Taller than 36 inches, long since out of elementary school, waaaay past goofy teenager...but still looking for a valid excuse to go indulge that merry-go-round-riding love that you never outgrew? Then July 25 is your lucky day, because it's Merry-Go-Round Day.
Call it what you will: carousel, galloper, roundabout, flying horses, or good 'ol merry-go-round, this circular musical horsie ride has been around for a long, long time - but it used to be serious business indeed.
"Carousel" originates from the Italian garosello, and the Spanish carosella ("little war"), and began as a combat training exercise for Arabian horsemen in the 12th century. To test a rider's skill, scented clay balls were thrown from one Arabian horsemen to another. If the rider was untouched by the scent of the clay, they were considered to be a superior rider. (No word on whether the scent was lovely, or...well...not.)
The earliest known carousel as a recreational ride is depicted on a Byzantine Empire bas-relief circa 500 A.D. It shows riders in baskets suspended from a central pole. (Doesn't sound terribly exciting, but I guess you had to be there.)
The carousel continued to evolve, and by the early 20th century - considered the Golden Age of the carousel in America - the contraptions had grown to become very large machines containing elaborate animals, chariots and decorations made by Old-World craftsmen who brought their considerable skills with them to America. (Quite a step up from hanging baskets!)
Some Carousel Comparisons
- Modern versions of the carousel in America are mainly horses, while modern European versions have more variety: dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs, and deer, among many others.
- European carousel figures are usually in a still position (such as standing), while their American counterparts tend to be in more "active" poses: tossed manes, expressive eyes, etc.
- In the UK and Europe, carousels usually run clockwise. In North America, they typically run counterclockwise.
Some Fast Carousel Facts
- The first carousel at Coney Island, New York, was built in 1876 by Charles I. D. Looff, a Danish woodcarver.
- The oldest functional carousel in Europe is in Prague (Letna Park).
- The oldest operating carousel in the U.S. is in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, built in 1893. This is a "flying horses" machine (animal figures are suspended from a central pole and fly out from the centrifugal force of the spinning mechanism).
- Double-decker carousels - one of which is Columbia Carousel, found in Six Flags Great America and California Great America - are where one huge carousel is stacked on top of another.
- William H. Dentzel of Port Townsend, Washington, is the only descendant from a founding American carousel family of the USA who is still currently making wooden carousels.
Some Carousel Terminology
- The most decorative horses are the ones that face the public. This is referred to as the "romance side."
- Carousel benches are called "lover's seats" or "chariots (gondolas)."
- The horse on the outside and directly behind the chariot is referred to as "Lead (King) Horse."
Still want to learn more? Then point your traveling self to Sandusky, Ohio - home to the Merry-Go-Round Museum. If you can't get there in person, their website is full of fun: facts, history, and of course...a gift shop. And if a virtual visit just doesn't do it for ya, I bet you can find a carousel ride not too far from your neck of the woods. After all, it's a holiday, right? It would be unpatriotic not to get to one somehow...