Bells clang. Lights flash. Organ music swells in a marching tune. Painted horses rise and fall—slowly at first, then faster and faster as the carousel turns.
The carousel, or merry-go-round, was not invented by any one person. The name carousel comes from the ancient Italian word carosello, meaning “little war.” In the twelfth century, the carosello was a game played on horseback in Arabia and Turkey. Riders carried fragile clay balls filled with perfume. They threw the balls to each other as they galloped in a circle around an open field. The object was to catch the perfume balls without breaking them.
Travelers to Arabia and Turkey brought carosello back to medieval Europe. By the early 1600s, the French had changed the name to carrousel and turned it into a fancy tournament between two teams of horseback riders who tried to hit each other with the perfume balls. The carrousel was held in a large square decorated with bright ribbons. Everyone wore beautiful costumes, even the spectators.
Another part of the French carrousel was a ring-spearing tournament, called the quintain. Horseback riders tried to spear a ring tied to the end of a ribbon hanging from a post.
In about 1680, the French also invented a merry-go-round, or carousel, that was used to train young noblemen for the quintain. Painted horses hung by chains nailed to overhead wooden beams attached to a center pole. As the ride was turned by servants, the horsemen tried to spear a brass ring with their lances.
Soon people who were not training for tournaments discovered that they, too, enjoyed riding the wooden horses. Enterprising businessmen began nailing hobbyhorses onto a round platform with a pole in the middle. They operated these carousels in public parks and charged money for each ride. Thus the merry-go-round as we know it today was born.
Early carousels, having four to six horses each, were much smaller than modern ones because they had to be turned by horses or mules. Sometimes a man turned the platform.
In about 1870, Frederick Savage, an English engineer who also invented the cranking device that makes merry-go-round horses move up and down, built the first carousel powered by steam engine. Steam power enabled larger merry-go-rounds to be built. Skilled craftsmen carved beautiful horses with flowing manes and jeweled eyes. An umbrella-shaped top was constructed over the carousel. Riders played a version of the ancient quintain, trying to grab a brass ring and win a free ride. Electricity eventually replaced steam engines, and merry-go-rounds entered their golden age.
Although horses are the traditional merry-go-round animal, carousel makers also carved dragons, mermaids, jungle beasts, and circus animals. Ornate mechanical organs, somewhat similar to player pianos, provided music.
In America, the merry-go-round entered its brightest period when Gustav Dentzel, a German immigrant, built his first carousel in 1867. Other famous carousel makers soon followed. Each hired skilled woodcarvers and built his own style of merry-go-round. Dentzel excelled in elegant horses and circus animals. Charles Looff was noted for his spirited horses captured in motion. Some of M. C. Illions’s horses had wild manes sticking straight up.
The Great Depression caused many merry-go-round builders to go out of business. Today carousel animals are made from metal and fiberglass. Fewer than one hundred of the old hand-carved carousels remain in the United States. Merry-go-round lovers have started a movement to restore these carousels exactly as they were in their golden age, for despite the thrill of giant Ferris wheels and speeding roller coasters, only the merry-go-round takes you back in time to castles and kings and knights in shining armor.