A Brief History of the Carousel



A group of people standing in front of a sign

Description automatically generated

July 4, 1941, Vale, Oregon


Carousel vs. Merry-Go-Round

The name “carousel” may be derived from the Italian garosello and the Spanish carosella which mean “little war” or the French carrousel which means tournament. “Carousel” is the common English spelling, but it has been spelled “carrousel”, “carousal”, “carousell”, “carrousell”, “carroussell”,  carousselle” and “carousal”. Carousels are also referred to as merry-go-rounds and flying horses, carry-us-alls among other names in the United States, roundabouts, gallopers and whirligigs in the United Kingdom, manège de chevaux de bois in France, torneo in Italy, cabillitos or tio vivo in Spain, and Karussel in Germany. The terms “carousel” and “merry-go-round” are synonymous.


The first use of the term merry-go-round is from a 1762 poem entitled Bartleme Fair by George Alexander Stevens (1710-1784) describing the St. Bartholomew Fair in England:


Here's Whittington's cat, and the tall dromedary,
The chaise without horses, and Queen of Hungary;
The merry-go-rounds, come who rides? come who rides?
Wine, beer, ale and cakes, fire-eating besides;
The famed learned dog that can tell all his letters,
And some men, as scholars, are not much his betters.



Evolution of the Carousel

Although it is not known when the first carousel appeared, the earliest known drawing of one is from a Byzantine relief dating to nearly 1600 years ago. The carousel probably evolved independently in several parts of the world. The modern carousel seems to have evolved in Europe and/or the Middle East in the 12th century from jousting where horsemen would toss perfume-filled fragile balls to and from one another as a training exercise to prepare for combat. Losers had the perfume fragrance on them! In Spain (maybe France), the tossing of balls was eliminated and replaced by riders spearing small hanging rings. The spearing of rings evolved into elaborate and pompous aristocratic tournaments (carrousels in French) promoted by Charles VIII. Eventually, by the late 17th century or early 18th century, to spare overworked horses, practice for carrousels involved riders suspended and rotating around a center pole spearing small hanging rings. Eventually, riders were on wooden horses which were either suspended or attached to a rotating platform. The game attracted many participants, and by the 17th century, the game replaced serious jousting by the military and was flourishing among the public in France and in other parts of Europe by 1800 as a form of entertainment. This practice seems to have evolved into the game of catching the brass ring on 19th and 20th century carousels.


An early (circa 1789) French carousel where the riders speared the ring. From Fried, 1964.


The carousel did not always involve spearing rings as can be seen below in a drawing based on the description of a carousel in Phillippopolis, Bulgaria in The Travels of Peter Mundy, 1608-1667. Obviously, the carousel quickly became an amusement for people of all ages.


From Fried, 1964


Soon, merry-go-rounds (referred to as roundabouts in the United Kingdom) of various styles began appearing on playgrounds. Many styles are still manufactured and can be found on playgrounds throughout the United States.


A picture containing outdoor, ground, tree, sky

Description automatically generated


A group of people on a boat

Description automatically generated   A group of people riding on the back of a horse

Description automatically generated  


    A picture containing grass, outdoor, ground, bench

Description automatically generated      


A picture containing tree, outdoor, ground, sky

Description automatically generated   A playground swing in front of a tree

Description automatically generated   A playground swing in front of a tree

Description automatically generated


A construction site

Description automatically generated

A health carousel from the Parker Carousel Museum in Leavenworth, Kansas.


The Modern Carousel

The modern carousel was born in the 18th century. By the early 19th century carousels with carved horses had appeared. Soon, portable, traveling machines spread throughout Europe. The early carousels were the “flying” style where the riders with or without horses were suspended by chains and/or rods, and the force created by spinning the mechanism by which the horses were suspended would swing, “fly”, the horses outward much like a rotating swing (see above figure). Many were in use in picnic grounds and parks in the eastern United States.


A “Flying Horses” carousel at Watch Hill, Rhode Island


The early horses were primitive, small, crudely carved and resembled horses from a hobby or rocking horse. In fact, the carousels at Watch Hill, Rhode Island and Martha’s Vineyard may well have been constructed from surplus rocking horses. As the carousels increased in size because of the evolution of the power source from human/horse/mule power to steam and electricity, the carvings became larger and more intricate. By the later 1800s, horses were often adorned with jewels, flowers, ribbons and tassels. Some carvers placed bedrolls or hunted animals and other secondary carvings behind the saddle. Many carvers used real horsehair tails rather than carved tails. Some of the very early horses used leather saddles and ears. Often, the eyes were glass.


