The progression of techniques and technology used in the creation of the carousel animal mirrors similar progressions in other crafts and eventually develops into a more design-oriented production. Carousel carvers worked in a traditional crafts medium: wood, and, in fact, many of those carvers had previous experience in the crafts. Before immigrating to the United States and trying their hand at carousel figures, many carvers worked as furniture-makers, cabinet-makers, carvers of religious iconography. Only a select few of the notable carousel carvers had any formal fine art education, one of whom was D.C. Muller who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. Carousel luminaries including Charles I.D. Looff and Gustav Dentzel started off as individual craftsmen, producing their own carvings to adorn their machines. Since they operated the machines themselves, their creativity was not bound by the preferences of a specific client. After their increased success with their self-constructed machines, they acquired other carvers to help them in a manner similar to other crafts studios. Much like the studios and workshops of the Arts & Crafts movement, the carousel workshop was based on the medieval model of apprenticeship wherein those still learning the trade would literally work their way from the basic to more complex, artistic tasks. The carving of the horse’s or other animal’s heads was always the duty of the master carvers, while the other portions of the body were usually carved by the less experienced. Although each company often had a set of general patterns they chose to work from, individual carvers were generally given the freedom to express themselves via the animal’s trappings.
A device known as the carving (or duplicating) machine has been in existence since around 1900. It consists of a series of connected routing bits which replicate a three dimensional object in wood using much the same principles as a key-making machine. A finished product is placed in a central position, while four un-carved pieces are stacked above and below it, fastened in place while the bits progressively carve away at the nondescript blocks using the finished piece as a guide. While this machine was in limited use for many years as a means to rough out figures before human carvers would refine and elaborate the finished product, it later became a means to produce the ultimate figure. The design of the carousel figure truly became separated from the actual craft of carving them when “owners of many companies then realized that they could lower their costs and become more competitive by simplifying their designs so that they were more compatible with the carving machines” (Fraley 87). In further pursuit of lower expenses and greater production, the Allan Herschell company began producing first legs, then heads, and then entire horses of cast aluminum in the 1920s. The animals produced by the carving machine and in cast aluminum were designed with the medium and limitations of their production in mind. The results were more compact, stocky horses with trappings of flattened, geometric planes. The manes of the horses were securely plastered to their necks, their ears flattened back so as to not protrude.
While the carvers of carousel animals were technically producing functional objects for a commercial purpose, their efforts go far beyond mere factory work and enter the realm of fine crafts and even art. As Fraley points out, “the drive to create, for these few select craftsmen, must have gone well past the bounds of just making money. There is no doubt that the sculpting of wooden figures represented an expression of the maker as an artist. The exacting detail, the sweeping flamboyance, and the sensuous grace and beauty of many of the figures created by these men reveal an ambition beyond the creation of a seat on an amusement park ride” (70). Despite the overwhelming demand for his work, Coney Island Style carver Marcus Illions chose to rein in the volume of production as so not to sacrifice quality and artistic expression. It was said that he personally carved all of the heads of the figures that came from his shop, and he often carved the entire bodies of outside-row figures, which was quite an uncommon practice.
The horses and other animals created to whirl on the carousel platform exhibit skill, creativity, intention, and consideration for the aesthetic principles of composition, color, form, line, etc.; otherwise stated, they possess the same defining factors as other words of art. Now that operational, hand-carved wooden carousels are becoming a rarity, even the contemporary art establishment has begun welcoming these creatures into its fold. Frederick Fried, author of the seminal book A Pictorial History of the Carousel, helped to bring the significance of the carousel as art to light:
The carousel as a work of art was first brought to the attention of the American Public in 1964. It was then pointed out that the working carousel contained all the elements of the arts - sculpture, painting, music, and motion. The first museum exhibition of the carousel was at the Museum of Early American Folk Art in New York in 1970 under the title “Art of the Carousel.” I was the curator for that exhibition. The American public since has become aware of the beauty of the carousel and has cherished it as a complete work of art. (Hinds x)
Major art museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art which counts two carousel animals in its collection, are acquiring them for display and appreciation, and across the country numerous museums specifically dedicated to the art and history of the American carousel exist. The carousel figure’s new found status as art object is evident in the prices such figures command both at auction and through dealers. According to the records kept by one major producer of carousels, the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, the “price for carving 46 animals for one carousel in 1914 cost PTC $1,716” (Manns 92). Today, a restored 1915 horse carved by Marcus Illions which once occupied a four-abreast machine at the Willow Grove Park in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania has a price tag of $17,850 (Hand Carved...). The artistic and monetary value of these hand-crafted animals is also vouched for in an unusual manner by the fact that Mexican artisans are now producing copies of American carousel figures in order to sell them to uninformed individuals under the pretense of authenticity (Hinds 104). Nina Fraley writes of the resurgence of interest in antique carousels and of the issues its recognition as art brought up: “Organizations sprang up filled with enthusiasm for history and restoration techniques. Books were published and study grants were awarded. Museums exhibited carousel art as a legitimate segment of our national heritage, and arguments ensued over ‘Folk Art’ and ‘Fine Art’ labels” (Fraley 14). Carousel enthusiasts contest to some descriptions of carousel art as demeaning, inaccurate misnomers:
The term ‘primitive’ is generally used to designate unschooled, crude, naive, or unsophisticated art. Most of our carousel carvers were unschooled in sculpture, naive and unsophisticated in their art understanding. But it can hardly be said that theirs was a ‘primitive art,’ nor because of its large commercial use, can their art be termed ‘folk art.’ Actually, theirs was a straightforward statement with a primary concern for the elemental. Nor were there any signs of crudeness in the products of the carousel manufacturers after the 1900 period. (Fried 118)
Undoubtedly, the debate as to what sort of art the carousel figure represents will continue, but it is still a great step in the effort of carousel preservation and appreciation for it to be rightfully acknowledged as art.
Fried, Frederick. A Pictorial History of the Carousel. Vestal, NY: The Vestal Press Ltd., 1964. ISBN 0-911572-29-5.
Hand Carved Carousel Horses (& More) on Consignment.
Hinds, Anne Dion. Grab the Brass Ring: The American Carousel. New York: Crown Publishers, 1990. ISBN 0-517-57486-1.
The International Museum of Carousel Art. http://www.carouselmuseum.com/
Manns, William and Marianne Stevens. Carousel Art. Volume 1. Millwood, NY: Zon International Publishing Co., 1986. ISBN 0-939549-03-04.
Manns, William, Peggy Shank, and Marianne Stevens. Painted Ponies: American Carousel Art. Millwood, NY: Zon International Publishing Co., 1986. ISBN 0-939549-01-8.
National Carousel Association - Le Carrousel de Lancelot. http://www.nca-usa.org/psp/DisneyParis/
Weedon, Geoff and Richard Ward. Fairground Art. London: New Cavendish Books, 2005. ISBN 1-872727-74-3.