Horses have always been an attraction to humans, from the great wooden horse of The Iliad, to the rocking horse of your youth, to those famous horses found in those old western movies, to the Kentucky Derby. Maybe that explains why the carousel has been the mainstay of amusement parks forever. Take your pick: an up-and-down horse, a stationary horse, or a bench seat for those with motion sickness and get ready to take a spin around the history of the carousel.
The word carousel comes from the word carousella, which means "little wars," an appropriate name for the revolving contraption since it was first used to train French noblemen in the art of knighthood during the seventeenth century. As a matter of fact, the dictionary still lists as one of its definitions for the word: "a tournament in which knights or horsemen engaged in various exercises and races." There the young men had to ride around on figures that looked like horses and try to lance rings, which was considered an effective training method. (Today, grabbing hold of the brass ring is considered a sign of good luck -- if you are fortunate enough to find a merry-go-round that still features brass rings!) The carousel then made its way as an amusement ride to carnivals and festivals, where it flourished throughout Europe before it crossed the ocean to America in the late 1800’s.
At first, the carousel was a ride for men-only because it was the fastest ride for its time and, therefore, considered unsafe for women. However, as time passed, women were allowed to ride – but only in stationary chariots set up among the horses, which to this day almost exclusively comprise a carousel’s collection of animals (most likely because of its knighthood origin). The early rides were small since they were pushed by man or mule; with the steam engine came larger carousels and the band organ which entertained riders with its upbeat music.
When you are waiting in line for your turn to ride, the silence of the band organ signals the start of your dash to find your favorite horse. They all seem so appealing, but that is probably because they all put their better side to the audience – their "romantic side." This is the side of the horse that the gold leaf mane always falls on; the side that is decorated with family shields, jewels, and flowers; the side that is carved with more intricate designs; the side that the master carver produced. (The apprentice would carve the plain side of the horse.)
The carving of a carousel horse is no small task; it requires skill, time, and patience. The figures are not carved from a solid block of wood but rather are carved from many layers – about one hundred to one hundred and fifty pieces laminated together to avoid end-grain and to provide strength; these pieces are fastened together with pegs and bonded with hide glue. Yellow poplar and bass are the most commonly used woods; to lighten the horse and to help reduce warping, the bodies are actually hollow. After carving is completed, the horses are then hand-painted with Japanese oil paint, used since 1909 because of the characteristics of its pigment which make it durable.
America experienced its strongest carving era between 1880 and 1930, producing such artisans as Illions, Carmel, and Looff, among others. Just like the canvas artists, such as Rembrandt and Monet, these craftsmen created masterpieces. For example, the lead horse on Bristol’s Lake Compounce carousel, installed in 1911, is worth well over $100,000! Fortunately, some of these remarkable pieces are preserved and displayed at the New England Carousel Museum, located on Riverside Ave. in Bristol. A visit there is both educational and entertaining; its band organ will get your attention, and its gift counter will let you take the music home!
Finkenstein, Bill ( carousel artisan). Interview: 3/30/00.
New England Carousel Museum Curriculum Packet, The; p. 1-5, 9-10.
New England Carousel Museum pamphlet; p. 2-3.
New England Carousel Museum – visitation: 3/13/00.