An early English “dobby”



Early “Flying” Carousels. From Benjamin, William and Barbara Williams. 2016. Andrew Christian and Charles W. F. Dare. Carousel History. http://carouselhistory.com/andrew-christian-and-charles-w-f-dare/


A group of people in a room

Description automatically generated

A circa 1865 Carousel at the Parker Carousel Museum in Leavenworth, Kansas


The Platform Carousel

The platform carousel with the horses attached to poles/rods was introduced by 1876. Frederick Savage, an engineer/machinist from Kings Lynn, England, who was initially a manufacturer of agricultural machinery developed a platform carousel which he referred to as “gallopers” in England at about the same time. Often the platform carousels are embellished with beautiful and artistic rounding boards, shields and mirrors. Chariots or benches which were favored by women and young children were a part of early carousels. In 1885, Frederick Savage introduced the crank and gear mechanism invented by Robert Tidman of Norwich, England that made the horses move up and down. In the United States, William F. Mangels improved on the Tidman crank and gear mechanism. By 1891, Savage had a sliding platform where the horses would slide outward on the platform a few degrees as the platform rotated (see carousel at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey). Carousel manufacturers in the United States did not use sliding platforms.


Construction of a Platform Carousel

How the carousel is constructed and powered is usually not obvious since various scenery panels and mirrors often conceal the mechanism. The carousel rotates around a stationary center pole that is supported about halfway up the pole by legs (diagonal support poles) similar to a camera tripod. At the bottom of the pole are horizontal supports resting on the ground. About half way up the center pole is a ring and pinion gear mechanism (the sweep hub) from which the sweeps radiate. A large diameter ring gear mechanism on which the sweeps rest and are attached is driven by a motor and clutch assembly (see diagram and photographs below) which rotates the carousel.


From How Products Are Made: http://www.madehow.com/Volume-4/Carousel.html



These photographs show the drive mechanism on the Dentzel carousel in Meridian, MS. Note how the photographs resemble diagram above.


A picture containing indoor

Description automatically generated

The ring gear and the crank mechanism that raises and lowers the jumpers.


The cranking rod mechanism allowing for the rise and fall of the carousel horses/menagerie figures also radiates outward from the center pole (not visible on the above photographs since this carousel has no jumpers). The sweeps are kept in place by sweep stay rods extending from the sweeps to a main ring bearing attached to an extension of the center pole. The main ring bearing allows the sweep stay rods to rotate with the carousel. The platform is suspended from the sweeps by drop rods and the mechanism supporting the animals. The mechanism must be strong enough to support 30,000 pounds of platform, figures and riders. The main ring bearing is responsible for supporting the entire weight of the carousel.


From How Products Are Made: http://www.madehow.com/Volume-4/Carousel.html



The entire drive and support mechanism and frame are usually masked by rounding boards, center panels and a canopy often made of canvas.


Most parts of the carousel can be found on the photograph below of a 1930s Allan Herschell carousel.

Photograph from the Brass Ring Carousel Company:




An earlier version of the platform carousel was introduced in the early 1800s. By the late 1800s (circa 1878), the Armitage-Herschell Company had developed a carousel that rotated by wheels on a track. In this type of carousel, the platform rests on sweeps that extend from the center pole. Power, originally steam, was applied from outside the carousel via a drive cable. The photos below are by Rich Kenyon who restored this classic and became the curator of the rare circa 1906 Herschell-Spillman carousel in Schenevus, New York.


A picture containing floor, indoor, ground, red

Description automatically generated

A Track Carousel at the Heritage Center in Abilene, Kansas


Wheel on the track supporting the sweeps. Photo by Rich Kenyon.

From the National Carousel Association: http://carousels.org/psp/Schenevus/IMG_0010.html



The above sweep and wheel mechanism exposed. Photo by Rich Kenyon.

From the National Carousel Association: http://carousels.org/psp/Schenevus/IMG_0010.html



Sweeps extending from the center pole. Photo by Rich Kenyon.

From the National Carousel Association: http://carousels.org/psp/Schenevus/IMG_0010.html


The early platform carousels had the horses rigidly fixed to the platform The Armitage-Herschell Company used a rocker mechanism that made the horses rock to more closely simulate a ride on a real horse.

The rocker mechanism. Photo by Rich Kenyon.

