“Carousels” were first known as an Arab game, which riders threw a ball at each other. During the 16th century, this word took a new meaning in Europe. It became to name equestrian shows, set up as a demonstration of power and art, known as “maneges” and “carosello”. Mechanical carousels only appear later. Users can sit on wooden animals – most commonly horses – which are placed on a rotating circular platform.
The modern carousel emerged from early jousting traditions in Europe and the Middle East. Knights would gallop in a circle while tossing balls from one to another; an activity that required great skill and horsemanship. This game was introduced to Europe at the time of the Crusades from earlier Byzantine and Arab traditions. The word carousel originated from the Italian “garosello” and Spanish “carosella” ("little battle", used by crusaders to describe a combat preparation exercise and game played by Turkish and Arabian horsemen in the 12th century). This early device was essentially a cavalry training mechanism; it prepared and strengthened the riders for actual combat as they wielded their swords at the mock enemies. By the 17th century, the balls had been dispensed with, and instead the riders had to spear small rings that were hanging from poles overhead and rip them off. Cavalry spectacles that replaced medieval jousting, such as the ring-tilt, were popular in Italy and France. The game began to be played by commoners, and carousels soon sprung up at fairgrounds across Europe. At the Place du Carrousel in Paris, an early make believe carousel was set up with wooden horses for the children.
The royalty of the 18th century wanted to have the fanciest carousel ride possible in their private gardens. This one belonged to a royal French merry-maker, notice the ring catching sticks. I was propelled by a man pushing a rod connected to the center pole shaft while walking around in circles underground in a basement like treadmill space.
A major event of the carrousel was the ring-spearing tournament in which a man would ride his horse or chariot full tilt, lance in hand, toward a small ring hanging from a tree limb or pole by brightly colored ribbons. The object, of course, was to spear the ring. About 300 years ago, an unknown Frenchman got the idea to build a device to train young noblemen in the art of ring-spearing. His device consisted of carved horses and chariots suspended by chains from arms radiating from a center pole. This was probably the beginning of the carousel as we have come to know it.
By the late 1700’s, there were numerous carousels built solely for amusement scattered throughout Europe. They were small and light… their size and weight limited by what could readily be move by man, mule, or horsepower. These limitations were removed with the invention of the steam engine.
The “Chinese Ring Game” in the Tivoli Gardens of Paris, France, 1815. The sticks used earlier to knock off a man’s hat are replaced by the grabbing of rings, showing the evolution of the cavalry practice the carousels were originally designed to do. This was a person-powered ride, look into the pit below.
Traditionally seen as a symbol of leisure activities, the horse is also an animal deeply tied to the children universe. Rocking horses, pony toys or unicorms are objects and fantasy images that have been associated with playtime for centuries.
Children maneges are hardly distinguishable from the imagery of the horse. Used to turn mills, horses are settled to activate children maneges in the Byzantine empire it is only several centuries later that it became mechanical. In the 18th century, maneges are fairs attractions. Across the world, their makers would get fame for their constructions. Michael Dentzel is a chariot maker in Bavaria, he is one of the first to specialize in manege production, before moving his activity to the United States. The next century, Auguste Bayol in France and Friedrich Heyn in Germany are new leaders in this field.
The oldest existing carousel made in 1779 to 1780 stands in Germany at the Wilhelmsbad Park in Hanau. By the early 18th century carousels were being built and operated at various fairs and gatherings in central Europe and England. Animals and mechanisms would be crafted during the winter months and the family and workers would go touring in their wagon train through the region, operating their large menagerie carousel at various venues.
These early carousels had no platforms; the animals would hang from chains and fly out from the centrifugal force of the spinning mechanism. They were often powered by animals walking in a circle or people pulling a rope or cranking.
By the mid-19th century the platform carousel was developed; the animals and chariots were fixed to a circular floor that would suspend from a centre pole and rotate around. These carousels were called dobbies and were operated manually by the operator or by ponies.
In mid-19th century England, the carousel became a popular fixture at fairs. The first steam-powered mechanical roundabout, invented by Thomas Bradshaw, appeared at the Aylsham Fair in about 1861.
In the United Kingdom, merry-go-rounds usually turn clockwise, while in North America and Mainland Europe, carousels typically go anticlockwise
Soon afterwards, the engineer Frederick Savage began to branch out of agricultural machinery production into the construction of fairground machines, swiftly becoming the chief innovator in the field. By 1870, he was manufacturing carousels with Velocipedes (an early type of bicycle) and he soon began experimenting with other possibilities, including a roundabout with boats that would pitch and roll on cranks with a circular motion, a ride he called 'Sea-on-Land'.
In the United States, the carousel industry was developed by immigrants, notably Gustav Dentzel of Germany and Dare from England, from the late 19th century. Several centers and styles for the construction of carousels emerged in the United States: Coney Island style – characterized by elaborate, and sometimes faux-jeweled, saddles – with Charles I. D. Looff; Philadelphia style – known for more realistically painted saddles – with Dentzel and the Philadelphia Toboggan Company; and Country Fair style – often with no saddles at all – with Allan Herschell and Edward Spillman of western New York, and Charles W. Parker of Kansas. The golden age of the carousel in America was the early 20th century, with large machines and elaborate animals, chariots, and decorations being built.
Another great addition was the fact that the new carousels added sound to the carousel ride experience. Using a pipe organ, music was played with the help of steam from the engine blowing through the pipes.
As carousels evolved, roofs were added, the horses moved up and down, and elaborately decorated seats were added for those people who didn’t want to ride the wooden horses.
La Ronde is the current home of “Le Galopant” which is the oldest galloping carousel in the world. Built in 1885 in Bressoux by Belgian craftsmen, it stayed there until 1964 when it moved to New York for their World’s Fair. For Expo 67 it came to Montreal as part of the rides featured in La Ronde. In 2003, the Carousel underwent a meticulous restoration under the current park ownership, Six Flags. More than $1 million was spent to refurbish the ride, which reopened in a new specially landscaped garden in 2007.
An old carousel legend says that there is a lead horse on every carousel. The way to find the lead horse is to look for the biggest, most beautifully decorated horse. Usually, this horse is a war horse or a military horse. Another way to find the lead horse can only be used if there is a chariot on the carousel. The lead horse is the first horse right behind the chariot on the outside of the platform.