A merry go round or carousel is a round rotating platform with seats for riders.  Traditionally, the seats are rows of wooden horses or other animals mounted on posts that move the seat up and down to simulate galloping.  Although carousel horses are the most common, carousels often have other popular animals along with chariot or carriage-type seats, some add cars, trains or airplanes.  Many carousels include creatures such as dragons and unicorns.  On the playgrounHandmade Merry Go Round(40340)d, the merry-go-round is generally a simple, child-powered rotating platform with bars and/or handles for children to hold onto while riding.

 The Beginnings of the Merry-Go-Round

 The earliest depiction of a carousel dates to around 500 A.D.; a contraption depicting riders in baskets suspended from a central pole.  In the 12th century Turkish and Arabian horsemen prepared for combat with an exercise and game using a rotating device that strengthened the skills of the cavalry by allowing them to wield swords at mock enemies.  The word carousel is derived from the Italian garosello and the Spanish carosella which translates to “little battle.”   A similar device, the ring-tilt, was used for training and festivities during which riders attempted to spear rings situated around the circumference of the carousel which was rotated by a mule or horse or sometimes by a man.  Carousel was also the term used for a large horse ballet or musical ride that was a feature at festivities such as a royal wedding.

 By the early 19th century, carousels were being built and operated in England and central Europe, most often found at fairs and other gatherings of that type.  Some wagon makers converted their business to making carousels and would travel around the region operating their carousels at different events.

 The first carousels did not have platforms; the animals hung on poles or chains and would fly out from Flying Horses Carouselthe centrifugal force of the spinning mechanism.  These types of carousels are called “flying horses.”  Often they were powered by people pulling a rope or animals walking in a circle.  Some of the carousels were hand cranked to create the rotation.  By the mid-19th century advancements were made such that the carousel platform was developed. The animals and chariots traveled around in a circle sitting on a suspended circular floor which hung from the center pole. These carousels were powered by steam.

 As technology advanced, so did the design of the carousels.  Bevel gears and offset cranks were installed on the platforms which gave the animals the up and down feature as they traveled around the center pole. The platform provided a position guide for the bottom of the pole as well as a place for people to walk and stationary animals and chariots to be placed. Band organs were sometimes built in or if not, were present near the ride.  As technology kept advancing so did the design of the carousel until electric motors took over for the steam-powered mechanisms and electric lights were added to give the carousel its classic look.

 The Carousel Comes to America

 The merry-go-round gradually developed in European countries such as England, Germany, Italy and France, but when it came to America, it reached full scale development.  Gustav Dentzel from Germany came to America in the 1850s with a full and complete large carousel.  To test the American market, in the early 1860s, Gustav set up the family’s carousel in Philadelphia which resulted in great success. He opened a carousel and cabinet workshop in Germantown and this eventually became the headquarters for one of America’s greatest carousel-makers. ShortlyCarousel Horse(40341) after, many other European carousel makers arrived in America.  Woodcarvers and painters trained in their native lands also arrived and worked at the American companies.

 During the 1840s, Franz Wiesenhoffer created the first carousel seen in the United Sates in Hessville, Ohio.  With Dentzel bringing the Philadelphia style; Charles Carmel, Marcus Charles Illions, Hary Goldstein and Mangels, Solomon Stein, and Charles I.D. Loof bringing the Coney Island style; and C.W. Parker out of Kansas and Edward Spillman and Allan Herschell out of Upstate New York bringing the Country Fair style of carousel, the merry-go-round exploded in the United States.  

 The Dentzel company was known for the beautiful horses and lavish use of menagerie animals used on their carousels. Also, the mechanisms on their carousels were considered one of the very best for reliability and durability.  Gustov’s sons, William and Edward Dentzel operated the company until 1927 at which time the death of William brought about the auctioning off of the company. The hardships caused by the depression resulted in many of the carousel businesses closing or diversifying.

 Coney Island’s first carousel was built in 1876 by Danish woodcarver, Charles I.D. Looff.  The oldest functioning carousel in Europe is in Prague in the Czech Republic.  The only descendant left of the Dentzel family who is still making wooden carousels is William H. Dentzel of Port Townsend, Washington.  Double Decker Carousel(40343)

 Another twist came with the double-decker Columbia Carousel. There are two such merry-go-rounds which are the largest and tallest carousels in the world to date. Both are located in the United States; one at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois and the other at California’s Great America in Santa Clara, California.  The Columbia Carousel in Santa Clara was built in 1976 and the Gurnee Columbia in 1977. Each horse on the carousels is a replica of one of the world’s most famous carousel horses.

 The early 20th century is considered to be the golden age of the carousel by many connoisseurs of the ride. At that time, very large carousels were built with elaborate animals and chariots along with colorful and intricate decorations.  While most of the European figures were relative static is their poses, American animals represented much more action with tossed manes, movement and expressive eyes.  In England and Europe, the merry-go-roundCarousel Horses(40342) usually rotates clockwise, but in the United States, they rotate counter-clockwise, perhaps to allow the rider to catch the “brass ring” with their right hand.

 Merry-go-rounds on the playground and colorful carousels at the theme park have fascinated and delighted both children and adults for many, many years. They will continue to be a source of entertainment for years to come as future generations enjoy the thrill of the wind whipping through their hair as they ride the “flying horses.”


The copyright of the article “The History of the Merry Go Round” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.