What is made of wood, is painted more colors than the rainbow, has thousands of legs that never go anywhere, is found all over the United States and is disappearing?
The 283 hand-carved carousels left in America provide the answer of this particular riddle. But the subject of merry-go-rounds raises more questions than might be supposed.
On the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a carousel is once again spinning in celebration of the sunny days of spring and summer. More than a decade ago, a carousel was placed there by the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, S. Dillon Ripley, as a "living extension of the museums."
But even as the carousel in the nation's front yard whirls merrily, an ominous trend continues across the country. Once, thousands of carousels could be found on America's fairgrounds, playgrounds and beaches. They were bright lures dangled at the end of streetcar lines, as trolley companies built amusement parks to encourage riders. Today, only a fraction of these hand-carved wooden treasures of yesteryear remain. And the number diminishes yearly.
For the last seven years, 10 to 20 carousels have been lost each year. In most cases, they have been dismantled; the individual animals have been sold off one by one. Barbara Fahs Charles, a Washington designer of museum exhibitions and an expert on the history of the American carousel, calls the trend "seven years of bad luck."
Most people love merry-go-rounds because they rode them as children. Charles became interested in carousels when she had one for a downstairs neighbor. She lived for a time in an apartment over the Santa Monica Pier carousel, made famous in the movie, "The Sting." This 1922 hand-carved piece of Americana is currently being restored and will reopen soon.
Often, however, a carousel's fate is quite different. "In the past decade, carousel figures have become highly collectible, easily tripling in price -- with the more unusual or finely carved rising the fastest," Charles says. "As the demand for figures has increased, whole operating carousels have decreased in significant numbers."
Is there reason to mourn the loss of merry-go-rounds in America? Would a child's ride be that much missed? The fact of the matter is, the carousel was not created for children. Kids and carousels got together relatively late in the carousel's long and colorful history.
The earliest known visual record of a "carousel" is a 1,500-year-old Byzantine bas-relief depicting riders swinging in baskets tied to a center pole. Down through the centuries, the carousel was known by many names and in various forms in such far-flung parts of the world as India, Turkey, Europe, Mexico and America.
The first carousel recorded in this country was made in New England around 1800. But the carousel industry got its real start, albeit a rocky one, when young Gustav Dantzel hung out his sign in Philadelphia: "G. A. DENTZEL, STEAM AND HORSEPOWER CAROUSSELL BUILDER -- 1867."
In 1870, Dentzel took his first carousel on tour and stopped at Richmond, Va. A group of boys gathered 'round, but instead of hopping aboard they pelted the carousel with stones. When Dentzel protested to police standing idly by, they informed him, "Mister, if you want business, don't ever play 'Marching Through Georgia' in the South."
As new forms of power became available, carousels were turned first by steam, then by electricity. Once, they were even turned by coconuts. On that occasion in 1894, an American merry-go-round salesman, Joseph D. Guinn, arrived in Tahiti with two carousels powered by steam, only to find that no wood or coal was available to fuel the engines. In his memoirs, Guinn wrote, "We fired with coconuts. I stayed there 40 days and did very well -- taking in as much as $625 in a single day."
The carousel business in America was indeed profitable in its golden age from 1880-1930. In this period there were at least 19 carousel-carving shops. Each shop had its unique style, and its individual carvers had their signature touches.
Of course, in the true American spirit, an idea was "borrowed" now and then. "Carvers took styles from each other. They crept under canvases to see what others were doing," says Nina Fraley, a carousel restoration expert who began her career at age 10 by painting fences in her father's amusement park.
Carousel carvers had a geater job cut out for them than sculpting the blocks of raw wood they faced. They were challenged to create instant fantasy. Before choosing a steed, a rider would decide what role to play -- knight, princess, cowboy, circus performer or hunter. The carvers created mounts for them all.
The special carvings on an old wooden carousel are detailed, fanciful, often historically accurate and always on the right side of the animal. Because American carousels turn counter-clockwise, the right side, or "romance" side faces the onlookers and the approaching rider. There was no point in wasting all that work on the side nobody would see.
The Philadelphia Toboggan Company carvers created horses with historically correct coats of medieval armor and weapons. Master carver D. C. Muller was a student of the American Civil War, and his military horses wear authentic cavalry gear. One Dentzel tiger sports a full-length portrait of Teddy Roosevelt stalking his prey, pince-nez and all.
Carver Marcus Charles Illions adorned his horses with portraits of the famous, such as Abraham Lincoln -- and himself (at least one of his horses bears a self-portrait). Another Coney Island carver, Charles Carmel, honored his wife with such a portrait on horseback. Charles Looff created total carousel environments. He designed buildings with stained glass windows which cast a glow on brilliant white horses with gilded manes and trapping encrusted with mirrored jewels that caught the light. The whole was a giant kaleidoscope.
The "Brooklyn Baroque" rose-bedecked steeds of carvers Stein & Goldstein are massive, aggressive chargers with their ears back and teeth bared. Herschell-Spillman carvers created smaller, gentler creatures that would appeal to children. One such delight, a frog, was outfitted in a jacket, bow tie and short pants. "Colonel" Parker's carvers gave their all with Americana: flags, eagles, Indian heads, six-shooters, sunflowers and corn -- on cobs.
The golden age of carousels ended with the Depression as parks closed in response to the failing economy. After World War II, amusement parks and merry-go-rounds experienced a brief revival, but by that time the art of the carousel carver had largely been lost. Metal and, later, fiberglass animals replaced the expuisitely carved wooden creatures. In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, television and other diversions replaced the fantasies of a more innocent day. Many parks, often on prime real estate, were sold to developers.
Today, the old wooden carousels left in America are caught in a vicious circle. Groups and individuals argue about how best to save the survivors. Preservation efforts, however, create publicity about their location and value, which, in turn, creates new interest among those more concerned with profit than with history, art or just plain fun.
Fred Fried, a New York City carousel conservationist, folk art historian and author of "A Pictorial History of the Carousel," would put up a sign in front of the carousel summarizing its future in America. It would read, "IN DANGER."
Marianne Stevens, who restores and sells carousels in New Mexico, and tries to keep them together as operating units, thinks that they can be operated profitably. "If a carousel is in a good location, it will pay its way."
For one Berkeley, Calif., youngster, the issue was neither black nor white, but purple -- at least his prose was. A few years ago, when he heard that the Tilden Park merry-go-round was about to be taken out of the park and sold, he wrote, "Dear Tilden Park: If you take the Merry-Go-Round away, I will hold my breath until I turn purple."
Fortunately, the boy will grow up with a normal skin color. The Berkeley community, with a little help from its friends in local, state and national government, purchased, restored and got on the National Register of Historic Places its horses, giraffes, roosters, zebras and frogs, plus a lion, tiger, dragon, deer, goat, pig, cat, dog and stork.