History and popularity of carousels
|Carousels, A Long History
By Carla Brooke
The childlike splendor and old world charm of the carousel holds a special enchantment for collectors who enjoy collecting figurines and paintings, replicas of carved wooden carousel horses, chariots and menagerie figures which bring back memories of the turn-of-the-century amusement parks.
Collectors of full size antique wooden carousels are racing against time to preserve a delicate chapter in American Art and woodworking. Fewer than 200 antique wooden carousels are operating in the United States. Thirty years ago these remnants of a by gone era were considered garbage and sold from one machine to another replacing broken or missing figures or “rescued” from the trash by those caught under their magic spell. Figures, which are over a century old, have survived and others still lie forgotten in barns and attics decaying under an onslaught of moisture and insects. Once a carousel figure could be bought for less than $50 and now depending on the carver, style, paint and scarcity of figures from the same machine, that same authentic wooden carousel horse could be worth $45,000.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg rescued Coney Island’s last carousel from being auctioned and relocated; the city will pay $1.8 million for the B and B Carousell which has been part of the park since 1932. Coney Island’s “crown jewel” has fifty beautiful horses, two chariots, a band organ and of course a brass ring machine and ticket booth. Charles Carmel carved all but one horse in 1919. An armored horse with the image of Abraham Lincoln carved on it was created by another legendary carousel carver, Marcus Charles Illions. The brilliantly painted steeds are now recognized as part of New York City’s rich heritage and the B and B Carousel continues to whirl on Surf Avenue in Brooklyn, New York.
In the 1970’s residents of Riverside, Rhode Island banded together and saved the Crescent Park Carousel, which was built in 1895 by Charles I.D. Looff, one of the earliest and foremost carousel designers. The Crescent Park Carousel is nationally recognized as a true masterpiece of wood sculpture, built originally as a showcase for prospective buyers. This creation is the largest and most elaborate of Looff’s work and contains 62 beautifully hand carved figures and four fanciful chariots. The overall richness of the effect was Looff’s trademark and it features elaborate embellishments surrounding the galloping steeds for a total carousel experience.
Carousels are prized examples of American folk art and monuments to the wood carver’s skill and the artist’s vivid imagination. Three basic carving styles comprise carousel art and each has artisans who made them famous.
The development of modern American carousels owes much to Gustav A. Dentzel (1846-1909), who developed large, realistic horses that looked as if they could take an apple right out of your hand. This school of carving grew to be known as the Philadelphia Style. Daniel Muller, who had studied sculpture at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts contributed to this style with realistic military mounts becoming his trademark. Later he and his brother became head carvers at the Philadelphia Toboggan Company commonly called PTC and owned by Auchy and Chester Albright. Charles Carmel, Salvatore Cernigliare and John Zalar were some of the best known artists working at this company. The Dentzel and Philadelphia Toboggan Company are remembered and praised in the history of the carousel.
Coney Island Style:
A collection of American carousel art at its most dramatic and enchanting would need to include the ornate grandeur of the Coney Island style. These horses are realistic, but more stylized than the Philadelphia style. Carvers like Charles Looff, M.C. Illions, Charles Carmel and Stein and Goldstein displayed horses, which have animated poses, golden, “waterfall” manes, elaborate ornaments and glass jewels. Carmel, who used horses ridden in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park as models, designed his own carousel in 1911 only to have it burn to the ground on opening day. Financially ruined he continued to carve horses for others.
Charles Looff arrived in Brooklyn from Germany in 1870 and worked as a furniture maker by day and dance instructor by night and in 1876 built Coney Island’s first carousel from leftover wood he brought home from the furniture factory. He opened a shop in Riverside, Rhode Island, in 1905 and helped to launch careers of several carvers including M.C. Illions and Charles Carmel.
Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein escaped the anti-Semitism of Russia to find their fortunes in America and were carving horses embellished with large “cabbage roses” by 1905. They opened the Artistic Caroussel Manufacturing Company in Brooklyn in 1912, taking pride in their Coney Island style carvings. A main source of distinction stemmed from the massive size of both its figures and the entire carousels. They also produced a number of menagerie figures while the other companies stocked only horses.
Country Fair Style:
A third carving style known as Country Fair closely united form and function in a simplistic stylized sculpture. These were portable carousels consisting of simple figures of wooden horses and their built in saddles made strong enough for energetic youths and sedate for heavier adults. Built with traveling shows or country fairs in mend, one-night stands were the lot of Country Fair horses. Two sites developed to manufacture these portable machines. Allan Herschell and James Armitage formed the Armitage-Herschell Company in 1882 and built their first "“steam riding gallery,” an early merry-go-round, in 1883. Eventually the company shipped these merry-go-rounds at the rate of one a day.
Charles Wallace Parker, a colorful showman bought a secondhand carousel and took it on tour in 1892. Later he decided that he could build a better machine and within two years the Parker Carnival Supply Company was in production. The C.W. Parker horses were noted for form-following-function horses. They were long and sleek, developed to withstand a whirlwind of travel throughout the Midwest in carnivals. These were more stylized than the Coney Island or the Philadelphia style. Parker’s early horses were small and carved in standard poses with compact, portable designs and hair tails. Cost-efficient entertainment was his aim, rather than establishing an original artistic style. The Parker horses changed as the industry became more sophisticated and he understood the necessity of novelty and flamboyance. Parker’s carousel horses became wild creatures, with forelegs ready for a lunge and hind legs kicked out. The company started by this Carnival King became the world’s largest manufacturer of amusement devices.
Collecting original large horses and the small minitures of carousel art is currently very popular. I've added many to my collection through the years and enjoy researching the history on the different pieces.