America's Antique Wooden Carousels

A Brief Overview

About 6,000 wooden carousels were built in the United States between 1890 and 1930. About 180 remain; the rest have been abandoned, destroyed by fire or flood, or broken up and sold to collectors.

On Cafesjian’s Carousel, like many others, all the figures are horses. Other carousels feature menagerie figures such as cats, goats, rabbits, ostriches, pigs, giraffes, and deer. If the figures go up and down as the carousel turns, they are called jumpers. If they are bolted to the floor, they are standers. While European carousels rotate clockwise, American carousels turn counter-clockwise.

The words “Carousel” and “Merry-Go-Round” are interchangable. Early carousels were created in both England and France. The word carousel comes from the French, while merry-go-round seems to come from the English term “roundabout.”

Vintage Carousel Horse

Styles of Carving

Philadelphia Style

The bodies of Philadelphia style animals tend to be large, strong and realistic. They were carved by immigrants working for one of several companies in Philadelphia’s Germantown section. The first of these companies was founded by carver Gustav Dentzel and operated later by his sons William and Edward. Nearby, Philadelphia Toboggan Company employed several of these men on a contract basis and had talented carvers of its own; the most famous was Frank Carretta.

Coney Island Style

The bodies of Coney Island style animals tend to be more slender and stylized than their Philadelphia counterparts. Manes are more fanciful, expressions are more spirited and trappings are often studded with jewels. Among the famous creators of Coney Island style figures are Charles Looff, Marcus Illions and Charles Carmel (three Carmel horses can be found on Cafesjian’s Carousel).

County Fair Style

County Fair figures have small and slender bodies because they were placed on carousels that were taken apart and moved every week or so, making the circuit of fairs and festivals. Among the best-known manufacturers of these portable carousels are the Herschell-Spillman Company of North Tonawanda, New York, and the C.W. Parker Company of Leavenworth, Kansas.

Merry-Go-Roundup Magazine Cover

Resources

The National Carousel Association exists to foster the preservation of historic carousels. They maintain an informative website that includes a census of America’s carousels. They also produce a magazine and offer other information and support to help keep carousels operating. NCA’s annual convention visits carousels around the country, and a technical conference provides information for people who want to learn more about restoring and operating these machines.

Several books describe the history and art of American carousels. Among them:

  • Nancy Peterson and Peter Boehm, State Fair Carousel, Saving a Minnesota Treasure, 2014. The colorful story of Cafesjian’s Carousel, available at the ticket office
  • Eric Pahlke, Treasures from the Golden Age, East Coast Carousels, 2013. ISBN: 978-1467576109 and
    Treasures from the Golden Age, West Coast Carousels, 2010. ISBN: 0615388558
  • William Manns, Peggy Shank, and Marianne Stevens, Painted Ponies: American Carousel Art, 1986. ISBN 0-939549-01-8. (This book sparked Nancy Peterson and Peter Boehm’s interest in antique carousels and led to the rescue of Cafesjian’s Carousel.)
  • Anne Dion Hinds, Grab the Brass Ring: The American Carousel, 1990. ISBN 0-517-57486-1
  • Tobin Fraley, The Carousel Animal, 1987.
  • Charlotte Dinger, Art of the Carousel, 1983. ISBN 0-914507-00-1
  • Frederick Fried, A Pictorial History of the Carousel, 1964. ISBN 0-911572-29-5. (Fried’s pioneering work led to America’s appreciation of carousels as art.)