From the National Carousel Association: http://carousels.org/psp/Schenevus/IMG_0010.html



Carousel Power Mechanism

By 1680, early carousels were powered by horses spinning the carousel or by one or more people pushing or pulling the platform. Around 1832, a crank and gear mechanism was introduced so a man could spin the platform by cranking. Frederick Savage introduced a bicycle powered carousel called a velocipede. Steam was first used by Thomas Bradshaw circa 1863 to power a carousel. Sidney George Soame in 1865 at the Alysham Fair in England also used steam to power his “steam circus” carousel. Soame used a stationary engine outside the carousel with a belt drive turning the platform. The Soame mechanism was unsatisfactory, but Frederick Savage improved on the Soame mechanism by placing the engine in the center. It was Savage who successfully popularized steam powered carousels. Steam did not power carousels in the U. S. until the early 1880s. Although carousels eventually became electrified, there are remaining steam-powered carousels in America that operates every Labor Day weekend at the annual Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion in Rollag, Minnesota and the MidWest Old Threshers gathering in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.


Frederick Savage


The mechanism in the center of the carousel that supports the power source and center pole from which the platform is suspended is referred to as the truck, a term probably dating back to the days of mostly portable carousels. 


More recently, some carousels, both new and classic, have been converted to solar power.


Popularity in the United States

Most historians believe that the oldest carousel in existence in America dates to 1878 although carousels were introduced as early as 1825. Gustav Dentzel is credited with popularizing the carousel in the United States. With the increasing availability of inexpensive trolley and train transportation, the popularity of the carousel grew. Amusement parks were often strategically located at the ends of the trolley and train lines. Eventually, approximately 4,000 carousels were manufactured in the United States during the Golden Age of Carousels (1880-1930). Only 148 of these classic carousels are still intact.


Gustav Dentzel


In the early of days of the carousel in America, transporting carousels and amusement equipment and the traveling amusement show very difficult. The development and expansion of America’s railroad system provided a quicker and more convenient transport mechanism and led to the development of the traveling amusement shows.


Horses, Menagerie Animals, Chariots and Tubs

Carousels in the United States often have horses and menagerie animals carved by more than one carver (see Carvers and Manufacturers page). Hand carved horses were made until the 1920s when a combination of wood and metal (cast aluminum) was introduced by Allan Herschell.


As carousels became more popular, the horses and menagerie animals evolved from the simple to the more ornate and fancier with elaborate trappings and secondary carvings.


A typical, classic, wooden carousel is carved from up to 70 pieces of wood. Bass wood was primarily used, but other types of wood such as poplar and even pine were used. The pieces were shaped and glued together to form hollow structures which are stronger, lighter and more durable than solid structures. Heads and legs are carved separately and attached to the bodies with dowels and glue. Trappings and secondary carvings were used to embellish the figures. The outside (the “romance side”) of horses and chariots is almost always more intricately carved and adorned than the inside. Daniel Muller carved both sides of his chariots.


Many carousel manufacturers used the Lochman carving machine, invented in 1904, that could roughly carve four pieces simultaneously using finished heads and bodies as models. The intricate work was always done by hand. The introduction of the carving machines allowed for more intricate inner row horses. By the 1930s, the animals were made entirely of aluminum until this medium was replaced by fiberglass.


The horses are of two main types: jumpers and standers. Jumpers have all four legs in the air while standers have three or four legs fastened to the platform. Occasionally, prancers are found where the hind legs are attached to the platform but the front legs are in the air. Menagerie animals and chariots are often on the platform. Occasionally, a rotating tub or rocker is on the platform. Carousels with only standing figures are referred to as stationary.



From L to R: Jumper, Stander, Prancer



 Menagerie Animal



L to R: Chariot, Rotating (Spinning) Tub, Rocking Chariot


Menagerie animals of every imaginable species, real and fictional, have been found on carousel platforms. Since surveys demonstrated that children of all ages always prefer to ride a horse and since some of the menagerie animals often frighten children, few menagerie animals were carved or manufactured after 1930.


Most of the carvers were skilled artisans who had immigrated to America from Germany, Russia and Italy. As the immigrants became “Americanized”, their themes became more patriotic and were often adorned with American flags, Uncle Sam, and Wild West themes such as cowboys, Native Americans and the cavalry.


Horse adorned with American flag



Park and Portable (Traveling) Carousels

Because of limited transportation in the early days of the carousel in America, the early carousels were small and easily transported by wagons. The carousel at Indian Walk Shops in Wrightstown, PA is one of the last carousels still wagon mounted. With the expansion of America’s railroad network, larger portable carousels could be manufactured and transported by rail. To provide for income on weekends, some rail and trolley companies built parks at the end of their rail lines. The trolley parks were in a rural setting providing a place for relaxation. Often, the parks were near a body of water which served as a swimming pool. Soon, food vendors appeared in the parks. Amusements and large, permanent carousels (park models) were installed in the parks to provide entertainment. Kennywood Park in West Mifflin, PA complete with the original trolley station is an extant example of a trolley park. There was an increase in the number of these trolley parks in the early 1900s.


