Carousels rides were all the rage in the Victorian era, for adults even more than children. On Sundays, when most workers had the day off, the often beautifully-designed animals of the carousel would be draped with young ladies showing a bit of ankle to their dates. But now most of this history is forgotten.
Today many classic carousels, designed by crafters of considerable talent, are falling into ruin and being retired. But some people are trying to keep their traditions alive. Carousel restoration artist Pam Hessey talked to Collectors Weekly about the history of these gorgeous creations, and who made them:
The men who carved these saw a lot of different horses every day, they knew horses intimately. Outside their carving studio, dray horses pulling wagons would be going by all day long, and the carvers would see people riding through the park. Master carousel carver Marcus Illions [whose horses are at the top of this post] had a favorite horse that was an Arabian, and a lot of his pieces looked very much like an Arabian, with that fire and vitality that the breed has.
Zoos were just starting, so the carvers were able to see tigers, lions, camels, and giraffes. They would go study these exotic creatures and make drawings to carve them from. Illions got especially close to these animals. He had run away from his home country, Prussia, because he was about to be drafted. In England, he got a job with a showman who intended to bring his show and a carousel to America. The animals that were in the circus boarded the ship with them. Crossing the Atlantic to New York City, Illions was in the belly of the ship with these animals, still carving their portraits for the carousel.
Often, the most elaborate carousels were designed for parks at the end of trolley lines. These parks, which also featured live pony rides and band shells for live music, were popular during Victorian and Edwardian times, when workers only had Sundays to amuse themselves.
The early carousels were pretty risqué for a Victorian woman to ride. Of course, she’d sit side-saddle, but her suitor would be able to hold on to her waist to steady her while the carousel went around and look at her ankle, which was exposed. The carousel also had chariots for the faint of heart or the older women who didn’t want to climb up onto a horse.
Read more about the vanishing art of carousels, and see more amazing pictures, at Collectors Weekly.