by Dr. Lori Verderame
About 1100 AD, Arabian horsemen played a jousting game where they tried to spear rings that were hanging from a tree branch. This extravagant horsemanship contest eventually reached southern Europe in the 1600s where the equestrian game was renamed the “little war” or garosella.
Carousels were first training structures. The French built carousels to train horsemen for battle. The carousel made of carved horses and hanging rings was the training ground for an equestrian spearing tournament. Holding a lance, a horseman would ride at top speed atop his horse trying to spear a ring suspended from above his head. This is how we got the notion to “catch the brass ring” on present day carousels.
By the early 1800s, most carousels were built for amusement. In carnival settings, the carousels toured much of Europe. As time passed, skilled carvers immigrated to America and carousels were attractions at circuses, world fairs, carnivals, and amusement parks.
American carousels were large and elaborate when compared to those made in Europe. American carousels featured military horses, exotic animals, and forest creatures. A pioneer in the production of American carousels was carver Gustav Dentzel of Philadelphia, PA. He established his business in the 1860s and other firms followed suit constructing carousels and carving carousel horses and animals from the late 1800s until the time of the Great Depression.
Nearly four thousand carousels were constructed during the Golden Age of carousels in America, circa 1860 to circa 1930. Fewer than 150 historic carousels remain today. Based on their low supply, these antique carved carousel horses are worth a lot of money to collectors and carousel enthusiasts. Values on the market range from $15,000 to $150,000 for specific carved sculptures that once graced a working carousel.
After World War II, expensive and labor intensive wooden carousel animal carvings were replaced with carousel animals that were made of cast aluminum or fiberglass. At amusement parks, carousels did not offer the same thrills as technologically innovative roller coasters and other thrill rides.
In the 1970’s, there was a renewed interest in carousel collectibles including carousel horses, brass rings, and related items. Early European training was the impetus for the carousel, first as a war-game sport which has evolved into a whimsical ride.
Get an online appraisal of your carousel horse or carousel collectible from Dr. Lori.