Take a Spin on the Most Beautiful, Hand-Crafted Carousels in the Nation

These historic merry-go-rounds are survivors of a bygone era, when thrills came in a much tamer form

Jane's Carousel sits between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges and is housed in a $9-million-dollar transparent acrylic box. The restoration by artist Jane Walentas took 20 years to complete. (© Vickie Stauffer - NCA)
smithsonian.com

For many, carousels conjure up the fondest of childhood memories. The delicate craftsmanship, the bobbing animals and the whistling music all trigger a sensory flashback to a time before jobs, bills and obligations. For president of the National Carousel Association (NCA) Bette Largent, carousels remind her of her mother: “She grew up in Kansas and a Parker carousel would come in on the train and her uncles would take her down … and they would have nickels for her to ride,” says Largent. “[But] it was forbidden fruit for me … my father didn’t approve of them,” she says. “The only carousel we were exposed to was at the state fair. So, [my mother] would get [my father] busy talking in the horse barn and then sneak us off to ride the carousel.”

On July 25, carousel aficionados will unite across the country for National Carousel Day. The annual celebration marks the day William Schneider of Davenport, Iowa, was issued the first American patent for a carousel, in 1871. The holiday was the brainchild of carousel historian Roland Hopkins, as well as Largent. “They have national hot dog day and national ice cream day … but there was no national carousel day … we thought that wasn’t entirely fair,” Largent says with a laugh. First celebrated in 2012, National Carousel Day has been growing ever since, and celebrations are planned this year from Spokane, Washington to Trenton, New Jersey.

The main objective of the day, organizers say, is to direct attention to the hundreds of historic carousels still bringing joy to riders. Largent estimates that of the 5,000 or 6,000 original wooden machines built during the golden age of carousels (said to be from 1870 to 1930), only about 160 remain. The NCA keeps tabs on all of them, working with individual operators, artists, mechanics and park owners to ensure that the carousels remain operational for generations to come.

With many of the machines handcrafted, hand-painted and more than a century old, repairs and restorations are frequently needed. Largent knows this first-hand after helping to restore carousels across the country, including the 1909 Looff Carousel in her husband’s hometown of Spokane, Washington. “[My daughter] loves the carousel … it was her grandpa’s carousel. Now, my grandchildren are the fifth generation to ride it,” says Largent. “Each one of these carousels has a story.”

Here’s the story behind eight fascinating and beautiful carousels across the country:

Watch Hill Flying Horse Carousel: Watch Hill, Rhode Island

The oldest carousel in America in continuous public operation is located in the village of Watch Hill, Rhode Island. Named the Flying Horse, it provided its first ride way back in 1876. The 20 horses on the carousel are not actually attached to the floor but suspended from a center frame, which gives the appearance that the horses are flying. Many of the manes and tails are still made out of real horsehair. Unfortunately, due to the fragility of the carousel, only children are allowed to ride. 

About Matt Blitz

Matt Blitz is a history and travel writer. His work has been featured on CNN, Atlas Obscura, Curbed, Nickelodeon, and Today I Found Out. He also runs the Obscura Society DC and is a big fan of diners.

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