style carousel horse,” Largent says. “Some of the early military horses had roots back to the Civil War. The flag horse, that came about after World War I in 1918, when Americans were very patriotic and everybody was flying their flags at home. When Charles Looff moved to California in 1910, he was fascinated with this area and all its fruits and flora. A lot of his horses from the period had flowers and fruits on the back of the saddles.”
And the animals were not the only piece of artistry on these antique carousels. The rounding boards placed outside the carousel’s upper frame, as well as the scenery panels covering the machines inner turning mechanisms, were painted with lush landscapes and adorned with lights, mirrors, and sometimes wooden relief sculptures.
“This spring, I researched August Wolfinger, one of the illustrators that painted the rounding boards in Coney Island,” Largent says. “There’s so little known about Wolfinger, and he was probably the forerunner of what they call banner art or sign painting. Almost all of his rounding boards were based on the popular illustrators from Harper’s Weekly. In the old days before computers, commercial illustrators would have a file of magazine clippings to refer to. Some were almost identical to Frederic Remington’s illustrations, and some of them went back to the hunting scenes that were first published in England. Obviously, the style of these rounding boards was based on the customer’s interest, but I was able to trace almost every single one of them to Harper’s.”
Park carousels were often accompanied by self-playing band organs by the likes of Wurlitzer and A. Ruth & Sohn, which blared loud popular music while the merry-go-round spun. These elaborate hand-carved machines, which often feature wooden automatons moving to the music, were works of kinetic art themselves.
“Whereas a calliope is run by steam, the band organs were run by air,” Hessey says. “They have big leather bellows in them and a roll—or a folding book of cards—that’s punctured with little holes. When the roll or cards would move over certain openings, the holes would open certain pipes and send air out to, say, the little conductor figure that was out front, whose baton would move up and down with the time of the music that was being played. It’s amazing to watch one work.”
The country-fair carousels, produced by Herschell-Spillman Company in upstate New York, and C.W. Parker in Abilene, Kansas, were far more simple. In fact, the design of the horses tends to be fairly uniform and resemble pieces of folk art. But Parker’s system for moving these horses was quite innovative.
“In the early 1900s through the 1920s, Parker had amusement parks that took up whole trains,” Largent says. “When these trains pulled up, they arrived with the full setup. They had machines that not only unloaded the complete carnival, but also generated the electricity for the lights and machines. General Dwight Eisenhower, who grew up Abilene, Kansas, got his ideas for moving the troops during World War II based on what Parker did. Eisenhower said, ‘If a carnival can move and set up every night, we can move troops in this war that way.'”
For all its innovation, the Golden Age of hand-carved carousels was bound to come to an end. In the 1910s, World War I and a series of forest fires created a shortage of carveable wood like basswood, while natural disasters like floods or fires took many of the early carousels.
“The carousels at the end of trolley lines were often at the ocean shore or near a river,” Hessey says. “Hurricanes and floods wiped out a lot of them. Others were consumed by fires because they had a lot of grease and probably some kind of poorly rigged electrical wires. Or a rat would chew through wire, causing a fire when the park owners started the carousel up.”
And the carousel started to fall out of fashion in the 1920s, as roller coasters and other thrill rides spread to amusement parks all over the country. Most towns with these quaint Victorian trolley parks existed thanks to factories, and these parks would be shut down as factories closed and cars grew more common. But the nail in the coffin was the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929.
“A value of a carousel just prior to the crash was $25,000,” Largent explains. “By 1931, the owner would be lucky to get $2,500 out of that same carousel. The Great Depression affected the carousel companies like anybody else. When you have extra money, you go to amusement parks, but if you don’t what do you do? You purchase the essentials—food, clothing, transportation.”
Only the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, the Herschell-Spillman Company, and C.W. Parker kept making carousels through the 1930s.
