by Kathy Wolfe

Tidbits is going around and around with these facts on carousels!

Carousels didn’t start out as a source of amusement. During the 12th century, they were a training machine for warriors. In fact, the Spanish and Italian words “garosello” and “carosella” translate “little war.” Cavalry soldiers in combat training would ride on hanging saddles carrying spears, and would attempt to aim the lance through hanging metal rings. The training included games, competitions, and jousting exercises.

    The first known carousel ride in the U.S. ran in 1799. Located in Salem, Massachusetts, it was known as the “wooden horse circus ride” and the “Trojan Circus Ride.”

    It wasn’t until the 1800s that platform carousels became popular for amusement. At first, they were powered by humans, animals, or bicycles, but it wasn’t long before steam became the choice for power.

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• Wooden horses weigh about 100 lbs. (45 kgs.) Weight varies on the other types of mounts, including zebras, tigers, pigs, dragons, lions, and unicorns.

•    Stationary chariots were added to the platform around 1900, which allowed for ladies to ride comfortably without climbing up on a horse.

• Carousel animals fall into three categories, based on their stance. “Standing” animals have at least three of their feet on the platform, while “prancers” have their two front feet in the air and two back feet on the platform. “Jumpers” have all four feet in the air as if they are running. Each carousel has a “lead horse.” You can find it by looking for the fanciest horse in the outer row.

Coney Island’s first amusement ride was a carousel installed in a bathing pavilion in 1875. An 18-year-old German immigrant was a woodcarver in a furniture factory, who began carving horses in his spare time. He approached William Vanderveer who owned several bathhouses and a three-storey hotel and the carousel was installed on Ocean Parkway, becoming an instant success. By 1905, there were 24 carousels at Coney Island.

      That young German immigrant was named Charles Looff, and after his first effort at Coney Island, Looff went on to hand-carve 40 carousels between 1876 and 1916, about ten of which survive. His creations were quite ornate, with gold and silver ornamentation, sparkling mirrors and jewels, and horse manes and tails made with real horse hair. Although the majority of old carousels are located in the eastern United States, one Looff carousels still operates at Riverfront Park in Spokane, Washington. In 1909, Looff’s daughter lived in Spokane, where her husband owned Natatorium Park, a swimming venue and amusement park. Her father gifted her with a carousel of 54 horses, a giraffe, a tiger, a goat, and two chariots, all hand-carved. A 1900 German organ provided the music. The carousel remained in operation there until the facility closed in 1968. It was moved to Riverfront Park in 1975 in time for Spokane’s World’s Fair.

    East Providence, Rhode Island, is home to the Crescent Park Carousel, another Looff creation, with its 61 horses in operation since 1895. Three of his carousels survive in California, at least two in Rhode Island, and others in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Ontario, Canada.   

North America’s oldest, continuously-operating amusement park is located in Bristol, Connecticut. Lake Compounce, which opened in 1846, is home to a Charles Looff carousel that was built in 1898, and was moved to the park in 1911. A new feature was added at that time, a mechanism that enabled the horses to go up and down.

Coney Island’s Dreamland Park, home to the many carousels, was hit by fire the day before its Memorial Day seasonal opening in 1911. More than 400 Brooklyn firefighters battled the blaze, but within four hours, the park was nothing but ashes, a loss of more than $5 million.

    The B&B is the only survivor of all of Coney Island’s carousels. Built in 1906, it features 50 hand-carved horses and two chariots. Thirty-six of the horses, connected to brass poles, move up and down, while the other 14, along with the chariots, are stationary. In 1917, the carousel’s organ was brought from Germany, and remains one of just three in existence. The B&B has been completely restored and can be found in Coney Island’s Luna Park.

    Publicity for the carousels of the 1800s was augmented by statements from physicians who recommended rides as an aid to health, touting their contribution to improved blood circulation.

    The “Golden Age” of carousels is considered to be from 1870 to 1930. At the peak, it’s estimated that about 3,000 hand-carved, hand-painted carousels were operating across the U.S. Only about 150 remain.

    World War I put a damper on the Golden Age, with the wood required for war supplies. In addition, the introduction of the roller coaster in the 1920s pushed the carousel out of the spotlight, making it a “children’s” ride.

    What’s the difference between a carousel and a merry-go-round? While “merry-go-round” typically refers to the revolving circular platform in playgrounds, powered by humans, many people call the carousel a merry-go-round. In the United Kingdom, they are sometimes called gallopers.

Some carousels have a “Catch the Brass Ring” feature, which involves a swinging arm apparatus that dispenses metal rings into the horses’ path. Riders reach out to grab the rings, and if they are lucky enough to capture one, they receive an additional free ride.   

•    Carousels revolve much more slowly than they did during the Golden Age. Insurance companies put constraints on the speed for safety reasons.

•    While modern carousel animals are modeled after the vintage animals, they are now crafted mostly from aluminum or fiberglass rather than wood.

• You can have a ride on the world’s largest indoor carousel in Spring Green, Wisconsin. This enormous carousel, which opened in 1959, is 35 feet tall with an 80-ft diameter, weighs 36 tons, and features 269 animals (none of which is a horse!), 182 chandeliers, a collection of angels flying overhead, and upwards of 20,000 lights.