Tucked away in a nondescript warehouse in Irwindale, CA is one of the world’s largest collections of antique carousel figures.
Carousels may not be able to compete with many of today’s technically advanced rides, yet they are still beloved by amusement park visitors of all ages.
They also play an important role in the evolution of amusement parks. The word “carousel” was first used to describe a game played by Arabian and Turkish horsemen in the 12th century.
The game, which involved tossing a clay ball filled with perfume between riders, was played with such seriousness by the horsemen that the Italian crusaders who first observed the game called it a “little war” or “carosello.” The French adopted this game into their own variety of equestrian competition and from this comes the French word “carousel” that we use today.
In order to prepare for these competitions, a practice device was created which featured legless wooden horses suspended from arms on a central rotating pole.
The pole was rotated either by human, horse, or mule, while the horsemen mounted on the wooded horses practiced games such as spearing a hanging ring with their jousting lances. Traces of this game still exist in a few carousels that include a ring dispenser, such as the 1911 Looff Carousel at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
The carousels used by the French horsemen attracted the attention of bystanders that thought the carousel looked like fun to ride. Before long, carousels were being built specifically for the purpose of entertainment.
By the late 1700s, this suspended version of the carousel was making appearances at fairs and festivals throughout Europe; yet the size of these carousels was greatly limited by the power source, which continued to be either man or horse.
This all changed on New Year’s Day, 1861, when Thomas Bradshaw opened the first steam-powered “roundabout” in Bolton, England. The newly incorporated power system would launch the golden era of carousels that lasted from the late 1800s until the Great Depression.
While the carousel has it origins in Europe, it was American craftsmen that guided it through the golden era.
The American carousels were huge compared to their European counterparts and the woodwork of the horses was extremely elaborate.
One of the earliest and most well known manufactures of carousels was Gustav Dentzel, the son of a German wagon and carousel builder, Michael Dentzel. Dentzel carousels were admired nationwide for their beautiful horses and reliable machinery.
Even Princely frogs love them.
With the mechanical innovations of the late 1800s came many of the more advanced carousel features we are familiar with, such as the up and down motion of the horses as they travel around the platform.
The American craftsmen, not satisfied with only making horses, began to include other creatures on the rides, ranging from zoo animals to mythical beasts.
In addition to Dentzel, other companies producing carousels included the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, M.C. Illions, Stein & Goldstein, and Charles I.D. Looff, who was also a pioneer in roller coaster design.
Owner Lourinda Bray is a collector and restorer of these rare carousel figures.
Some Carousel definitions are probably in order…
Coney Island Style – is associated with very fanciful or spirited horses/menagerie animals, many of which had wild, flowing manes and highly decorated trappings, often with flowers or jewels.
Philadelphia Style – a carving style primarily represented/defined by the works of Dentzel, Muller, and the Philadelphia Toboggan Company (PTC).
It is associated with very realistic-looking horses/animals, who normally were carved with very lifelike poses and expressions.
Country Fair Style – a carving style primarily represented/defined by the works of Dare, Armitage, Herschell, Spillman, and C.W. Parker. This style is associated with smaller, very stylized horses that were intended to be transported from place to place and not installed on permanently-placed carousels.
Outside Row – The outermost ring of any carousel contains the largest and most decorated figures.
This was because the outside row is the one most easily seen by spectators – so the horses intended for the outside row were the ones most heavily decorated.
Middle and inside row horses rarely show all the beautiful carving detail that an outside-row horse carries.
Romance Side – The most highly-decorated side of a carousel horse. Most carousel horses, especially outside-row horses, carried much more decoration on the side of the horse that was going to be seen by the public than on the side that faced towards the center of the carousel.
On American carousels, the Romance Side is on the right side of the horse – on English carousels, it is on the left. The reason for this is the difference in rotation direction between American and English carousels.
Menagerie Figure – Any carousel animal or person that was not a horse. Some popular menagerie figures were tigers…
…and cats, well maybe not like this cat, who was hanging around the warehouse the day we were there and was just too cute to not take a picture of.
Jumpers – normally the ‘moving’ horses on a carousel (either suspended from the overhead or attached to a mechanism from underneath). Another term sometimes used for a horse with all four feet off the platform is galloper.
Prancer – describes a carousel horse/animal that has the two back feet on the platform, and two front feet in the air.
Prancers would most often be found on the outside row of a carousel, though they were not as common as the jumpers or standers.
Stander – describes a horse/animal that has either three or all four feet touching the platform. Outside-row animals are often standers which do not move up and down.
Stargazer – describes a head position where the nose is pointing skyward – towards the stars.
Rounding Board – the decorative boards that are placed on the upper portion of the outside of the carousel, below the canopy, and often carved and brightly painted.
The rounding boards hide the mechanical workings of the carousel.
Running Horse Studio offers the restoration of carousel animals with the emphasis on returning them to the condition in which they were when they left the factory.
Their restoration process includes the removal of all metal additions, such as nails, screws, braces, patches, etc. Also, the removal of dried hide glue, removal of all bondo and epoxy fillers, the replacement of missing pieces such as legs, ears, eyes, tails, trappings, etc., and crisping up the edges and veining.
Their extensive archives make it possible to be quite accurate with the repairs. They also have access to many factory color palates and overpainted decorative patterns and are skilled in the use of metal leaf and tinting.
Whatever you seek in the world of carousel, Running Horse Studio is your one-stop shop. Lourinda and her team stand among the most respected as the source for experts, animal identification, original, classic, or neo restoration, historical knowledge, and an avid passion for all things carousel ~or merry-go-round however you prefer to call them.
They can even take a bag of wood shards and rebuild them into a beloved, fully restored carousel animal.
Teddy Bears also love carousels.
The golden age of the American carousel lasted until the great depression of the 1930’s.
As was the case with most industries during the Great Depression, carousel builders found it difficult to continue production.
In addition to the depressed economy, the rise of the roller coaster in the early 20th century began to overshadow the carousel’s place in the amusement park industry.
Although more would be built once the economy recovered, they were no longer hand-carved, but instead cast in aluminum and fiberglass. However, since the 1970s, there has been a growing interest in restoring many of the old hand-carved carousels and preserving them for future generations. A very small number of carousels from the golden age have survived, but thankfully places such as Running Horse Studio are dedicated to preserving those we still have. Of the more than 4,000 carousels built in America during the “golden age”, fewer than 150 exist intact today. Many people have invested themselves in their carousel collections and pieces. As they grow older, there are fears that their children or others may simply sell off all that they have spent their lives accumulating and appreciating.
Lourinda Bray is in the process of founding a major carousel museum and carousel exhibition center to protect and present carousel figures and all who appreciate them, in a highly favorable light via education and showcase. Like many people who are passionate for the carousel animal, Lourinda does not want carousel pieces or the experience of seeing them forgotten by children who may never ride, or adults who wax nostalgically for them. Hopefully her work and the work of others won’t be forgotten. Carousels may not be able to compete with many of today’s technically advanced rides, yet they are still beloved by amusement park visitors of all ages.