You can’t deny that there’s something a bit magical about a merry-go-round.
Sure, now that I’ve grown up it’s not as fun to ride one of the dancing horses that seem to plunge and leap as the carousel spins around to outdated organ music, but when I was a kid? Oh man. I always wanted to ride the prettiest horse I could find, preferably on the outside so I could grab the ring as I went flying by and throw it at the opening a few feet further down the track.
Of course, carousels today are simply rides at amusement parks all over the country, but 1,000 years ago a “carosella” or “little war” was a game Arabian and Turkish horseman played on horseback.
When the Italian and Spanish Crusaders spotted the Arabian and Turkish horseman participating in this game, they brought it back to Europe and began playing it themselves. As the years went on, it transitioned into a fancy display of horsemanship that the French eventually dubbed “carrousel.”
One of the main events of the carrousel was the ring-spearing tournament. The rider or charioteer would gallop toward a small ring hanging from a tree or pole by ribbons, hoping to spear it with his lance.
About 300 years ago, a device was built in France that allowed people to train for ring-spearing. The device was “made of carved horses and chariots that were suspended by chains from arms radiating from a center pole," according to the International Museum of Carousel Art.
It’s more than likely that the carousel we know and love started there. In the late 1700s, there were many carousels around Europe that were built for pleasure. They were small and lightweight, and mules, horses or men powered the rotation.
The Oldest Existing Carousel
The world’s oldest carousel is located in Hanau, Germany, and was built in 1780. It outdates the carousels built in the United States by 100 years. It was built for Prince Wilhelm IX of Hessen-Kassel and was partially funded by supplying Hessian soldiers to England. A 1780 report stated "the ladies ride in gilded carriages of the gods, which Juno herself would not have been ashamed to ride, while the men ride on similarly outfitted horses."
The Hanau carousel originally featured two chariots with horses pulling them and two riding horses. It was rebuilt in 1882 and now has four chariots, each with two horses, and two pairs of riding horses. Men powered the original carousel, but after the 1882 restoration, the story goes that the power source switched to a horse and a blind mule circling under the platform.
Franz Ludwig Cancrin designed the carousel and the building in which it’s currently housed. Cancrin was a mining engineer and used his expertise to create the mechanism. He built an artificial hill under the carousel and large mill spokes radiate outward to turn the horses and chariots. The floor is made of three parts: an outside walkway that is connected to the outside columns and pillars, a stationary inner platform, and a narrow 14-centimeter circle between the fixed elements that moves. The horses and chariots sit on the band, and the inner platform hangs from the roof and does not connect to the ground structure.
Of course, after 200 years, the roof and platform have shifted enough that the elements grind together, and the carousel hasn’t operated since 1932. However, restoration efforts began on Sept. 30 after several years of fundraising.
Gustav Dentzel was the first person to being building carousels in the United States in the 1860s. He moved to the United States as a cabinet-maker from Germany when he was 20, but his father had carved carousel horses, and he soon took up the trade in his new home.
Soon hundreds of carousels began popping up in amusement parks all over the country.
Carousels had their glory days until the 1930s, when they saw a decline due to the Great Depression. Many carousel companies closed or transitioned to other industries, and many carousels were destroyed or left behind.
Of course, as the economy bounced back, carousels became popular again. But instead of carving the rides out of wood, aluminum and fiberglass became the material of choice. And since bigger and better rides were appearing in parks, the carousel no longer served as the main attraction.
A Collector's Item
In the 1970s, carousels became popular again for a different reason. People realized their value as collector’s items, and the beautiful carved animals were suddenly worth thousands of dollars. Antique dealers would purchase intact carousels and dismantle them, selling each of the unique pieces for a large profit.
More than 4,000 carousels were built in America at one time, but fewer than 150 exist today. Organizations such as the International Museum of Carousel Art, the C.W. Parker Carousel Museum and the National Carousel Association have formed to keep these unique pieces of American history alive with conservation and restoration efforts.
Carousels such as the Looff Carrousel in Spokane, Wash., Cafesjian’s Carousel in St. Paul, Minn., and the St. Louis Carousel in Chesterfield, Mo., all serve as beautiful reminders of the rich heritage of carousels in our country.
One of web writer Coree Reuter’s favorite parts of working at The Chronicle of the Horse is adventuring up into the attic. While it's occasionally a journey that requires a head lamp, GPS unit and dust mask, nearly 75 years of the equine industry is documented in the old issues and photographs that live above the offices, and Coree is determined to unearth the great stories of the past. Inspired by the saying: "History was written on the back of a horse," she hopes to demystify the legends, find new ones and honor the horses who have changed the scope of everyday life with this blog.
Curious about anything in particular? Have a question or an interesting topic? Please e-mail Coree, she'd love to hear from you!