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The History of the Carousel | Origins of the Carousel

Posted on 2020-04-15

Do you remember carrying cotton candy in one hand and a fist full of nickels in the other as you made your way to the merry-go-round? It’s an iconic memory to which many people can relate.

Today, we know these classic amusement rides to have beautiful rotating centers with platforms of crafted horses, galloping in circles. Sometimes an organ is playing, sometimes you're grabbing brass rings and sometimes you’re watching from the side, holding all the prizes.

Also called merry-go-rounds, jumpers, horseabouts, gallopers and flying horses, carousels originated from an interesting past that dates back more than a thousand years. In this guide, we'll take you through the history of the carousel and show you how it came to be what it is today.

the history of the carousel

Where Did the Carousel Originate?

The carousel has a long-standing history that dates back to the sixth century. With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Europe was split into many kingdoms, which were competing for wealth and land. It was a time when war was the center of life.

So, how does this relate to the history of the merry-go-round? The concept of the carousel machine originated in the sixth century in Byzantium, known today as Istanbul. The invention had a rotating center with poles that reached outward. Tied to the poles were baskets that swung riders in a circle. This concept ties into the 12th century, where horsemen began using the device for battle training.

What Is the Origin of the Carousel?

Inspiration for the merry-go-rounds we know today came from 12th-century Asia and Europe. Horsemen would play jousting competitions, using the same concept from centuries before. It was a way for them to practice their cavalry riding skills for combat training. Initially, they would ride atop horses in a circle, and the goal was to knock off the man’s hat who was holding a stick. It prepared and made them stronger for war.

Turkish and Arabian warriors would also throw breakable clay balls of perfume at their opponents while riding on the poles in a circle. Whoever was hit would lose and reek of perfume until they were able to wash. Both the jousting and ball-tossing competitions were called “the little battle.” 

The word "carousel" comes from the Spanish translation, “carosella."

horsemen fighting in arena

Spearing Competitions

The 12th-century game then changed in the 17th century — the riders would spear small rings that were covered in bright ribbons on the overhead poles. Known as the ring-spearing tournament, the concept got rid of jousting and was now a practice device for competitors.

The 17th-century device used legless horses and chariots suspended from the center pole’s chains, which allowed the horsemen to practice spearing games with their jousting lances. Commoners also had an interest and started participating — you didn’t have to be a knight to play. Even a children’s carousel was made during this time with small horses.

When Did Carousels Become Popular?

While the 12th and 17th-century style carousels were ideal for battle practice, jousting games and spearing competitions, the 18th century saw a change from practical use to entertainment.

18th Century Carousels: A Shift Toward Entertainment

The popularity of the merry-go-round began in the 18th century when carousels started arriving in European and English fairground attractions. They got rid of any training techniques from the previous generations and converted the rotating pole with chains into something more fun.

Families in the carousel line of business would craft the animals of wood during the winter, then tour during the warmer months around the country — from one fair to the next. They would mount the carousel on a wagon and operate the merry-go-round at different venues.

These 18th-century carousels didn’t have platforms with horses. Instead, they had seats that hung from chains. The gallopers were lightweight and small, so a man or mule could operate the machine.

As you can imagine, riders suspended in the air via poles didn’t make the carousel particularly safe. As the machine increased speed, the centrifugal force on the horses often caused the riders to fly outward. Although it didn’t move as fast as the carousels we know today, it was still enough to slide people off. It started to become known as the “flying-horses,” which was quite a fitting name.

18th century carousel

The first merry-go-round known in the U.S. was in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1799. It was referred to as the “wooden horse circus ride.” Carousels in the United States were much larger than those found in Europe and England with more elaborate woodwork.

Carousel workers also started adding zoo animals like tigers and zebras, along with mythological creatures like unicorns and dragons.

19th Century Carousels: What Was the First Modern Carousel?

In the 19th century, European carousels were remodeled to have platforms with figures fixed to the base — the same concept we know and ride on today. Newer carousels were called dobbies and still rotated with chariots and animals. But instead of the free-flying horses and seats on the earlier versions, the 18th-century carousel figures were pole-mounted.

As the admiration of the newer merry-go-rounds grew, so did the complexity of the amusement rides. Since the addition of the platforms, carousels also had planks that extended from the top of the rotating center. The planks would extend outward over the animal figures, where both would connect via a pole. This new design took the place of the chain directly linked to the rotating center at a diagonal angle. The poles included a bearing halfway down to keep them from shifting while the ride was in motion.

