Monday, January 26, 2009

The Tradition of the Carousel

Panorama of the Bernhard Museum Complex Winery display area.
Click on photos for larger versions


Many companies carved both large park carousels and small portable carousels in both Europe and England. The French produced more barnyard animals such as rabbits, pigs, cows, horses, and delightful dogs and cats. The German carvers, along with carving elegant horses, carved many lions, tigers and bears. The animals produced in Mexico were animated, well-muscled, brightly painted and often small for whirling aboard portable fiesta carousels.

The English round-a-bouts all rotate in a clockwise direction whereas American, European and Mexican carousels turn counter-clockwise. The fancy or romance side faces outward. Horses were carved as jumpers, prancers or standers.

Various carousel animals from the Hegarty Collection


The origins of our colorful carousels began a few hundred years ago. A revolving platform with suspended, crudely-carved horse seats was used in France for knights to practice lancing a suspended ring. Soon, simple horse figures were added to the platforms as an entertaining ride for nobility and commoners.

These platforms were pulled in a circle by animals or servants. The simple rides soon became great attractions at fairs and festivals throughout England and Europe. With the invention of the steam engine, large, permanent carousels filled parks and thrilled riders.

Primitive carousels were built by carpenters, wheelwrights, and blacksmiths in America in the early 1800s. Gustav Dentzel, the immigrant son of a German carousel builder, is credited with establishing the carousel industry in America in 1867. Soon other carving companies were established in the Philadelphia area

as well as near Coney Island and upstate New York. The carving styles originating in these areas were different and distinctive. They became know as: The County Fair Style, The Philadelphia Style, and The Coney Island Style. Examples of these carving styles are presented in this exhibition:


Philadelphia Toboggan Company Scenery Panel c. 1906

Twin Pines Carousel, Pine Grove, PA

American - Philadelphia Style Original paint on wood

Hegarty Collection


American carousel animals were carved primarily from yellow poplar and basswood. Several pieces of wood were laminated together, leaving the center of the animal hollow both for weight and to have the smooth grain exposed for carving. The head and legs were carved separately, then doweled and glued to the body. The best carver, or head man, carved the head, mane, and fancy trappings.

The early carousel animals were all hand-carved. Later, carving machines duplicated patterns and expanded production though fancy details were done by talented carvers. Eventually, horses were produced with wooden bodies but had metal heads, legs and tails. These were referred to as half and halfs. Carousels with metal horses were also introduced. Most recently, newly-carved as well as fiberglass animals molded from the original antique carousel animals are being created.

Charles Carmel (Jewels added by M.D. Borelli)

Jumping horse c. 1910

American - Coney Island Style Stripped Wood

Hegarty Collection


The small wooden carousel animals led hard lives. They traveled constantly from fair to fair and often needed fast repairs. A tin patch, a few nails, a replacement ear or tail kept the animals on their bustling summer schedules. More time and care was generally taken with restoration of the large carousel animals located in parks and pavilions.

Freidrich Heyn, Jumping Horse c. 1920 German

Park paint / metal repairs

Hegarty Collection


The sturdy little carousel animals appearing at the county fairs and gatherings in the summer were designed for traveling. Their legs were in simple, parallel positions for easy moving and stacking. They needed to be quickly loaded and unloaded from train cars and trucks.

Several companies carved these County Fair Style animals, some for only a few years. One of the largest and most successful companies had a few different names and a variety of styles. In North Tonawanda, upstate New York, the Armitage-Herschell Company produced many friendly looking jumpers. The names and partners changed to Herschell-Spillman, Spillman Engineering, and Allan Herschell. Other companies included in this style are Dare, United States Merry-Go-Round Co., and the C.W. Parker Company which was located first in Abilene, then in Leavenworth, KS.

Armitage-Herschell Jumping Horse c. 1890

American - County Fair Style - Painted wood (restored)

Hegarty Collection

Carousels in Placer County

Several articles from the Placer Herald in 1906 confirm that there were merry-go-rounds in Placer County.

T.H. McKenna has just returned to Lincoln from Abilene, Kan., where he went to purchase a merry go round, in which business he will shortly engage…Upon the arrival of the merry go round from the East it will be given its initial run in Lincoln, after which the firm will visit various other points in this State, Oregon and Idaho.
-Placer Herald, March 31, 1906

From an article on May 12, 1906 we learn that the "steam merry-go-round" was installed in Auburn on a vacant lot next to W.R. Arthur's residence and was expected to remain for a week. The following article is priceless:

Miss Effa Lardner last Saturday evening received the handsome gold watch given away by the merry-go-round proprietors, the watch being awarded to the young lady receiving the highest number of votes during their stay in Auburn.

The animals in this photo of a merry-go-round located in

Towle in the early 20thc are typical of the County Fair Style

Placer County Archives


Gustav Dentzel began producing elegant, realistic carousel animals in his G.A. Dentzel Steam and Horsepower Caroussell Builder shop in l867. His father, Michael, had been a carousel builder in Germany. A proud immigrant, Gustav often carved American flags, Lady Liberty, and symbols of the American West on his wooden animals.

Additional companies began carving the realistic, non-jeweled carousel figures in the Philadelphia area. Among them were The Philadelphia Company, (PTC), E. Joy Morris Co., and D.C. Muller and Brother Co. The horses carved in the Philadelphia Style often had flowing, intricately-carved manes, side-figures of cherubs and archangels, medieval trappings or elaborate garlands of flowers. Daniel Muller frequently carved military-style horses with bedrolls and canteens.

Gustav Dentzel Prancing Horse c. 1885

American - Philadelphia Style

Park paint on stripped wood

Hegarty Collection


Brooklyn, New York became the center of several carving companies.

Charles I.D. Looff installed the first carousel at Coney Island in l876, the year America celebrated its centennial. The Coney Island Style animals are recognized by their elaborate glass jewels, wild gold-leafed manes, armor or fish-scale embellishments, and flamboyant poses.

Other carving companies soon joined Looff in producing large and exciting park carousels. Stein and Goldstein, Marcus Illions and Charles Carmel produced

dazzling horses with a few menagerie animals. Many of Carmel’s horses were purchased by frame-maker, M. Borelli, who often added hundreds of extra jewels. The animals became known as Carmel/Borelli’s.

Charles Carmel (Jewels added by M.D. Borelli)
Jumping horse c 1912 American (Coney Island Style)
Painted wood (restored)
Hegarty Collection


Though most people think of the colorful, animated horses aboard carousels, there are a variety of menagerie animals that can also be enjoyed! Several carving companies such as Dentzel, Muller, PTC, Looff, Carmel, and Herschell-Spillman created both elegant and fanciful menagerie figures.

The variety of American menagerie animals include: cats, rabbits, dogs, bears, ostriches, goats, donkeys, deer, giraffes, zebra, frogs, a couple of rare bison, and of course the fierce lion and tiger. The animals were arranged in pairs except for a single lion and tiger. They were placed on opposing sides of the carousel

for balance.

Herschell-Spillman Jumping Dog c. 1912
American - County Fair Style - Park paint on wood
Hegarty Collection

To see the Auburn Journal's coverage of this exhibit, click here.