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Carousel Figures
A little about carousel history and terms...
A little about carousel history and terms...
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Frequently Asked Questions

The Golden Age of the Carousel

The Painted Ponies. The Merry-Go-Round. The Roundabout. All names for the carousel, that magic machine full of brightly colored wooden animals, mirrors, lights, and carnival music usually provided by a Wurlitzer band organ.

The word carousel comes from the Italian word carosello (meaning "little war"). Carosello was a 12th-century game played by the Arabs and Turks, on horseback, using scented balls tossed from one to another. Anyone missing a catch was readily identified by the perfume they were doused with when the scented ball broke on impact.

Carosello was adopted by the French into an exhibition (now called carousel) of many types of horsemanship pageantry and competition, including spearing a ring suspended from a post or tree, while riding at full speed. A practice machine was created to help young knights prepare for this competition - a series of legless wooden horses attached to a rotating platform (driven by human-power or horse-power). When this practice machine proved to be as popular with women and children as it was with the young knights, the carousel was born.

The carousel gained even more popularity when steam power was harnessed to drive the platform around and around. Now the carousel wasn't limited to just the size and weight that could be managed by horse, mule, or man.

Though there were a few carousels operating in the US by the end of the Civil War, the real "golden age" of the carousel was from about 1880 to about 1930. During that time, there were many companies making carousels, including the Dentzel Company, Philadelphia Toboggan Company, M.C. Illions, Herschell-Spillman, Stein & Goldstein, Looff, and C.W. Parker, to name a few.

In addition to the master carvers whose companies bore their name (such as Dentzel and Illions), there were several other 'master' carvers who worked for various companies at different times (and some who even briefly had their own companies). Some of the most famous master carvers included Daniel Muller, Charles Carmel, John Zalar, and Salvatore Cerniglario.

Sadly, out of the many thousands of hand-carved carousels that were built during the 'golden age', only a small fraction have survived, less than 200. Conservation organizations such as the National Carousel Association have done much to preserve the few remaining carousels for future generations. After all - they are magic...just try to ride one with a frown on your face! It won't stay there for long....

"The Master Carver" by Bruce Davidson
"The Master Carver"
an original watercolor by Bruce Davidson

Some Carousel Definitions

Coney Island Style - a carving style primarily represented/defined by the works of Illions, Carmel, Looff and Stein and Goldstein.  The Coney Island style is associated with very fanciful or spirited horses/menagerie animals, many of which had wild, flowing manes and highly decorated trappings, often with flowers or jewels.

Philadelphia Style - a carving style primarily represented/defined by the works of Dentzel, Muller, and the Philadelphia Toboggan Company (PTC).  The Philadelphia style is associated with very realistic-looking horses/animals, who normally were carved with very lifelike poses and expressions.

Country Fair Style - a carving style primarily represented/defined by the works of Dare, Armitage, Herschell, Spillman, and C.W. Parker.  The Country Fair style is associated with smaller, very stylized horses that were intended to be transported from place to place and not installed on permanently-placed carousels. 

Outside Row - The outermost ring of any carousel contains the largest and most decorated figures.  This was because the outside row is the one most easily seen by spectators - so the horses intended for the outside row were the ones most heavily decorated.  Middle- and inside-row horses rarely show all the beautiful carving detail that an outside-row horse carries.

Romance Side - The most highly-decorated side of a carousel horse.  Most carousel horses, especially outside-row horses, carried much more decoration on the side of the horse that was going to be seen by the public than on the side that faced towards the center of the carousel.  On American carousels, the Romance Side is on the right side of the horse - on English carousels, it is on the left.  The reason for this is the difference in rotation direction between American and English carousels.

Menagerie Figure - Any carousel animal that was not a horse.  Some popular menagerie figures were tigers, lions, bears, deer, pigs, goats, giraffes, rabbits, and cats.  Some mythical creatures like the sea monster and hippocampus (front half of a horse and back half of a fish) were also found on carousels and would also be considered menagerie figures.

Jumper - describes a horse/figure that has all four feet off the carousel platform.  Jumpers are normally the 'moving' horses on a carousel (either suspended from the overhead or attached to a mechanism from underneath).   Another term sometimes used for a horse with all four feet off the platform is galloper.

Prancer - describes a carousel horse/animal that has the two back feet on the platform, and two front feet in the air.  Prancers would most often be found on the outside row of a carousel, though they were not as common as the jumpers or standers. 

Stander - describes a horse/animal that has either three or all four feet touching the platform.  Outside-row animals are often standers which do not move up and down.

Stargazer - describes a head position where the nose is pointing skyward - towards the stars. 

Lead Horse - the 'number one' horse on a carousel.  The lead horse is usually the most decorated one on the outside row, and sometimes carried the markings or initials of the manufacturer somewhere in its trappings. 

Rounding Board - the decorative boards that are placed on the upper portion of the outside of the carousel, below the canopy, and often carved and brightly painted.  The rounding boards hide the mechanical workings of the carousel.