In 1803, John Merlin was the first to play music while people rode on his carousel in London. His particular galloper was inside a museum, where only the noble rode. The horses would gallop to the music, creating a night full of entertainment and fun. However, he didn’t patent his idea. In later years, his idea of playing music while people rode the carousel became more popular.

The popularity of the carousels continued to expand in the 1880s, thanks to the Industrial Revolution. The carousel industry was a thriving trade. Amusement parks were a profitable investment as people began to move to the cities and out of the rural areas. In those days, amusement parks were called “trolley parks” because they were often built by streetcar businesses trying to pull in weekend and late-night traffic.

In 1860, Gustav Dentzel arrived in the U.S. at age 20 from Germany. He was quickly revered as the pioneer of the modern American carousel. He started his early years in Germany making cabinets, then changed his career to include building steam and horse-powered carousels once he arrived in the states. Another notable immigrant was Charles Dare from England, who influenced the merry-go-round’s popularity.

Many styles emerged in the U.S. during this time, such as:

  • Coney Island: These carousels feature elaborate and jeweled saddles.
  • Philadelphia: Carousels in Philadelphia had realistic saddles.
  • County fair: County fairs that featured carousels often had no saddles at all.

carousel in amusement park

While the merry-go-rounds found popularity at fairs in the 18th century, they became even more popular in amusement parks during the mid-1800s. And even though the carousel was undergoing many evolutions, the machines were still operated manually. If worked by a human, they would use a hand crank or pull rope to rotate the center pole. If a mule or horse was rotating the machine, they would attach to a pole and move around the carousel.

Mid-19th Century Carousels

In the middle of the 19th century, power was starting to become a major downfall of the ride until Thomas Bradshaw came along. He invented the first steam-powered carousel in 1861, which was introduced at the Aylsham Fair. He patented the design in 1863, launching steam-powered rides in fairgrounds and amusement parks across the country.

Seven years later, in 1870, Fredrick Savage began building fairground machines. It wasn’t uncommon for an artisan to pick up the trade, but in Savage’s case, he was a chief innovator of carousels — his work was all over the world.

He enjoyed experimenting with different figures that could take the place of the horses. For example, he invented a carousel where velocipedes, an early version of the bicycle, replaced the horse figures. He also designed other objects like boats that would give you the feeling of riding at sea.

Fredrick savage carousel

What he’s most known for is inventing the mechanism that moves the horses up and down — an iconic characteristic of the carousel we know today. The invention used gears and offset cranks to create the movement of galloping horses, making you feel like you were horseback riding.

Before Savage’s invention hit the market, some merry-go-round horses rocked back and forth via a coiled spring. The spring was mounted to the platform behind the figure, causing it to bounce forward.

The platform Savage used on his amusement park rides was like a guide to hold the bottom of the pole carrying the horse figures. The boards also helped people walk to the stationary animals. Savage referred to this ride as the “Platform Galloper.”

20th Century Carousels

Throughout the centuries, carousels increased in popularity with each new invention. People across the United Stated loved the amusement park rides that galloped them in circles. But when the Great Depression hit in late 1929, the country suffered. Many merry-go-rounds were destroyed during this tragic time. Afterward, the trivial rides struggled to gain back their glory.

However, that’s not to say they disappeared. Carousels were and remain one of the most iconic rides in any amusement park or local fair. One of the greatest carousels of all time has 269 hand-carved animals, more than 20,000 lights and 182 chandeliers, along with hundreds of angels hanging above the ride. The House on the Rock, located in Spring Green, Wis., features this stunning merry-go-round. The house opened in 1959, and the attraction was built in 1981.

carousel with 20,000 lights and 182 chandeliers

The oldest carousel in the United States is the Flying Horses Carousel in Oak Buffs, Massachusetts. It was constructed in 1876 by Charles Dare and is one of several merry-go-rounds where you can still grab brass rings. It’s considered a National Historic Landmark.

The Evolution of the Carousel

The true evolution of the merry-go-round began in the 19th century. Even though you can see it transform from a jousting and spearing sport to a ride of entertainment in its earliest years, you start to see drastic changes throughout the 1800s.

evolution of the carousel

The Industrial Revolution

The rise of the carousel’s golden age was greatly attributed to America’s rise in entertainment, industry, transportation and even the construction of new cities. People also had more time for leisurely activities, more prosperity and extra money that they could spend on entertainment. Even the surge of immigrants to the states boosted the ride’s popularity and destiny for a change.

