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A Brief History of the Carousel

Back in the 1100's, Arabian and Turkish horsemen played a game on horseback. They took it very seriously... so seriously that Italian and Spanish crusaders who watched, described the contest as a "little war" or garosello and carosella respectively.

The crusaders brought the game back to Europe where it became, in time, an extravagant display of horsemanship and finery that the French called carrousel.

A major event of the carrousel was the ring-spearing tournament in which a man would ride his horse or chariot full tilt, lance in hand, toward a small ring hanging from a tree limb or pole by brightly colored ribbons. The object, of course, was to spear the ring.

About 300 years ago, some frenchman got the idea to build a device to train young noblemen in the art of ring-spearing. His device consisted of carved horses and chariots suspended by chains from arms radiating from a centerpole. This was probably the beginning of the carousel as we have come to know it.

By the late 1700's, there were numerous carousels built solely for amusement scattered throughout Europe. They were small and light.. . their size and weight limited by what could readily be move by man, mule, or horsepower. These limitations were removed with the invention of the steam engine.

When the power of steam was applied to carousels, the elaborate machines we think of became possible.

Gustav Dentzel was the man who pioneered the modern carousel in America ... in the 1860's. Many talented men followed his lead and their creations became the centerpiece of hundreds of amusement parks that sprung up in the cities and resorts of the United States.

None of the old carousels of Europe could match the product of this group of American craftsmen. Ingenious men all, they set their own precedents. Their carousels were bigger and more elaborately housed. Their animals and chariots were more beautifully carved and in a richer variety of styles. There were war horses, parade horses, Indian ponies, and horses straight out of a child's dream. There were animals of the jungle, the plains, the farm and the forest. There were even dogs, cats, teddy bears, and mythical beasts. Any creature remotely rideable could be found on our carousels.

The golden age of the American carousel lasted until the great depression of the 1930's. With the decline of amusement parks and the economy in general, used carousels satisfied the small market. The few remaining companies closed or moved on to other products. Many carousels were abandoned or destroyed.

As the economy improved, so did the technology for producing carousels. No longer would the labor-intensive carving be done. Now, cast alluminum and later fiberglass would produce the animals. Technology also was creating larger and more exciting amusement rides. The carousel was no longer the centerpiece, but now a "childrens ride"

In the 1970's, interest was renewed in carousel animals as a beautiful collector items. Respected as fine woodcarving and the ultimate decorator item, the value of surviving animals went from a few hundred to several thousand dollars in a decade. Antique dealers purchased and dismantled many carousels for the profit that could be made. This trend continues to this day.

Of the more than 4,000 carousels built in America during the "golden age", fewer than 150 exist intact today. The IMCA is working to make sure this number does not go down, but actually increases as more carousels are taken out of storage, restored, and placed back in public operation.

Return to the IMCA College of Carousel Knowledge