The average diameter of a park carousel is 40 to 50 feet that carry three to four abreast figures. Stein and Goldstein manufactured a sixty-five feet, six abreast park model. Many of the buildings housing the park models are very ornamental and designed by the carousel manufacturers.


Some manufacturers such as Marcus Illions and William Mangels made small, easily transportable street carousels as can be seen from the 1909 photo below. The street carousels were eventually banned in New York City, but some were still around in the 1950s according to one of our followers who remembers riding on one as a child in Brooklyn. The last remaining one in the U S resides at Merrie Mill Farm in Keswick, Virginia.



Horse Drawn Kiddie Carousel at Merrie Mill Farm in Keswick, Virginia.


Direction of Rotation

Carousels manufactured in the United States and most manufactured in Europe rotate counterclockwise. Those made in England rotate clockwise. The reason for the counterclockwise rotation is that most people are right handed and reaching for the brass ring is easier with the right hand. A clockwise rotation would require reaching for the brass ring with the left hand. Since the brass ring catching activity never was popular in England, there was no reason to change the direction of rotation.


Styles of Horses

Three main styles of carousels in the United States are recognized. The Coney Island style horses are “flamboyant” with flowing manes, many jewels and gold and silver leaf. The Coney Island carvers and manufacturers include William F. Mangels, Marcus Illions, Charles Loof, Charles Carmel, Timothy and Bartholomew Murphy and Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein. The Philadelphia carousel style is characterized by “a more natural and realistic depiction of horses and menagerie animals” and was popularized by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, Gustav Dentzel, E. Joy Morris, Charles Leupold and Daniel and Alfred Muller. The Country Fair style was developed by Charles Dare in New York City and in North Tonawanda, New York and popularized by Allan Herschell. Charles Parker of Kansas also carved in the Country Fair style. Country Fair carvings are simple and manufactured for ease of portability and erection. Weedon and Ward (1980) say that the styles are sometimes difficult to discern because the styles “show considerable cross-fertilization”.



Styles (L to R): Cony Island, Philadelphia, Country Fair


Carvers and Manufacturers

The major carousel manufacturers in the United States were Allan Hershell, Charles I. D. Looff, Gustav Dentzel, Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein, the Philadelphia Toboggan Company and Charles Wallace Parker. There were several minor manufacturers including William Mangels, Charles W. Dare, P. J. Marqua Company (which became the Gem Novelty Company in 1901 and the United States Merry-Go-Round Company in 1909), Bungarz Steam Wagon and Carrousele Works, the Murphy Brothers, Norman & Evans (William Norman and Spalding Evans), and the American Carouselle and Toy Company. Also see the “Carvers and Manufacturers” page.


Each company usually employed carvers who worked under the direction and guidance of a master carver. The style of the figures produced by the companies often changed as carvers joined and left the company.


Band Organs

Early, a two-piece band (drummer and flutist) played as the carousel rotated. Larger bands were uncommon. Dentzel’s Atlantic City carousel was rotated by a horse with music (?) provided by bells attached to the horse.


Air-powered band organs imported primarily from Germany from the Bruder family, Frati and A. Ruth und Sohn companies soon appeared as an integral part of the carousel.


Gebrüder Bruder fairground organ


A. Ruth und Sohn band organ. From Carousel History archival photographs.



Since the imported organs were very expensive due to import duties, Allan Herschell convinced Eugene De Kleist (originally von Kleist), a German, to immigrate to North Tonawanda, New York from London where he was manufacturing organs to build carousel band organs of European quality for the North Tonawanda carousel manufacturers. In 1892, De Kleist set up his operation, the North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory, on land sold to him for $1.00 by the Armitage-Herschell Company. De Kleist signed an agreement with Wurlitzer of Cincinnati, Ohio to exclusively supply Wurlitzer with musical instruments. In 1897, the name of the North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory was changed to the De Kleist Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company. In 1908, De Kleist sold his operation to Wurlitzer which renamed it the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company of North Tonawanda.


Eugene De Kleist (from a flickr collection by Dennis Reed, Jr.)


The North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory (from a flickr collection by Dennis Reed, Jr.)


Franz Rudolph Wurlitzer immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1853 and settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. While working for a banking firm, Wurlitzer realized that the music stores had very few musical instruments and were very high priced. His family in Germany were excellent instrument makers, and Wurlitzer sold instruments made by his family to local music stores. This was the beginning of the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company. Wurlitzer opened a military band instrument factory in Cincinnati in 1861, and by 1865 the company was the largest instrument maker in the United States. The company headquarters eventually moved to Chicago. By 1907, the company was selling military band organs.


