A carousel (carrousel in French) is an amusement ride consisting of a rotating platform with seats for passengers. The "seats" are traditionally in the form of wooden horses or animals, which are often moved mechanically up and down to simulate galloping, to the accompaniment of looped circus music. This leads to one of the machine's alternative names, the galloper. Other popular names are merry-go-round, roundabout and flying horses. "Carousel" is the name most often used in North America, while in Europe the term "merry-go-round" is more common; in context, though, all the terms listed would generally be understood throughout the English-speaking world.
Modern carousels in America are mainly populated with horses. Carousels in Europe, and in America from earlier periods, frequently include diverse varieties of mounts, including dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs, and deer, to name a few. Sometimes, regular chair-like seats are used as well.
Any rotating platform may also be called a carousel. In a playground, a roundabout or merry-go-round is usually a simple, child-powered rotating platform with bars or handles to which children can cling while riding. At an airport, rotating conveyors in the baggage claim area are often called carousels.
As for the Turkish and Arabian horseman, a carousel was built around 1680 as a training device for the ring-tilt, consisting of wooden horses suspended from arms branching from a center pole. Riders aimed to spear rings situated around the circumference as the carousel was moved by a man, horse, or mule. With the development of craft guilds and the relative freeing up of the trades in Europe, by the early nineteenth century carousels were being built and operated at various fairs and gatherings in central Europe and England. For example, by 1745 AD, wagonmaker Michael Dentzel had converted his wagonmaking business in what is now southern Germany to a carousel-making enterprise. 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. Other makers such as Heyn in Germany and Bayol in France were also beginning to make carousels at this time. In its own unique style, England was also rapidly developing a carousel-making tradition.
Early carousels had no platforms: the animals would hang on poles or chains and fly out from the centrifugal force of the spinning mechanism; these are called "flying horses" carousels. They were often powered by animals walking in a circle or people pulling a rope or cranking. By the mid-1800s the platform carousel was developed where the animals and chariots would travel around in a circle sitting on a suspended circular floor which was hanging from the center pole; these machines were then steam-powered. Eventually, with the technological advances of the industrial revolution, bevel gears and offset cranks were installed on these platform carousels, thus giving the animals their well-known up and down motion as they traveled around the center pole. The platform served as a position guide for the bottom of the pole and as a place for people to walk or other stationary animals or chariots to be placed. Fairground organs (band organs) were often present (if not built in) when these machines operated. Eventually electric motors were installed and electric lights added, giving the carousel its classic look.
Although the carousel developed gradually in European countries such as Germany, France, England, and Italy, it did not reach its full scale development until it went into its American phase. This began with several makers, primarily Gustav Dentzel, Michael Dentzel's son, of Germany, and Dare from England. Michael Dentzel sent all four of his sons over to America in the 1850s, one of them, Gustav, with a full and complete large carousel packed away on the steamship. In early 1860 Gustav set up his family's carousel in Philadelphia to test the American market. It met with great success. At the same time he opened up a carousel and cabinet workshop in Germantown. This eventually became the headquarters for one of America's greatest carousel-making families. Shortly after this beginning other carousel makers from Europe began to arrive on American shores. Many fine woodcarvers and painters, classically trained in their European homeland, worked for these early American companies. The Dentzels, being of German origin, also employed other Germans such as the Muller brothers and also many Italians, such as Salvador Chernigliaro.
Several centers and styles for the construction of carousels emerged in the United States, Philadelphia style, with Dentzel and the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, Coney Island style with Charles Carmel, Charles I. D. Looff, Marcus Charles Illions, Soloman Stein and Harry Goldstein and Mangles, Country Fair style with Allen Herschell and Edward Spillman of Upstate New York, and C.W. Parker of Kansas. Early on the Dentzels became known for their beautiful horses and lavish use of menagerie animals on their carousels. Their mechanisms were also considered among the very best for durability and reliability. Gustav's sons, William and Edward operated the company until William's death in 1927 at which time the company was auctioned off. By this time many carousel companies had gone out of business or diversified into other rides due to the hardships of the depression. Young Edward Dentzel, who was operating carousels in Southern California at the time decided to stay there and become a luxury housing contractor in Beverly Hills; he eventually became the Mayor of that city in the early 1950s.
Many carousel connoisseurs consider the golden age of the carousel to be early 20th century America. Very large machines were being built, elaborate animals, chariots, and decorations were superbly made by skilled old-world craftsmen taking advantage of their new freedoms in America. Large amounts of excellent and cheap carving wood were available such as Appalachian white pine, basswood, and yellow poplar. Whereas most European carousel figures are relatively static in posture, American figures are more representative of active beasts - tossed manes, expressive eyes and postures of movement are their hallmarks. The first carousel at Coney Island was built in 1876 by Charles I. D. Looff, a Danish woodcarver. The oldest functional carousel in Europe is in Prague (Letná Park). Another style is a double-decker, where there is a huge carousel stacked on top of another. An example is the Columbia Carousel.
William H. Dentzel of Port Townsend, Washington is the only descendant from a founding American carousel family of the United States still making wooden carousels. His carousels are similar to the oldest operating carousel in the United States in Watch Hill, R.I. (1893) built by the Dare company, a "flying horses" machine. The power sources for Dentzel’s contemporary carousels range from rope-pull to hand-crank to foot-pedal to AC 110 volt electric to DC solar power.
In the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s the carousel was not just a ride of amusement parks, but also an integral part of the urban culture. Many playgrounds, which existed in every yard, were equipped with a standard flower-shaped carousel, made of metallic bars with six wooden seats attached to them.