“During the Great Depression, a lot of the parks just shut down because they couldn’t afford to run,” Hessey says. “The property owners want to clear it out and put in something more lucrative. And they just bulldozed the whole park, including the carousel. Otherwise, the carousel buildings were closed up and often used for storage. The people that were running the carousel companies had to find something else to feed their family with. They carved woodwork for churches or they used their skills in some other way. And they didn’t have the wherewithal to start up the company again when the economy recovered.”
While merry-go-rounds didn’t hold the same thrill for adults as they had in the Victorian days, they were still popular amusements for children, as well as the elderly, who couldn’t handle the newfangled thrill rides.
“After we crawled out of the Great Depression, amusement companies started making carousels again, with animals with wooden bodies and cast-aluminum heads and legs,” Hessey says. “Obviously, during World War II, the war effort needed all the metals, and so the companies stopped making carousel animals again.”
When the war ended in 1945, new carousel companies got going, this time, making horses from cast-aluminum, and then fiberglass—the first modern-day carousels most commonly seen at county fairs and carnivals now.
“Oftentimes, the fiberglass-carousel companies took a mold from an antique wooden horse and then put more flowers on it or more trappings and cast it,” Hessey says. “The modern ones don’t have band organs; they have recorded music. And the machinery is a little different on the newer carousels.”
Antique merry-go-rounds didn’t come into focus again until the carousel animals became collectible in the 1970s. When they became valuable, owners decided it was worth it to dig them out from their shuttered buildings.
“There was a really beautiful antique carousel by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company in Burlington, Colorado, whose building was shut up,” Hessey says. “It had been used to store hay for years and years. The animals were covered with dirt and chunks of hay that stuck to the varnish, and rats had taken up living inside of their bodies. The whole carousel was just trashed. When the city decided to clear all the hay out and run it, they realized, “Oh my gosh, this thing is a mess!’ But it turned out to be a real jewel because it had original paint on it.”
According to Rick Kerschner, it’s particularly rare for an antique carousel to have only its original layer of paint, as the 1902 Dentzel carousel animals at the Shelburne do.
“As these carousels were used over the years, they’d repaint them often in what they call ‘park paint,’ which is just house paint that the maintenance crew used to spruce up the park.” Kerschner says. “Usually, when people say operating carousels are ‘all original paint,’ what they mean is that they’ve gone down through the many layers of paint and found out what the colors were. Then they repaint them to look like the original paint as best as they can determine. Ours actually never had any park paint on them. There’s only one layer of paint, which is very unusual.”
“A lock of the mane on the other side of the neck might be beautifully carved, and there’s no reason that it needed to be.”
But the Shelburne made a misstep with the animals. “Starting around 1960, the folks at the museum were putting linseed oil on them,” Kerschner says. “They had learned from other museums that you put linseed oil on wooden artifacts to feed the wood and to keep it from cracking. But that’s not true. We’ve since learned that linseed oil is a terrible thing to put on artifacts. In fact, when you put them on painted artifacts, it does nothing but get darker and darker. Over the years – they did this for about 20 years – it got so dark that you couldn’t see any of the original colors.”
So 20-some years ago, the Shelburne conservation staff started cleaning off the linseed oil, which Kerschner says looks like “tobacco juice.” Using Q-tip and solvents, a Shelburne summer intern needs a full two months to completely clean one animal. The interns finish cleaning two animals a year, and now only six out of 40 are left. Around 10 years ago, Kerschner and his team approached the board members, and asked them to “adopt” a carousel animal. For $2,000, a board member got to name the animal and watch its restoration process. Eventually, the price of adoption was raised to $2,500 an animal, and now the only Dentzel “orphans” left are the chariots and rounding boards.
At Hawk’s Eye Studio, Hessey does restoration for private collectors, who let her know whether they want the animals to look brand-new or antiqued and worn. Depending on what they want, she might repair the wood and seams, prime the animal, and repaint it—unless it has original paint and she’s talked the owner into keeping it.
