The word “carrosel” originally described a tournament in which armored knights engaged in competition on horseback.
When you look at the carved horses used on merry-go-rounds, it’s easy to see why the term carousel was adopted – even though the fixed carved animals never overtake one another, they seem to compete in a continual race.
Flying horses. John Sears was issued a permit in 1825 by the Common Council of Manhattan Island, N.Y., to “establish a covered circus for a Flying Horse Establishment.” The first American carousel patent, however, was registered in 1850 by Eliphalet S. Sculpture of Greenpoint, N.Y.
The early types of “flying horses” or “painted ponies” were produced by experienced cabinet makers, wheel wrights or other wood workers. By the late 1800s, “flying horses” were made by proficient wood carvers.
At first, power for carousels was provided by horse power. When the ride operated, local musicians provided lively tones in rhythm with the turning merry-go-round.
In 1857, the tourist resort town of Long Branch, N.J., had a carousel described in Frank Leslie’s Weekly.
“… beneath a large circular tent on the beach in which people were amusing themselves quite heartily.”
Hand-carved carousel figures were made well into the 1900s. Then, due to the cost of producing wooden animals plus maintenance, plastic and metal were manufactured in molds, and this method of fabrication eventually replaced wooden parts.
Reindeer and dragons. Many species of animals and birds were utilized as models for carousel figures. A few unusual forms included reindeer, peacock, sea horse, and dragons.
The horse was the most common sight on the carousel, but it was diverse in appearance, color and in stance
A favorite of the youngsters was the giraffe due to its long neck, this part was quite handy to hang on to when stretching for the brass ring.
A rabbit was not as common, but was seen on circus wagons, calliopes or in formal gardens.
Girls often liked the cat in leaping form, which were painted in more feminine colors and adorned with a prominent bow around its neck.
A few of the animals were stationary, i.e. the camel, twin panthers that were attached together with a cross beam. Pigs, cows and elephants were also static. Horses were produced in various sizes.
Early carousel maker. A renown manufacturer of carved carousels was Joseph Brown of Salem, Mass. Similar to many European immigrants, Brown was quite expert in carving.
He established one of the early carousels in New England at Salem Willows. Three generations of Browns operated this carousel until its ceased operation in 1945 when R.H. Macy Company purchased it.