A HISTORY OF THE CAROUSEL
courtesy of IAAPA
The smiles and laughter which carousels inspire is a centuries-old tradition; in fact, today's carousels are the proud inheritors of a rich history stretching back 1,500 years.
The earliest known record of a carousel device is a Byzantine etching from 500 AD which portrays riders swinging in baskets tied to a center pole (the Byzantine Empire consisted of varying parts of present day Italy, Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey from 395 AD to 1453 AD). Evidence of carousel-like activities in ancient Mexico and India has also been uncovered.
Yet, the origins of the word "carousel" actually have a more direct connection to their modern mechanical brethren than do the above forerunners of the ride itself. Carousel is derived from the words "garosello" (Italian) and "carosella" (Spanish), both of which mean "little war" and were used to describe the serious game which Italian and Spanish crusaders saw Arabian and Turkish horsemen playing in the twelfth century: little clay balls filled with scented water were tossed back and forth between the riders; losers were those who missed a catch and smelled of perfume for days as a consequence.
The crusaders brought this game back to Europe, where it spread to various countries, including France in the late fifteenth century. The French called the game "carrousel" and ultimately transformed it into a grand event of pageantry and horsemanship. A highlight of the "carrousel" was the ring-spearing tournament in which riders used their lances to spear small rings suspended between two posts while moving at full gallop. This activity required a steady lance, advanced horsemanship, and a sharp eye - qualities which came mainly through experience and practice.
Such practice became more convenient in France around 1680, when someone had the idea of hanging legless wooden horses from arms attached to a center pole; young princes then trained for the tournament by "riding" these figures and attempting to spear small rings dangled along the outer edge of the device as it was powered round and round by a horse, mule, or servant. Thus, the carousel as we know it was born, albeit in very rudimentary form. (Here, also, we see the source of the phrase "grab the brass ring" - more on that below. )
Soon thereafter, local craftsmen began producing an increasing number of these relatively simple machines as it became apparent that other members of the nobility, particularly ladies and children, and the general public were both eager to climb aboard this new "carrousel," too (the device having taken the name of the royal pageants which inspired its creation).
Carousels subsequently started appearing in other parts of Europe and even America over the next two centuries (sporadically in the 1700s, but more steadily in the early and mid-1800s), all the while taking various forms and undergoing several innovations, including the introduction of non-horse figures, power supplied by hand-crank, and figures riding on wheels or on arms emanating from the bottom, rather than the top, of the Centerville. In addition, the ring-catching tradition of France's young princes was preserved through devices which allowed the rider to either spear a ring with a mini-lance or reach out and grab one by hand.
It was also during this period that the carousel started to pick up some of the many different names it is known by the world over: roundabouts, gallopers, and tilts in the United Kingdom; caroussels and "maneges de chevaux de bois" in France; stoomcaroussels in The Netherlands; torneos in Italy; karussels in Germany; and flying horses, carousels, whirligigs, steam riding galleries, carry-us-alls, flying (or spinning) jinnies, hobby horses, and, of course, merry-go-rounds in America.
Despite this growing popularity, carousels continued to be limited in their further development by the relatively primitive power sources then readily available: horse, mule, or man. All that changed in 1870, however, when an English engineer-manufacturer named Frederick Savage found a way to improve upon his contemporaries' initial efforts to apply steam power to carousels, thereby increasing the feasible size and scope of these machines (the modification accelerated the switch from figures hanging by free-swinging chains to ones sitting atop a sturdy platform suspended from the center pole's arms). Within a few years of this enhancement, Robert Tidman, an amusement ride manufacturer from England, designed one of the first up-and-down cranking devices that gave the horses their now-familiar galloping motion.
Building upon these innovations, the modern-day carousel rapidly took shape, guided by the tradition of artistry and music which had been handed down in one form or another since France's original "carrousel" pageants. Machines could now support two and three (eventually up to five) concentric rows of elaborately carved wooden horses and various other animals ("menagerie" figures), as well as the many decorative panels and trimmings which were used to give the carousel a grand appearance by hiding its mechanics. Musical accompaniment also evolved, from the simplicity of a drum or set of bells to the rich sounds of a band organ.
Consequently, public demand for carousels reached new heights in much of Europe and America, rising steadily in the years approaching the turn of the century and then truly booming in the two decades following 1900. This demand was further stoked by the increased number of amusement parks built on both continents during the latter period which provided numerous additional sites for a ride that previously had been found mainly in picnic groves, fairs, town parks, and seaside resorts. Wherever it was located, the carousel became a central part of a magnificent social event, as crowds of people in their "Sunday best" would climb aboard a favorite steed or just sit and listen to the lively music while enjoying the breeze generated by the machine.
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