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
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
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
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.