The Industrial Revolution was a time where talented carvers from England, Europe and Germany came to the United States to get into the carousel industry. With them, they brought more elaborate and intricate designs and carvings. They also supported the idea of producing larger gallopers compared to those found in Europe at the time.

More Extravagant Designs and Larger Rides

The stunning carvings gave way to the evolution of many new designs. For example, the classic horse style transformed into war, whimsical, Indian and parade horses as well as ponies. Craftsman even carved animals from the jungle, such as giraffes. There were pets like cats, rabbits and dogs, and even teddy bears that you could ride on. Not all carousels were like the classic merry-go-rounds with horses. Even more so, some replaced the chairs with swings, sails and even cars.

Throughout the attraction’s progression, the carousel started to sport roofs and low-riding seats for those who didn’t want to prop themselves on a horse. Most of the earlier gallopers were designed for transportation from one city to the next via trains or wagons. But as competition grew with the new craftsmen arriving from overseas, carousel engineers started to build fancier and bigger attractions than their local competition and those in England. After reaching grand sizes, merry-go-rounds were no longer portable.

Some carousels have lead horses that are bigger and more decorated than others on the platform. The lead horses are often referred to as military horses, usually riding behind the chariot. They are found on the outside of the platform. The warhorses may have a possible relation to the 12th-century versions where people used the machines for battle training.

lead horse on a carousel

Back in the day, carousel horses and other animals were made from several pieces of wood. The center was made of wooden panels that shaped a hollow body, then the legs, head and tail were attached later on. It was an intricate process that included woodworkers, carvers and painters.

At the beginning of the carousel’s golden age, there was often one person who crafted horses and other animals. But as the industry grew, companies started to employ carvers, painters, salesmen and machinists to get the job done.

Merry-Go-Rounds Today

Today, carousel horses often aren’t made of wood, but from aluminum and fiberglass. We also rely on electric motors as opposed to steam. With electric motors, the merry-go-round can also support the upgrade of lights. Many modern rides have lights that outline the circular roof and rotating center. In the evening, it’s a grand sight to see a carousel light up while playing music.

Carousels also started having pipe organs that played music as riders rode around in circles. The pipes were played via the carousel’s engine steam. The idea first came from John Merlin in 1803 but wasn’t popularly recognized until centuries later. Many historic merry-go-rounds across the country are accompanied by vintage self-playing band organs.

Carousel horses have three basic stances — standing, prancing and jumping:

  • Standing: If a horse has all four legs on the ground, it’s a standing figure. 
  • Prancing: When its two rear legs are on the ground, and the front two are in the air, they’re called prancers. 
  • Jumping: When they have all four legs off the ground, they are known as jumpers and can move up and down. Jumpers are most people’s favorite because they feel the most like riding on a real horse.

In the United Kingdom, merry-go-rounds rotate clockwise with the horses facing the left, while in North America and Europe, the rides operate counterclockwise with the horses turned to the right.

modern day carousel

The evolution of the carousel started as a training ride for men going into battle, then transformed into an attraction of entertainment and joy. In the 19th century, the ride advanced quicker and more profoundly, leading to what we know today. Whether you call it a merry-go-round, roundabout or galloper, the amusement ride is among peoples’ most favorite pastimes.

View Other Entertainment History Resources: 

Where to See Old School Carousels

The Carousel Pavilion at Volo Auto Museum holds vintage carousels, restored chariots and hand-carved horses. Instead of only reading about the history of merry-go-rounds, you can experience it firsthand at our new 2020 exhibit. You’ll have the chance to see the beautiful detailing of the 19th century as well as more modern takes on the historical attractions. You can also see self-playing band organs and music machines from different countries around the world.

We give you the chance to see old school carousels, whether you grew up riding them as a kid or have an interest in their distinctive history. It’s a great time for the entire family or as a solo trip.

Come to the Volo Museum to Experience the History

Visit Volo to see vintage carousels and learn more about how it evolved into one of the most classic amusement park attractions. We have more than 30 unique exhibits, including the Carousel Pavilion. Our museums are open year-round, so you and your family can enjoy irreplaceable experiences, no matter the time of year. Volo is a family-owned and operated museum. We have been around since 1960 and are excited to continually share new exhibitions with you.

Check out the Carousel Pavilion to feel a sense of nostalgia or to witness history in front of your eyes. You can also contact us online for more information about our facilities.

 the carousel museum at Volo