She’s also worked on antique merry-go-rounds at parks open to the public like the 1911 Herschell-Spillman carousel at Tilden Park in Berkeley, California; the 1914 Herschell-Spillman at Golden Gate Park and the 1906 Looff at the Children’s Creativity Museum, both in San Francisco.
But Hessey understands why an amusement park would go with a brand new carousel instead of choosing to restore an antique carousel, which are much more high-maintenance. It’s difficult to get an antique carousel to meet modern Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, for example.
“It takes a certain kind of park and kind of owner to want to deal with all the red tape of keeping up an antique carousel,” Hessey says. “A lot of the animals have pointy things, like real antlers, that wouldn’t be allowed these days. Kids could put their eye out on those if they’re not careful. The owners either have to take the antlers off or round them off so that they aren’t as sharp. Most antique carousels didn’t have safety belts on them for kids, and some operators put safety belts on them. They’d wrap them around the pole that goes through the carousel animal, but it’s fairly uncomfortable for a little kid to be belted on that close to the pole. The carousels that have been around since late 1800s to the early 1900s, they had round buildings with no fence between the spinning carousel and the crowd, which is considered a hazard now.
“The men that carved these saw a lot of different horses every day, and they knew horses intimately.”
“One real issue about the antique carousels is that you have to make them available to people in wheelchairs,” she continues. “And how do you do that? You have to buy a lift to get them up onto the carousel. Then you take off an animal or the chariot, and that would be where the wheelchair would be put on. But since carousel platforms hang from the center pole, if you have weight on one side and not on the other, it can wobble. So they have to figure out a way to weigh the platform in the area where they were going to clip the wheelchair.”
Plus, when you put an antique to use, it’s at risk for a lot more wear-and-tear. According to Kerscher, the antique animals on the Shelburne Museum’s operating 1920s Herschell-Spillman carousel have to be repaired frequently, to replace chipped or scratched paint and pieces that have snapped off. Climate control is important, too. To keep an antique wooden carousel in top condition, it needs both heat in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer.
But Largent says there are plenty of carousel animals now preserved in museums. When an antique carousel is restored to full working order, it always proves worth it, as artists like Hessey and Largent can attest. For example, Hessey remembers touching up a carousel in Denver. The park had closed the carousel for the repairs.
“A mom came with her kid and he said, ‘Look, she’s painting on Blackie!’” Hessey says. “This kid knew a specific animal, because he came to ride it all the time. Since I had not painted anything on the saddle, I let his mom sit him on the animal. He was so happy, just beaming. He said, ‘I just love Blackie. He’s my favorite.’ Watching this kid smile like that, and the mom beaming, too, it was wonderful.
“Another time, I was working on a carousel and a young man came in with a picture of his dad, who had been riding the carousel just days before he shipped out for World War II,” she continues. “His dad was killed in the war. He was a baby when his dad died, so he wanted to come and see the animal and feel closer to his dad that way. He found the animal on the carousel, and he just sat and put his hands on it for a long time. Then he thanked me and walked away in tears.”
Unfortunately, people who remember riding these antique carousels in the 1920s and have personal nostalgia about the merry-go-rounds of their childhood, are reaching their 80s and 90s and passing away. As a result, the animal-collecting fervor has died down, but the remaining antique machines are at risk of extinction.
“When I go out and give lectures, I gather stories,” Largent says. “Some people just make you cry with their memories. We tend to erase the bad memories. If you talk to people about the Depression, they don’t remember the bad times; they remember the good times. And that’s what carousels are about, the good times. Let’s respect the carousels because our grandmothers’ good memories are there.”
Hessey agrees. “There’s something special about the emotional bond that people have with these things. They’re not just chunks of wood.”
(To learn more about the history of carousels and operating antique merry-go-rounds in the United States, visit the National Carousel Association’s thorough resource site, carousels.org. Or you can explore the carousel-animal restoration process step-by-step at Pam Hessey’s Hawk’s Eye Studio site. To learn more about the Shelburne Museum, visit the museum’s web page or Flickr page, or the Dentzel Carousel’s Facebook page.)