The Merry Go Round

History of The Merry Go Round

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The vintage, hand-carved carousel was created by Marcus C. Illions in 1926 and is one of only six remaining authentic Illions carousels in the world.


They’re known by various names: merry-go-rounds, carousels, roundabouts . . .

Merry Go Round Origination

  • During the Crusades in the 1100s, European soldiers watched the Turkish and Arabian horsemen compete in a game. Participants took the game, similar to jousting, very seriously, and European onlookers began to refer to it as a “little war,” which is translated “garosello” in Italian, and “carosella.” It is from this phrase that the name carousel is derived.


Merry Go Round Appearance in Europe

  • When the crusaders returned to Europe, they took the tradition of the “little war” with them. One of the main feats performed in the “carosella” was riding a horse while holding a lance, in order to spear a ring that hung from a tree limb. This tournament gained popularity in France, where it was called the “carrousel.”

    These Merry Go Round devices were also used in medieval times as a training machine for knights in battle. Knights would sit on wooden planks arranged in a circle, suspended from a wooden centerpost. As they were spun around, the knights would try to thrust their lances through a small stationary ring that represented the head of their opponent in a jousting match. From this rather gruesome tradition, merry-go-rounds evolved into elaborate mechanical works of art that bring enjoyment to young and old alike.

Merry Go Round Machination

  • In the 1600s, a group of Frenchmen designed a device intended to train young competitors for participation in the carrousel. A carved horse was suspended by chains from two arms that were attached to a central pole. Young noblemen training to compete in the carrousel would ride the horse while it was moved up and down on the pole by squires, to simulate riding a horse without risking injury to the valuable horses used in the actual event.

Merry Go Round Adapting to Entertainment

  • By the 1700s, small versions of the carousel were created for entertainment. Small carousels were set to the music of a live band and powered by men or animals, became popular entertainment at special events of the court. Michael Dentzel, a German wagon maker, was making carousels as a major occupation. During the winter months, he would carve the elaborate figures of animals, and when the weather was fair, family members would go out into the countryside and run the carousel at special events. Other artists began crafting carousels during the 18th century in Italy, France and England as well.

Merry Go Round In America

  • During the 1800s America was welcoming a large number of European immigrants, who brought with them the artistry of and a love for the carousel. The first patent for a carousel, called the “flying horses,” was granted in the United States to a Brooklyn business in 1850, though there is evidence that merry-go-rounds actually appeared in the United States at least five years previous to this in Manhattan.

    The dawning of the industrial revolution in the 1800s made two things possible: the mass-production of heavy machinery that was needed to create larger and larger amusement devices, and leisure time for workers which allowed them for the first time to relax on a day off. Private parks were created, usually at the end of trolley lines, in cities and towns across the United States.

Merry Go Round Steam Power

  • During the mid-to-late-19th century, the American carousel became markedly different from its European predecessors. The animal power necessary to run the original carousel was replaced by the steam engine. This allowed the contraptions to expand in size and weight. It was with the introduction of steam power that the large, round carousels, built on a wooden platform, were developed. Gustav Dentzel brought one of his family’s carousels to America in 1860 and set it up in Philadelphia. Some of America’s most famous and elaborate carousels were crafted by his company.

Merry Go Round Electric Power

  • At the tail end of the 19th century, carousels were converted to electric power. It was at this time that the fair organ was moved into the carousel rather than being set beside it.

    Carousels largely fell out of popularity during WWII, when both supplies and labor were devoted to the war effort, rather than entertainment. During this time much of the craftsmanship was lost.


At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were many companies in the business of supplying merry-go-rounds to amusement parks: the famous workshops of Dentzel, Looff, Illions, Mangels, Herschell and Parker were a few. They were founded by immigrant wood carvers, many of them from Germany. After the Great Depression in 1929, many of the companies ceased to exist. The only modern survivor from that time is the Philadelphia Toboggan Company (now known as Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters). Founded in 1904 by Henry Auchy and Chester Albright, the “Toboggan” in the company’s name refers to its main business: roller coasters (often called toboggans at the turn of the century). If a park expressed interest in buying a PTC coaster, the company would sweeten the deal by throwing in a merry-go-round. By 1907, merry-go-rounds began to make up most of the company’s business.

In 1909, Auchy patented a merry-go-round drive mechanism that is still considered to be the best of its kind ever devised. A big problem with other drives was that they used gears to power the ride. If any of the gears happened to jam, the teeth on the gears would snap off from the forces. That would mean costly repairs. What Auchy did was design slippage into the drive. The motor spun two wide leather belts. The belts wrapped around two flywheels. One of the belts was twisted into a Moebius strip, so the flywheels would spin in opposite directions. The flywheels powered two leather cones which in turn spun a large iron drive wheel. All that leather provided for a much smoother operation and less chance of a major mechanical failure. Auchy’s design did use gears to spin the ride platform and make the horses move. But the belt drive assured that the main mechanical system remained safe.
PTC had many carvers working for them over the years. Daniel Muller, considered by many to be the most talented horse carver who ever lived, worked for PTC for many years and produced some of the companies greatest rides. Because demand for their rides was so high, and there were only so many carvers the company could hire, PTC created a giant jig for carving three horses at a time. The master carver (Muller, for instance) would carve a horse’s head out of wood by hand. The head would be placed on the jig. Three blocks of wood could be mounted on brackets above the head. Then any worker at the company could follow the head’s outline with the jig. The three blocks would be mechanically routed out to make an exact copy of the original head.

By the late 1920s, PTC had an overstock of merry-go-rounds. The company had resumed making roller coasters, but business had slowed down and their shop was filled with pre-made carousel parts. The company laid off many of its workers. One person they kept on was Frank Carretta, who not only carved some of their horses but painted scenery panels as well. When an order came in for a merry-go-round, Carretta would make whatever horses were needed to complete the ride, but most of them were pulled from existing stock.

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