A HISTORY OF THE CAROUSEL
courtesy of IAAPA
One possible explanation for this last characteristic is that they had learned from their predecessors' mistakes. Since the carousel's earliest days, it had contained figures other than horses, beginning with gondolas and balloons followed later by a bevy of wild and domesticated animals. This tradition of variety continued in America, whose carvers expanded the range of animals and changed the gondolas to chariots or tubs. However, carousel makers soon discovered that children didn't like menageries as much, or were even intimidated by them; instead, they wanted a "horsey" to ride. By the 1920s, production of menagerie figures had significantly diminished.
Despite the reduction in menageries, plenty of outlets for a carver's creative expression remained via the horses, chariots, and decorative pieces that graced a carousel, and this was crucial, for the incredible talents of these artisans were the key to the magic and majesty of the machines built in the U. S. during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of the best carvers moved back and forth among the first manufacturers, or spent several years working independently, thus a detailed discussion of their accomplishments would be too lengthy for this historical survey. Still, in addition to our previous look at such legendary carvers as Dentzel, Looff, and Illions, no review of the carousel's development would be complete without mention of the whimsical figures of Salvatore Cernigliaro, the realistic military trappings of Daniel C. Muller, the eye-opening embellishments of Frank Carretta, the spirited carvings of Charles Carmel, and the graceful lines of John Zalar.
With tools in hand, these and other gifted craftsmen gave us what has come to be known as the "golden age" of the wooden carousel in America, which extended from around 1880 to the early 1930s. During this time, carousels became ever-more artistically grand and technologically advanced, the latter a result of constant innovation. Gustav Dentzel's first steam-powered machine in the 1870s was followed by a host of additional improvements, including the increasing spread of electricity in place of steam and Mangels' 1907 patent of an overhead cranking mechanism that produced a smoother galloping motion and is still in use today.
This period also witnessed a boom in "children's delights," which were simply kiddie carousels mounted on small trucks or horse-drawn wagons that roamed city streets bringing joy to countless kids, though the phenomenon was short-lived. Conversely, the time-honored tradition of ring-catching continued to enthrall young and old alike, with a free ride to anyone who could "grab the brass ring" and a head full of straw for those few who tumbled off in the attempt.
One peculiar characteristic of the "golden age" was a common belief among the general public that many of the carousels they were riding had been built in Europe. In actual fact, only a handful of European machines were ever shipped over to the U. S. ; keen competition from America's own carousel makers, as well as high tariff and transport costs, made such a venture unprofitable, if not almost impossible. That having been said, export opportunities did exist, as evidenced by the delivery records of the Spillman Engineering Corporation (a descendant of the Armitage-Herschell Company) which show shipments to the Philippines, South Africa, Japan, Italy, Australia, Azerbaijan, Singapore, France, and elsewhere.
The cause of America's confusion during this era over the origins of its carousels was two-fold. First, a majority of the earliest band organs which began accompanying machines from the mid-1880s were actually imported from Germany, France, and Italy. The overseas factory locations emblazoned on their gilded facades were usually the only visible manufacturer's markings anywhere on the entire carousel, thus giving patrons the impression that the ride was foreign-made. This misleading situation was further exacerbated following the successful unveiling of a genuine German carousel, "El Dorado," at Coney Island's Steeplechase Park in 1911; hoping to capitalize on such exotic glamour, many U. S. operators made phony claims that their carousels were German, too.
Cases of mistaken identity attributable to band organs started to decrease during this period, however, as America developed the ability to produce its own versions of this magnificent device. Established in 1891 by the Armitage-Herschell Company to supply organs for its machines, the North Tonawanda (N. Y. ) Barrel Organ Factory was the first of these domestic manufacturers. In the early decades of the twentieth century, several more companies followed, including the famous Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, as well as others like Artizan Factories Inc. and Stinson. These firms played an important role in the "golden age" of America's wooden carousels, for the brassy, thumping music emanating from their elaborate organs was, and still is, an integral part of the ride's magic.
In the latter half of this famous era, portable carousels made by both C.W. Parker and Herschell-Spillman (another descendant of Armitage-Herschell) found their way to Mexico in increasing numbers as part of travelling carnivals and fairs. Such machines greatly influenced the carvers who went on to pioneer the Mexican carousel industry, beginning with Mucio Juarez in the 1920s, followed by his protégé Ricardo Flores and Flores' students, Luis Ortega and Ismael Serrano.
Located mainly in the state of Puebla south of Mexico City, these and other craftsmen built movable carousels stocked with small ornate yet muscular figures for locally-based carnival operators who criss-crossed the country. While the Mexican industry still produces some wooden carvings for its carousels, most are now aluminum figures cast from molds of the pioneers' original creations.
This evolution in Mexico's carousel making process was a result of developments that had begun to affect both American and European manufacturers as early as the second half of the "golden age" period, just after the dawn of the twentieth century. In the first few decades of the 1900s, the introduction of the reproducing pantograph (which could "rough out" the bodies and heads of six carousel figures at a time from one preset pattern) fueled an industry boom. A shortage of raw materials caused by World War I further widened adoption of this and other advanced manufacturing techniques, such as the use of aluminum for selected portions of the figures.
The financial distress resulting from the global economic depression of the 1930s provoked a final, conclusive wave of conversion to these new, more cost-effective methods, including completely aluminum figures, and thus brought an end to the "golden age" of hand-carved wooden carousels. Soon thereafter, the all-encompassing turmoil of World War II significantly impacted and altered the industry yet again, first with its demands on manpower, supplies, and machinery, then through the technological innovations which emerged in the early 1940s and were refined during the post-war period.
The most notable of these advances, in terms of carousel manufacture, were improvements in the production and durability of fiberglass. Over the next quarter century, fiberglass gradually supplanted aluminum as the favored material for figures, chosen by contemporary carousel makers for its strength and later its molds that could replicate the detailed patterns created by the master carvers of the "golden age".
While these modern methods are the nuts and bolts of today's industry, the spirit of those grand turn-of-the-century machines remains ever-present. We see it not only in the molds based on classic carvings and the bright artistry of an entire ride, but also in the wooden figures still being produced for existing and new carousels by the aforementioned Mexican craftsmen, companies like Carousel Magic! of Mansfield, Ohio, USA, and a new generation of talented individual carvers throughout the United States.
So the next time you climb aboard a carousel, perhaps you'll see it as more than just an amusing and enjoyable ride; in actuality, a rich past and an enduring legacy make it a timeless tradition connecting past, present, and future generations.
"A History of the Carousel" courtesy of IAAPA (International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions).
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