Fantasy in the Round

When I was little, I loved carousels. Who did not? The colors, the music, the spinning circle; the waving to Mom and Dad every. single. time. I passed them (odd how their smiles started to look just a tad forced by the tenth turn). Most of all, the horses. Fantastic, brightly painted, caparisoned, fierce-eyed horses with tossing manes and proud tails, marching, prancing, galloping, leaping, soaring, whirling. What kid could resist?

The first carousel I remember was in Forest Park, Queens. I actually still recall – and this was a VERY long time ago, mind you – the thrill when I graduated from the small staid beasts on the inside row (for babies!) to the huge (to me) outside stander, and from there to the ultimate ride: an outside jumper. Or, as my tiny self called it, “a nup-and-down horse.”

And then, of course, I grew up enough to perceive carousels as a childish pursuit, and became far too self-conscious to admit even to myself that they still had the power to draw me in.

Fast-forward to when I was in my early twenties (yeah, still a very long time ago), well past that particular brand of self-consciousness, hanging out at Coney Island with a few friends. We discovered a vintage carousel with all the trappings, including a brass ring to grab for! We rode it repeatedly, the four of us collecting handfuls of rings, until we were ordered off by the operator so other people (oh, like maybe actual children?) would have a chance to win the brass.

And so my love for these magical rides was reawakened. I read up on them and gathered as much information as I could in those pre-Internet days. When I come across a carousel now, I try to look at it with an educated eye: how old is it? Are these carved wood, or fiberglass reproductions? Recorded music or an original organ? All hopelessly grown-up questions; what it still boils down to is simply the draw of the beautifully painted, carved, and preserved animals spinning in their prescribed circle.
But I did learn a few things. . .
  • The “Golden Age” of carousel making is considered to be from the late 19th century to the early 20th.
  • There are three main schools of carousel carving: Coney Island Style (showy, flashy, even gaudy; embellished with “jewels” and gilding, often with wild poses and untamed expressions); Philadelphia Style (more realistic and natural-looking, with dignified poses, sweet faces and gentle expressions); and Country Fair Style (a more sturdy, functional style, the better to endure the knocks and bumps of a traveling fair; earlier horses of this style were very simple and stylized. Later versions tended to be strapping, strong-looking animals, though still compact and practical, built to handle frequent moves).
Example of Coney Island Style, Illions Horse
Example of Coney Island Style, Illions Horse
Example of Coney Island Style, Illions lion
Example of Coney Island Style, Illions lion
Coney Island Style: decorative and flamboyant, exemplified by the M. C. Illions and Sons Carousell Works. This is the sole Illions horse on the B&B Carousell in Coney Island, NY; the lion was on the now defunct Illions carousel in Seaside Heights, NJ.
Example of a Philadelphia Style horse
Example of a Philadelphia Style horse
Philadelphia Style: naturalistic and pretty. Dentzel Carousel Company’s carvings are a good example of this style. This horse is on the Dentzel/Looff Carousel in Seaside Heights, NJ.
Example of a later Country Fair Style horse
Country Fair Style: simple and stylized, eventually becoming strong and sturdy. Horses produced by the Allan Herschell Company are among the best-known. This white horse is on one of the six Herschell carousels in the Binghamton, NY area
  • Even though the carved animals go in a circle, they do have a leader! The “lead” horse, always on the outside row, is the fanciest, most decorated figure on the carousel. If you look closely, you might notice it has the markings or initials of the manufacturer. But even the lead horse is only decorated on its “romance” side (i.e., the side that presents to spectators).
  • Those fancy painted panels around the outside of the ride, just below the canopy, are rounding boards. They hide some of the mechanism and can rival the animals in their elaborate design.
  • Speaking of rounding boards, the absolute best (at least, I think they are) are on the historic Herschell carousel in Recreation Park, Binghamton, NY. They depict scenes from The Twilight Zone. There is little Billy Mumy in the creepy It’s A Good Life; Telly Savalas with his stepdaughter’s evil talking doll; William Shatner and the gremlin in Nightmare at 20,000 Feet… But why, you ask? What does a macabre TV series from the 1960s have to do with painted ponies? Well, it turns out that Rod Serling, the show’s creator/writer/narrator, grew up in Binghamton, and actually based one of his TZ episodes on this carousel. It was built in 1925 and was given its Twilight Zone tribute makeover in 2011.
  • …AND there are five other historic Herschell carousels in the Greater Binghamton area! You can take a weekend and visit them all! (Sadly, though, you cannot see a painting of Shatner overacting in any of the others.)
I have barely touched the surface of the subject. I have not said anything about the master carvers; the “menagerie” animals like giraffes, pigs, cats, dogs, and roosters; the music; the decline of the carousel age; preservation efforts. . . but you can explore more yourself.

Try the following websites for good overviews of carousel animals and carousel history:
Or, how about a day trip? Or take a weekend, or even longer, and see these for yourself:

New Jersey and Pennsylvania:

• The Dentzel-Looff carousel in Seaside Heights, NJ. It survived Sandy, the boardwalk fire, and the threat of being auctioned off:
Seaside Heights 1986 horse
Dentzel horse on the Seaside Heights Carousel, 1986
Same horse, 28 years later, repainted
horse at Peddlers Village
Horse at Peddlers Village
Goat at Peddlers Village
Lion at Peddlers Village
Afleet Alex/Elephant
Philadelphia favorite Afleet Alex alongside an elephant
Sea Monster
A sea monster
Smarty Jones
Upstate New York:
Binghamton Horse 1
Binghamton Horse 1
Binghamton Horses
Rochester Mules
Rochester Mules
Rochester Rabbit a goat
Rochester Horse
ABOVE: A Dentzel menagerie: mules, a rabbit and a goat, and oh yes, a horse.

New York City and Suburbs:
  • Playland in Rye, NY:
    (see the Grand Carousel under Family Rides, and the Derby Racer under Thrill Rides)
  • Carousel at Mitchell Park, Greenport, NY. An interesting hodgepodge of old and new, with wooden, aluminum, and fiberglass animals. 

Mitchell Field horse gold tooth
Horse with gold tooth at the Mitchell Field Carousel
Mitchell Field different style horses
Different styles of horses at Mitchell Field
Happy riding!
Barbara S.

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