Franz Rudolph Wurlitzer (from http://stories-of-london.org/wurlitzer-1/)


Wurlitzer 165, Knoebels Amusement Park, Elysburg, PA


In 1906, the North Tonawanda Musical Instrument Works was incorporated. The company manufactured band organs and a variety of other musical instruments. The company was purchased by Remington Rand which continued to manufacture band organs into the 1920s.


North Tonawanda Musical Instrument Works, colorized by the webmaster.

A colorized 1913 photograph of The North Tonawanda Musical Instrument Works. From NTHistory.com.


Artizan Style D. From the Allan Herschell Carousel Factory Museum.



The Niagara Musical Instrument Company and The Artizan Factories, Inc also made band organs and a variety of other musical instruments in North Tonawanda.


Artizan Factories photo, 1926

A 1926 photograph of the Artizan Factories, Inc. From NTHistory.com.


Louis Berni, an immigrant from France, set up a carousel band organ business in Manhattan where he imported organs and converted them to play modern paper rolls. Berni was a major supplier of band organs to carousel manufacturers, and many were sold to the Philadelphia Toboggan Company. Several minor band organ companies were also established in New York City.


The Knapp Barrel Organ Works in Philadelphia supplied a few band organs to the Charles Looff carousel manufacturing company.


Now, many of the carousels use recorded music to preserve the delicate band organs. The facades of many of the band organs, were carved by the same artisans carving the horses and menagerie animals.


Decline of the Carousel Industry

The carousel industry faltered during WW1 since the American population was pre-occupied with the war, wood was more difficult to get since much of it went into the war effort, and there was a brief recession after the war. Although the industry recovered some after the war, it was clear that the Golden Age of the Carousel was beginning to come to an end. Carving machines and mass production also took its toll on the industry. The carousel industry survived during the 1920s, but by the early 1930s, it declined due to the Great Depression, lack of supplies caused by World War 1 and the passing of the most creative and skilled artisans. There was no longer much work for the creative carvers. Most of their work consisted of restoration, repair and touch-up.


Many antique carousels have been dismantled and individual horses and figures have been sold. Gail Hall, a former executive with the National Carousel Association, once said that carousel figure off the carousel is nothing more than a “wooden statue”. Anne Dion Hinds, author of Grab the Brass Ring: The American Carousel, says when on an operating carousel it comes alive. Organizations such as the National Carousel Association focuses on the history and preservation of the beautiful and historic machines.


Although the old industry has disappeared, carousels are still being manufactured. Although most modern manufacturers make their figures of fiberglass, The Carousel Works in Mansfield, Ohio (www. http://carouselworks.com/) and Brass Ring Carousel Company in San Francisco and Chicago still manufacture hand crafted, all wooden carousels. The carousel at Richland Carrousel Park in Mansfield, Ohio built in 1990 by The Carrousel Works was the first hand-crafted, wooden carousel built in the United States since the 1930s. All the figures are in the style of Gustav Dentzel. The Carrousel Works has nearly 30 new carousels in the United States and several that they have refurbished.


The Carousel in Europe

While the carousel industry was developing in the United States, there was a concomitant development in England, France, Belgium and especially in Germany where it is thought most of the European carousel horses were carved. Michael Dentzel, Gustav’s father, was in business in the 1830s. Most of the European carousels were travelling carousels in contrast to the larger stationary carousels. A few European carousels such as the Savage Gallopers from Kings Lynn, England, and the Friedrich Heyn carousel manufactured in Germany have made their way to the United States. There is Savage Gallopers at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, NJ and a Heyn carousel at Storyland in Glen, NH.


For further information:


Dinger, Charlotte. 1983. Art of the Carousel. Green Village, NJ: Carousel Art, Inc. ISBN 0-914507-00-1

Manns, William, Stevens, Marianne, Shank, Peggy. 1986. Painted Ponies. Millwood, NY: Zon International Publishing. ISBN 0-939549-01-9

Fraley, Tobin. 1994. The Great American Carousel: A Century of Master Craftsmanship. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. ISBN 0-8118-0610-3

Fried, Frederick. 1964. A Pictorial History of the Carousel. Vestal, NY: The Vestal Press Ltd. ISBN 0-911572-29-5.

Hinds, Anne Dion. 1990. Grab the Brass Ring: The American Carousel. New York: Crown Pub.

Weedon, Geoff and Richard Ward. 1981. Fairground Art. London: White Mouse Editions, Ltd.


Carousel Magic



How Products Are Made