Everyone knows about merry-go-rounds. Depend­ing on ones philosophical outlook, the carousel is viewed as a symbol of futility, frivolity, childish in­nocence, or fantasied excitement and beauty. The evocative qualities of the merry-go-round make it a favorite theme for artists, writers, advertisers and song writers. Yet for all the imagery and nostalgia connected with the carousel, it is rarely the subject of any serious consideration or study. The carousel deserves attention for itself, as a piece of history, as an industry, as an art form, and as a popular expres­sion of creative genius. If there is any point of focus at which all these aspects of carouseliana converge, it is in the onetime amusement capital of the world, Coney Island.


Carousels had a long and colorful development before they reached Coney Island, of course. The notion of swirling in a dizzying circle was probably well established before people gave up swinging on vines for transportation and pleasure. Amusement machines constructed for a similar purpose have  been documented since Byzantine times. The name "carou­sel" and the association with horses derives from exercises in horsemanship among twelfth-century Arabs. These contests were called carosello (little
wars) by Italian crusaders who adopted the games
when they returned to
Europe. Lavishly caparisoned horses in French ceremonial tournaments or carrousels of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries set the style for the imaginative trappings of more recent wooden horses. The contest of spearing rings with a lance from horseback during such tournaments sur­vived until recent times as the struggle to catch the merry-go-round brass ring, now almost eliminated by liability-conscious insurance underwriters. Sophisti­cated circular rides with carved wooden mounts were
devised to train children of the nobility in the arts of the tournament. These machines were copied for  popular amusement toward the end of the seventeenth century.

England took an early lead in the mechanical de­velopment of the carousel. In 1673 Raphael Folyarte applied for a patent  for "A   new   and   rare  invencon


knowne  by  the  name  of the royalle carousell or tournament, being framed and contrived with such engines as will not only afford great pleasure to us and our nobility in the sight thereof, but sufficient instruction to all such ingenious young gentlemen as desire to learne the arte of perfect horsemanshipp with all the usual practices and exercises thereof..." By 1870 Frederick Savage of King's Lynn had designed a port­able center-mounted steam engine which made possible the large, heavily ornamented roundabouts that still travel the circuit of English fairs. In 1885 Savage developed the system of geared overhead cranks which imparted up and down motion to the horses. Savage's "Galloping Horses" roundabouts be­came so popular he soon had three hundred men at work filling orders. English roundabouts invariably turn in a clockwise direction to allow riders to mount properly from the left side of the horse. The coun­terclockwise rotation prevalent in other countries accommodates the right-handed lancer jousting with the ring.

American entrepreneurs lagged behind the major countries of Europe in the commercial development of the carousel. Yet it was in America, and most especially in Coney Island, that the carousel came of age, developing a range of styles and a standard of beauty far surpassing the stereotyped, static designs of the Old World. Through some kind of reverse chauvinism and misdirected press-agentry American folklore credits Germany with ultimate status in carousel manufacture. Many of the finest American carousels are passed off as "masterpieces hand-carved in Germany." This misunderstanding, too, gathered momentum in Coney Island.


  The first carousels in America were impromptu affairs put together in the early 1800's by carpenters and wheelwrights for the entertainment of their neighbors. They usually consisted of an implanted centerpole and a limited number of revolving sweeps carrying seats or benches suspended from chains. More imaginative craftsmen provided crude horses improvised from sections of logs. Motive power came from a horse or mule walking inboard of the seats.


Smaller devices were turned by hand. These earliest American merry-go-rounds were usually called "fly­ing horses."

The first firm to manufacture carousels in any quantity was established about 1865 by Gustave Dentzel, who had helped his father build carousels in his native Germany. Dentzel's machines soon sported an extensive menagerie of exotic beasts, including lions, tigers, giraffes, camels, ostriches, bears, goats, pigs, cats, rabbits, and the mythical hippocampus: half horse, half dolphin. The strong European flavor of these mixed animals, coupled with Dentzel's Germanic name and the location of his factory in Germantown (a section of Philadelphia) may have founded the mythology of the "German carousel" in America, but events in the later history of Coney Island gave the myth almost universal credence.


The transition of Coney Island from an isolated bathing resort to the playground of America hinged on the arrival of horses and dogs—horses of wood, horses of flesh, and dogs of the variety known as hot. Coney Island was much like any other nine­teenth century coastal spa until it developed its own distinctive style of carousel, horseracing, and cuisine.

According to Edo McCullough the hot dog was invented in 1867 by an enterprising young Coney Island bakery vendor named Charles Feltman. Feltman equipped his pie wagon with a charcoal stove and served boiled sausages encased in rolls to appeasethe appetites of hungry bathers. His Coney Island red
hots were so well-received that by 1869 he and a partner established a shorefront restaurant. The tiny stand bore an imposing sign, "Feltman and Wulff, Proprietors. Lager 5¢." Capitalizing on the explosive popularity of his invention, Feltman parlayed his original shanty into a luxurious spread of buildings extending from Surf Avenue to the sea, an assem­blage of beer gardens and dining rooms that became the finest and most successful restaurant complex on the island.                                             

The first race track in Coney Island opened at Brighton Beach in June, 1880. Within six years

Page 1

Back to the previous Catalog page  ||  Next Catalog Page