Photos and profile by Caryn B. Davis

The modern carousel finds its roots in jousting traditions performed by knights in Europe and the Middle East. They rode in circles, throwing balls to one another as a way to improve their dexterity and horsemanship. The calvary took it one step further, trading balls for swords to prepare for battle. Later, brass rings on poles were introduced for riders to spear with swords or jousting lances to further refine deftness. This game gained in popularity among commoners, and chariots were implemented; so women, restricted by their clothing and unable to mount a horse, could still participate. Eventually, the idea of a carousel took hold and carved wooden horses replaced live ones. These crude merry-go-rounds first appeared at fairgrounds throughout England and Europe.

Ultimately, they made their way across the Atlantic Ocean; but unlike the European model, American carousels were altered to rotate counterclockwise. Also, the rounding boards found at the top of the carousel used to hide the mechanism, were decorated with mirrors or motifs rather than typography.

“There were thousands of carousels at the turn of the last century. This is what people did with their leisure time. Together with their families and a picnic basket, they dressed in their Sunday finery and took the trolley to the end of the line where the smart transportation companies had built picnic groves, then merry-go-rounds, and later Amusement Parks,” says Louise DeMars, Executive Director of the New England Carousel Museum (NECM).

During their heyday, there were three basic styles of carving that emerged – the Country Fair Style, the Philadelphia Style, and Coney Island Style. The Philadelphia Style horses were very stately and realistically carved in lifelike poses and expressions. These were found on carousels in public parks and represented the works of artists like Daniel Muller and the Dentzel Carousel Company. The Coney Island Style was the glitziest of them all. They were carved with flaming manes and adorned with flowers or jewels. Artist, Marcus Illions and builders, Stein & Goldstein are synonymous with creating these types of carousels. By contrast, horses crafted in the Country Fair Style were less ornate and smaller because they traveled from fairground to fairground, rather than remaining in a fixed location. Ears and tails were carved directly into the head or body to avoid breakage during transport. Carver and builder, Charles Dare and carver, John Zalar are most associated with style.

“Dare carved the carousel in Watch Hill, Rhode Island and Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts in the same year. Watch Hill claims they are the oldest antique wooden carousel still operating in the country, and Martha’s Vineyard says the same thing,” laughs DeMars.

Original Lake Compounce horse replaced in 1911

Most of the horses and menagerie figures which constitute wild, domestic, and mythical animals and creatures are carved into three distinct stances that include a Prancer (two legs up, two legs down), a Stander (all four feet remain on the carousel platform), and a Jumper (all four feet are off the carousel platform). Jumpers also move up and down. The largest and most opulent equines command the first row, while the smaller and less ornamental horses occupied the inside rows.

“As you get closer to the center pole, the circle gets smaller and so do the horses to accommodate that. There was wisdom in how these machines were designed. The horses on the outside rows were only elaborately carved on one side. The backside was plain,” explains DeMars.

In the early 1940s thrill rides were invented, and the carousel became passé. Today there are less than 200 antique wooden carousels operating in the United States with three in Connecticut at Lighthouse Point Park in New Haven, Lake Compounce in Bristol, and at Bushnell Park in Harford, which has been completely restored and is managed by the NECM

The NECM is located in Bristol and housed inside an 1837 hosiery factory. It started as a carousel building and restoration business but gained non-profit status in 1990 after the company went bankrupt. The first horse the museum acquired was built in 1895 by the U.S. Merry-Go-Round Company. It came off a carousel at Lake Compounce and remains on display with approximately 150 other horses, menagerie and chariot pieces, and a fully functional Venetian carousel that had been used in a mall in Florida before being donated to the museum. The collection is well rounded with pieces representing some of the greatest carousel manufacturers and carvers of the day.

“Carousels were considered to be too tame, so people started busting them up. That is the correct terminology used for carousels that have been dismantled, sold off, or thrown away,” explains DeMars. “Eventually people woke up and realized they were antiques. There was a big rush to save what was left. We fight like mad if we hear one is in jeopardy. We may not have any money, but we have voice.”

The primary mission of the NECM is to preserve and protect “operating carousels and carousel memorabilia, and to create new carousel material for the education and pleasure of the general public.” This is why the museum will not accept a donation if they can’t document the life of the article going back at least 15 years, ensuring it did not recently come off a busted up carousel. They also retain an onsite wood shop and painting studio where they create, repair, and restore pieces from their own collection and from others under their charge such as the 1914 Stein & Goldstein Bushnell Park carousel; the 1927 Philadelphia Toboggan Company Merry-Go-Round at Heritage State Park in Holyoke, Massachusetts; and the 1895 Crescent Park Carousel in East Providence, Rhode Island built by preeminent carousel designer Charles I.D. Looff. This carousel has been placed on the National Register of Historic sites, has been declared as the State Jewel of American Folk Art, and has been designated as a National Historic Landmark. To assist with these endeavors, the NECM works with Master Carver and artist, Juan Andre and Master Painter, Judith Baker

The Museum has acquired pieces from a variety of sources including the late Marianne Stevens, known as The Grand Dame of Historic Wooden Carousels. She amassed one the largest collections in the world of hand-carved carousels from the late 1800s-early 1900s and has penned several books on the subject. She donated a 1912 John Zalar carved game bird horse that came from a carousel at Ocean Beach Park in New London. It was reputed to be her favorite. Others came from Leroy Fox, the owner of Fox’s Foods and Thomas and Joseph Kiley, twin brothers from Katonah, New York, who keep many pieces from their collection on display.

The NECM is located in the same 30,000 square foot building as the Museum of Fire History and the Museum of Greek Culture. You can rent the museum, or their chandeliered ballroom, or their onsite art galleries featuring work from Connecticut artists for birthday parties, bridal showers, meetings, workshops, fundraisers, lectures, film screenings, weddings (Paula Abdul had her east coast wedding reception there), etc. They also host their own events such as their annual Mardi Gras Party, dances with music by Chaparrals, adult drawing lessons, and more. And don’t forget, they have a working carousel for your guests to ride!

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