Saving the Last of the Great Carousels

The ornate, well made carousels of the past are in danger - degrading, being sold piecemeal and sometimes even for parts

Javier Corbo

Carousels were once a staple of an American childhood. But the ornate, well-made carousels of the past are in danger. They’re deteriorating and being sold off piecemeal, horse by horse, or sometimes even for parts.

At Collectors Weekly, Lisa Hix has a history of the carousel and the current fight to save it. She writes:

At the height of the Golden Age of Carousels (1890s-1920s), somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 hand-carved, hand-painted merry-go-rounds were spinning around the United States. Now, there are only 150 of these antique carousels in operation. And experts estimate that there are only a dozen left that could be restored to their full glory.

In the 1970s, as carousel lovers watched their beloved merry-go-rounds fall into disrepair and their pieces show up on auctions, a group of preservationists formed the National Carousel Association. The group’s early goal was to stop people from taking carousels apart and selling them piece by piece, Bette Largent, president of the NCA told Collectors Weekly. But as time went on they realized that the breakup was bound to happen in some cases and welcomed collectors of individual pieces into their club. The NCA does a census each year, cataloguing the operating carousels around the country. You can browse their list of classic wood carousels, classic metal carousels, and new wood carousels. They have also generated a map of where you can find these carousels across the country.

Carousels started in Europe as training machines for would-be knights. Boys would ride on hanging saddles and practice spearing metal rings as they went around. The 1800s saw the first carousels that were for fun, and rather than spearing metal rings, children tried to grab a ring as they went by (as readers of Catcher in the Rye might remember). During Victorian times, carousel makers added chariots for those who didn’t want to climb up onto the horse—a risqué act for a Victorian woman. “Of course, she’d sit side-saddle,” explained Pam Hessey, an artist and carousel restorationist, “but her suitor would be able to hold on to her waist to steady her while the carousel went around and look at her ankle, which was exposed.” When craftsmen came to the United States, they found themselves with lots and lots of wood to make new carousels with, and went to town. This was when carousels acquired wild animals like giraffes, tigers and lions along with the classic horses.

As time went on, carousels showcased different sensibilities— they were rotating time capsules of style and world events. There was the flamboyant Coney Island style, bejeweled and complicated. There was the Philadelphia style, classic, realistic and detailed. There was the country-fair style, very simple and cartoon like. Then came Arts and Crafts carousels and Art Deco carousels. When King Tut’s tomb was discovered, Egyptian themed animals showed up in carousels. During World War I, the flag horse was added.

It was also World War I that ended the golden age of carousels. Wood was now required for building war supplies, and forest fires created a shortage of the soft wood that was ideal for carving out the carousel animals. The roller coaster arrived in the 1920s and made the carousel a children’s ride, before the Great Depression put a damper on amusement for years. It wasn’t until the 1970s, and the formation of the NCA, that carousels found a group of dedicated caretakers and restorers.

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