A History of Carousels

https://www.flickr.com/photos/matt44053/, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Carousels are often a family favorite at parks, carnivals, and amusement parks. They’re fantastically decorated, have options for riders of all ages, and play inviting music. There are various animals to be ridden or carriages to ride in. Everyone from the youngest in the family to the oldest can enjoy a turn around the carousel. The carousel is probably the oldest amusement ride!

There is evidence that the idea of a gently spinning ride goes back to the 6th century in the Byzantine Empire. Specifically Istanbul. Riders would be placed in small baskets attached to a central pole. The pole would be spun and the riders would twirl around the pole. Not bad at all for 500AD!

The merry-go-round as we think of it today actually has its roots in war. Well, training for war, in any case. Have you ever noticed that most carousels have horses as the main animal? There’s a good reason for this. Knights used to have games that involved riding in a circle on their horses to better prepare them for war! In the 12th century, knights from both Asia and Europe would have jousting competitions. The goal, at first, was to knock off their opponent’s hat. Turkish and Arabian warriors would toss fragile glass balls filled with perfume. If someone missed a toss, they would be covered in the perfume and all would know that they had missed a throw. These games were designed to improve their abilities on horseback and make them more effective in war. These games were called “carosella” in Spanish.

Peter Trimming / Jousting at Hever Castle, Kent (9)https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jousting_at_Hever_Castle,Kent(9)-_geograph.org.uk-_1453471.jpg

Starting in the 17th century, knights had to spear their lance through a small ring. To practice this, knights had a contraption with “legless horses.” It gave them the chance to practice when the field, or their horse, were unavailable. It was not only the knights that could use these. Children and commoners were also able to practice riding on top of the “legless horses.” A children’s version of the training carousel was also made in the 17th century. It wasn’t a huge leap from there to go from a training device to entertainment.

Carousels for Entertainment

The first carousels designed for entertainment were lightweight and portable. They traveled to various fairs and gatherings. At this point, merry-go-rounds were mostly wooden platforms with swing-like seats hung from chains, although the mounted horses were added soon after. Mules were enough to move the platform, although some were hand-powered instead. The first merry-go-round in the US was in Salem and was installed in 1799. It was known as the “wooden horse circus ride.” What a mouthful! European and American carousels began to differ. Those in the US were more ornately decorated and larger than their European counterparts. Horses were no longer the only animals depicted but were joined by unicorns, tigers, elephants and other animals.

19th Century Carousels

Carousels began to really take off in the 19th century. Pole mounted mounts were put into place. These replaced the original chain-mounted animals. John Merlin was the first to play music while the carousel was moving. In 1803 his London carousel was immensely popular. Amazingly, carousels were animal or man-powered until 1861. Thomas Bradshaw was the first to create a carousel powered by steam. His carousel was patented in 1863 and made operating them much easier.

In 1870 Federick Savage began designing new carousels that changed out the animals for other seats. Some had boats, others bicycles. His designs were popular and could be found around the world. He also invented a new mechanism to move the horses. Previously the animals sat on springs that would make the animals move as the rider shifted. Savage designed the mechanism at the top of the pole that made the animals shift up and down as the carousel moved.

20th Century

Unfortunately, the 20th century was not kind to carousels. During the Great Depression, many carousels were destroyed, abandoned, or left to fall into disrepair. Of an estimated 4,000 carousels, less than 200 survived. People simply did not have the money to keep them going.

Carousels did not disappear entirely but struggled back to life. Today merry-go-rounds are made of plastic and fiberglass but are no less beautiful than the original wooden merry-go-rounds. Most are now powered by an electric motor and the music played by speaker rather than pipe organ. The absolute wonder and joy of the those who ride them hasn’t changed a bit.

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